Iceland

Miki, left, and Julie Collins beam from Icelandic horses atop a mountain pass in eastern Iceland. 

"Eg tala ekki islensku!” I read aloud from Sabrina’s T-shirt, then added, “I speak not Icelandic!” We stared at each other in astonishment: I, that the words depicted one of the few phrases of Icelandic that I knew, and she because I could translate it.

“You’re the first person who knew what that meant,” she reported.

My mother’s father’s brother’s great great grand-daughter was visiting Alaska with her grandfather and two sisters last summer. One sister, Fiona, had recently visited Iceland and returned with the imprinted shirt as a gift for Sabrina.

Laughing, Fiona and I compared notes on Iceland. She only did a little riding on the famous Icelandic horses, but it had been exciting, with a mob of horses bolting and scattering helpless riders to and fro.

My sister Miki and I visited Iceland three times between 1991 and 2005. We found the north Atlantic island enchanting with its volcanoes and glaciers, sea birds and black sand, similar to Alaska but with a European flavor mixed into the people and the ecology.

Fascinating as the nature and history were, we primarily visited Iceland to ride the horses. We have kept Icelandic horses since 1986, but learned the hard way that in the Alaska Bush we needed calm, quiet horses for hauling logs, packing fish, pulling boats from the water and facing the bears and wolves that are strikingly lacking in Iceland.

Although compact enough that some people consider them ponies, in Iceland these stout horses are tough and fast. Icelanders grow up riding them and find it surprising when tourists arrive expecting a placid trek instead of a ground-covering expedition complete with river crossings, a free-running herd of spare mounts, and the occasional unplanned rodeo.

Our first long journey carried us on the 10-day Kjölur route across the center of the big island, through lovely mountain valleys, some verdant and others desert-like barrens hemmed between glaciers, with the occasional hot springs to melt tired bodies at day’s end.

We found these horses well-trained with plenty of energy, but we suffered the first couple of days with unbearably hot weather. That became a serious problem two days from the journey’s end, when the route crossed two glacier-fed rivers that normally could be forded safely even by novice riders. To cross the first river, the guides took the reins from each tourist, leading the horses through the gray rushing torrents to ensure we all arrived safely on the far side.

The second river raged so violently that it was deemed unsafe for precious human cargo. Our unfazed guides unsaddled the horses and ran their electric tape around the herd to confine them, and we spent hours on the riverbank waiting for the water to drop as the twilight eased past midnight and cooler temperatures slowed the glacier melt.

It reminds me of the time Miki and I were heading home from a 2004 trek to the Alaska Range with our own crew of three horses and three dogs. An unusually rainy May had shifted into such an excessively hot and dry June that the glacier river began flooding as we started home. At one crossing we could hear boulders thunking under the raging water, while farther downstream the current slowed enough to make quicksand the greater hazard.

It was so nice in Iceland to know someone else had to make the decisions about how, where and when to cross the flooding rivers. And our guides had communications, so they called out a massive front-end loader that was so heavy it could trundle across the river with impunity. It took several trips to ferry the paying riders across, and then our brave guides drove the herd into the deep rushing water. In the late-night dusk the river had lost its violent edge, but still so powerful that the tail-end horses drifted too far downstream. The churning water rolled one horse, but all emerged unscathed.

On another 10-day riding trek in eastern Iceland, we left farming country to cross over mountain passes almost daily, emerging each time at a different glorious fjord. On the second day a particularly violent summer storm smashed apart our placid weather. As we started over the first mountain pass, the wind nearly slammed us off the hillside as a horizontal rain sandblasted us from one side. A long, tough haul over the pass left us soaking wet, but thrilled and triumphant. After all, why visit Iceland if not to experience the amazing weather?

We endured a similar storm in Alaska just a few days from home. Dropping down a scrubby hillside toward the evening’s campsite in tall timber, we hurried to set up the tent before a big thunderstorm barreled down on us. The rain thundered down for two nights and one long day while we hunkered down in the sheltering trees.

With the river on the rise we anticipated a flood, but it was bigger than expected. A foot-deep side stream swelled to waist deep, and farther downstream the silty water flowed knee-deep in the brush as we walked the pack horses through dense willows and alders, falling into unseen holes as we waded along what had once been the riverbank. One stream had gone from hip deep to five feet deep with a bottom so treacherously soft that we opted to swim the horses down the middle of the river around the stream’s mouth.

In Alaska, we learned about helping the horses deal with mosquitoes and bears as well as raging rivers, quicksand and swamps. Iceland had no bears or mosquitoes, and with the guides shouldering the weight of responsibility, we could sit back and enjoy the ride.

“Eg tala ekki Islensku,” but we enjoyed our journeys in Iceland as much as we did the ones in Alaska.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins live in Lake Minchumina.