Two Cross-Country Skiers Rescued in North Iceland

The Dalbjörg Search and Rescue squad in Eyjafjörður in North Iceland came to the aid of two skiers who got stranded while trying to cross the highlands. RÚV reports that the skiers had registered a detailed travel plan at safetravel.is which greatly aided rescuers in locating them and bringing them to safety.

The skiers intended to cross the highlands from north to south. However, on Thursday, one of them got wet and very cold during the expedition, which prevented the pair from either going back the way they came or continuing on their journey. They sent word to a contact in Canada, who in turn, got in touch with Icelandic authorities to request assistance on their behalf. The information that ICE-SAR received from this third party was unclear, but happily, the skiers had registered a detailed itinerary on that made it possible for rescuers to pinpoint their location without difficulty.

Two ICE-SAR volunteers on snowmobiles left from Eyjafjörður on Thursday afternoon to find the skiers, who were taking shelter in a tent east of Urðarvatn lake. At the time of writing, a rescue vehicle was on the way to transport the skiers back to Akureyri.

 

Tourists Rescued from Highland River

Three foreign tourists were rescued from their car roofs on Wednesday after their vehicles got stuck in a glacial river on the Flæður highland route north of Vatnajökull glacier, RÚV reports.

“This was a group of foreign tourists in six cars,” explained an officer on duty with the Húsavík police department. “The last car that was crossing got stuck in the river. Then one of the cars turned around to help and also got stuck.”

“This is a special spot,” he continued. “It isn’t a straight riverbed – it flows out from under the glacier. It’s been really hot and thawing a lot and the [rivers] have expanded and their currents have become very strong.”

The officer interviewed about the rescue noted that the tourists had been travelling along a marked trail and had simply ended up in difficult straits because of the river conditions. It was, in fact, due to the strong currents and high water levels, that a Coast Guard helicopter was dispatched to rescue the travelers, rather than having rescuers ford the river.

At the time of their rescue, the tourists had been standing on the roofs of their cars for one and a half to two hours but were unharmed.

Swelling rivers are creating travel concerns in several places in the highlands. SafeTravel.is has since issued the following travel alerts:

“Gæsavatnaleið via Flæður is closed due to extremely high water levels on Flæður. Gæsavatnaleið can be driven by bypassing Flæður via Gígöldur – superjeeps only.”

and

“Sprengisandur, road F26, is only suitable for bigger jeeps due to swelling rivers. Smaller jeeps could cross in the early morning when water levels are lower.”

Roads to Landmannalaugar Might Open Early

If conditions are deemed to be safe, the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration hopes to open the roads to the Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve in the highlands on Saturday, Vísir reports. This would be the earliest that the roads have opened in the last five years.

From 2014 to 2018, the earliest that the Landmannalaugar roads were opened was June 18 and the latest, July 1. Road Administration employees are currently checking conditions to see if it will be safe to open the roads on Saturday.

Visitors should keep in mind that Landmannalaugar can only be reached by 4×4 jeeps along the Fjallabaksleið nyrðri (F208) or Dómadalsleið (F225) roads. Road conditions and openings can be checked on the Road Administration website here.

Warm and Wet Summer Forecasted for Iceland

Icelanders should prepare for a warm and wet summer, according to Meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson, who released his three-month forecast on blika.is yesterday. The forecast covers the period from the beginning of June to the end of August.

“Summer weather conditions are characterised by pleasant warmth, especially in the highlands and the north and east,” Einar writes. “There is a 60-70% chance that temperatures will end up in the top third [of averages] compared to the last 20 years. The pneumatic circuit and the state of weather systems is projected to vary somewhat, shifting between differing periods of weather over the summer months.” Einar adds that El Niño has not been able to establish itself as meteorologists expected, which will impact summer weather in Iceland, as around the world.

While temperatures in North and East Iceland are expected to be warmer than average, Einar says the forecast for the south is less definitive. The North, East, and Highlands may be feeling the heat, but they are also expected to receive significantly more rainfall than average. However, as no particular wind direction is expected to prevail, Iceland’s weather will likely be very changeable this summer.

Development in Highlands Could Have Negative Impact, Says Planning Agency

Kerlingarfjöll mountains.

Building additional infrastructure and lodging facilities at Kerlingarfjöll mountains in the Southern Highlands would have a negative impact on the current planning policy for the area, RÚV reports. This is stated by the National Planning Agency in its assessment of four different plans for infrastructure development at the popular tourist site. The Agency expressed its belief that further development would place environmental strain on the area and could have significant negative impacts.

Kerlingarfjöll was recently placed on the Environment Agency’s Red List of natural areas at considerable risk. It is not officially designated as a protected area. The company Fannborg, which operates tourism in the area, proposed four different options for infrastructure development at Kerlingarfjöll to the National Planning Agency. While the first option focuses on improving existing structures in the area, the other three involve additional construction and development. The third and fourth options, in particular, would increase the amount of lodging to accommodate nearly 300 guests and make the area one of the largest accommodation establishments outside of the capital area.

The Planning Agency considers the third and fourth options to both negatively impact visitors’ experience of nature in the area, as well as put additional strain the environment by increasing the number of visitors. While option two involves a minimal increase in accommodations for visitors, it is considered to have a minimal impact on the surrounding environment.

Reforestation in Þórsmörk a Stunning Success

Designating Þórsmörk in the Icelandic highlands as a nature reserve has had an astonishing impact on reforestation efforts, RÚV reports. The highland oasis was designated a nature reserve in 1918 and given over to the custodianship of the Icelandic Forest Service shortly after. Photos of the area taken 50 years apart now show dense birch forests where once there was very little vegetation, and particularly few trees.

The Icelandic Forest Service began reforestation efforts in Þósmörk in 1920. Farmers with property there gave up their land rights when the area became a nature reserve. Originally, the area was densely forested, but after years of grazing and logging, the vast majority of this vegetation had disappeared.

Hreinn Óskarsson, division head of the Icelandic Forest Service’s coordination division, will be giving a presentation on the 100-year preservation history of the birch forests in Þórsmörk at the end of the month. The presentation will include a number of stunning before and after photos taken most recently by Hreinn, but formerly by Einar Þ. Guðjohnsen, who was one of the pioneers behind the Icelandic Touring Association and later, the founder of the Útivist Travel Association.

See a sample of the before and after photos on RÚV’s website, here.

Motorcyclists Fined for Off-Roading in National Park

Four French tourists were fined a combined ISK 400,000 [$3,575; €3,092], after driving their 4WD-equipped motorcycles off-road within the Vatnajökull National Park on Friday, RÚV reports.

The incident took place not far from the Herðubreið tuya volcano in the highlands, to the east of the Askja caldera; the motorcycles left deep tire tracks in their wake. After being detained by Vatnajökull National Park rangers, the tourists owned up to their offense. According to an announcement posted about the incident on Facebook by authorities in Northeast Iceland, the tourists were asked to report to the police station in Akureyri two days later, which they did. They were then each fined ISK 100,000 each.

Illegal off-road driving is becoming an increasing problem in Iceland. There were, for instance, ten off-road driving citations issued between early June and mid-July this year, and, most recently, a group of 25 tourists were fined ISK 1.4 million [$13,000;€11,000] for off-road driving by Jökulsá river and in a protected area by Grafalönd on the road to Askja caldera—not far from where the French tourists were detained on Friday.

The increasing frequency of these incidents has lead some to call for the implementation of a new highlands driving permit, while others—such as Stefanía Ragnarsdóttir, a Vatnajökull National Park ranger—says it should be possible to better inform travellers of driving laws and their environmental responsibility. “I mean we are living on an island,” she remarked after the incident with the 25 tourists in late August. “You come here by boat or plane so it should be possible to reach you and this is a lot of responsibility that we need to take on much better. This maybe lies most with car rental companies. They need to really step up.”

Woman Dies in Highland River Accident

A foreign traveler died after a serious accident on the Steinholtsá River en route to the highlands on Friday afternoon, RÚV reports. The deceased woman is survived by her husband, who was traveling with her at the time of the accident.

Police, ICE-SAR, paramedics, and the Coast Guard’s helicopter were called to the scene of the accident around 3:00 PM on Friday. The couple, who were visiting from the US, were on their way to Þórsmörk in the Icelandic highlands and had attempted to ford the Steinsholtsá river in their vehicle. The river was running very high, however, and their vehicle got stuck, flooded, and was pulled downstream. They attempted to get out and the man was able to reach the far bank, but the woman slipped in the river.

After further investigation into the incident, South Iceland police reported that the woman was pulled 650 meters [close to half a mile] downriver by the current before washing onto a small island in the middle. There were no witnesses to the accident itself, but those on site afterwards reported that she appeared to be unconscious. When rescuers arrived on the scene, they had to reach the woman on the island mid-river, where she’d gotten stuck. She was then transported via helicopter to the hospital in Reykjavík where she was pronounced dead upon arrival.

Police have not yet taken a statement from the woman’s husband, but report that he had not been injured in the accident.

Lone Traveller Rescued in Highlands Storm

A traveller lost in Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the Highlands was found shortly before 2.00am this morning, RÚV reports. Nearly 200 volunteers from the Reykjavík capital area, West Iceland, and the Suðurnes peninsula set off in search of the man yesterday evening when an emergency signal was received from the area. The location of the call was unclear, making the search a challenge. The man was wet and cold when he was found, but is now safe and sound.

The man was a foreign tourist and appears to have been stranded by bad weather. “He was travelling alone and had missed the weather warning. He maybe didn’t have a way to listen to it or the language skills to understand it,” said Jón Hermansson, of the Rangárvallasýsla Search and Rescue team. Luckily, the man had a tent, which protected him from the elements until rescue teams located him.

“The weather was so bad that it took a while to find the man in his surroundings,” Jón said. “He was in a green tent, which is not the easiest to see in the landscape there. It blended into the environment.”

Calls For A Highlands Driving Permit

Páll Jónsson, a guide and a policeman, suggest putting a stop to illegal off-road driving by issuing a special highland driving license, RÚV reports. Páll asserts that authorities are not doing enough to stop off-road driving in the highlands, which is extremely damaging to nature. Not only are the tracks an eyesore, but they can lead to environmental destruction as off-road driving can lead to destruction of land and soil erosion.

Páll suggests that the whole of the highlands be turned into a national park, and that those who wish to travel there obtain a special driving license. The eager travellers would have to watch an instructional video and pay a fee of 5000 krónur for the special highland driving permit.

Off road driving has been increasingly reported this summer, with 10 incidents alone reported in June. Many incidents go unreported, however, and authorities have stipulated heavy fines for violators.

“For me personally, it hurts to go to Landmannalaugar in its current state – in this beautiful landscape it hurts to see how things have become. And once you enter Skeiðarársandur, everything has been driven over. I can’t remember the conditions being worse than now, alongside the road”, Páll commented.

Páll asserts that Icelanders are somewhat lost when it comes to preventing off-road driving. “We put some stickers into the rental cars and, sometimes, we have staff ask the drivers to not drive off-road. This is nonsense and it clearly doesn’t work”.

His plans account for aspiring highland drivers to sit through a 15-minute long instructional video, if they wish to rent a car and intend to go to the highlands. The video would have a national park ranger and a police offer explain the rules of highland driving to travellers. Once travellers have sat through the video they would pay the one time fee, which would then be fed back into the system to pay for policing the highland area, rescue team services, national park rangers, and even public toilets.

“The current system is not enough. It’s been tried and tested and it doesn’t work”, Páll finally stated.