(…it’s been so long since my English classes in college. I’m definitely not following all the grammar rules in here. Hopefully as time goes on, I articulate these things better…)
Back in 2017, I was going through a process of resetting. I wasn’t happy with the way my life was turning out. I had just gotten out of my third long term relationship. I went out with friends and tried being very social after it all happened, but nothing felt right. I would be out, surrounded by people, smiling and laughing. These times were great distractions, but at the end of the day I felt very alone.
Throughout that year, I played around with going on random trips. I would take 10 hour trips in a day to go see a waterfall. I would drive overnight to South Carolina to see a solar eclipse (I definitely need to devote a whole post just to that). I flew to Costa Rica for a few days to shoot a wedding. That was my first time in Central America. I felt like I was in the jungle. I couldn’t have been more excited at the time.
As the months passed by, I started following more and more travel pages on Instagram and Facebook. One traveler in particular always inspired me: Chris Burkard. He’s an adventure photographer who gets paid by companies to shoot content all over the world. That summer, he released a film called Under an Arctic Sky. It was a story about his adventure in Iceland with his friends looking for surfing opportunities. I was immediately inspired. I wanted to go to Iceland.
I had been going on trips with my friend Mark earlier that year. In March, we had taken a trip to Los Angeles. We were also big fans of Chris Burkard at the time, so it was pretty easy for us to agree on planning a trip to Iceland.
Mark and I would spend evenings after work planning out our trip at a local Barnes and Noble. We would go to the travel section, grab a few books, sit down, and discuss.
How long should we be there?
Do we need to take tours or plan everything on our own?
When is the best time to see the northern lights?
What type of rental car should we get?
We knew a couple things from the beginning. We wanted to camp for most of the trip. We also wanted to drive the entire country. There is a road that circles the entire country, dubbed the “ring road”. On the way around the ring, we would see countless waterfalls, ice caves, plane wrecks, black sand beaches, and so much more.
While this all sounded great on paper, there were a couple problems with our plans. We didn’t have a lot of money to fund the trip and we didn’t have a lot of vacation time to take off from work. And as much as I wanted to rent a crazy 4x4 off road vehicle, the funds weren’t there.
I came up with a fun and interesting idea of trying to get sponsors for the trip. I reached out to countless brands (mostly focused around travel and clothing) through social platforms and wrote that myself and a friend were planning a trip to Iceland. If they were willing to send us products, we could take photos of their products in various locations around the country for free.
I must have sent out hundreds of messages. Most companies didn’t respond back. A few did reply, but eventually became uninterested. We did get a few companies to agree though. Bear Paw, Del Sol, and Soffe were some of the companies that wanted to give it a chance. It was a really exciting time. I was on the phone with the marketing lead for Bear Paw and emailing back and forth with Del Sol and Soffe. Mark and I ended up getting some boots, jackets, sweatpants, and shirts from all the companies. Because we would be taking photos of each other wearing the clothes, Mark and I had to sign a model agreement form with Bear Paw. It was a weird moment when I sat down to sign that model agreement form. I never thought I’d be modeling anything in my life.
Our trip was scheduled for the second week of September. In the summer, the sun never sets, and in the winter, the sun barely comes up. We wanted something in between seasons. We also wanted a chance to see the northern lights.
The northern lights can be tricky. After doing endless amounts of research, we found that the best times to see the aurora are between September and April. The lights are also not guaranteed every night. In fact, there could be weeks in between the lights appearing in the sky. So while seeing this natural phenomena has always been high up on my list, I tried hard to keep my excitement down and my expectations realistic.
Fast forward to September 8th 2017, and Mark and I are sitting in the airport waiting to board our Icelandair flight to Reykjavik. It was cheaper to do an overnight flight and because Iceland is four hours ahead of us (plus the flight time), we’d be getting there early the next day.
I checked two bags. One had a tent and sleeping bag, while the other had all my clothes and products from the companies. I brought all my camera gear on the plane with me as a carry-on. For anybody interested in photography, I brought a Canon 5D Mark IV, a Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8, a Canon 27-70mm f4, a Canon 8-15mm f4, and a Mavic Pro.
The plane ride there was fine. I can’t sleep on planes, so I kept myself busy with music and movies. I would look at the digital map on the seat-back in front of me to see where our plane was flying. There was a point we were flying over Greenland, and that’s when I really started getting excited. I remember it was starting to get brighter outside and I kept looking out the window to see if I could actually see Greenland from the plane; I couldn’t.
We landed at Keflavik Airport, just outside of Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital). We got our luggage and walked over to the rental car building to pick up our car. Now, before I go any further, I just need to set up this scene. While Mark and I were in the planning stages of this trip, I kept telling him how we need to put ourselves as much outside of our comfort zones as possible. This meant minimal planning. For example, we didn’t book any hotel rooms before going there. We were going to figure it out as we went along. So when it came to the car, I wanted to do something bold. I have had four cars since I got my license and while they were/are all very different, they all shared one thing in common: they all had automatic transmissions. So for our rental car in Iceland, I wanted to get a car with a manual transmission. I have played around with manual transmissions before on two of my friends’ cars, but I wasn’t very good at it. I would stall the car in the parking lot and have to turn it back on. I would accidentally shift into different gears and the car would lurch forward. I never took a manual transmission car out on the roadway. So, because I was all about change and trying scary things, I wanted our rental car to have a manual transmission.
So we picked up our Hyundai hatchback and put all our luggage into it. I sat in the driver’s seat and examined the situation. There were three pedals on the floor and a stick labeled one through six between Mark and I. I pushed my foot down on the third pedal, made sure the car was in neutral and turned it on. I switched the stick to number one (first gear) and slowly let off the third pedal, while pushing down a little on the gas. I immediately stalled the car because I didn’t give it enough gas while taking my foot off the third pedal. I’m pretty sure Mark was already getting anxious because he suggested we go back in and ask for a different car; one with an automatic transmission. But I was stubborn and wanted to figure it out, so I told him we’d be fine.
After starting the car again, I figured out how to get out of the parking lot. As I started driving, I realized that I can control the car just fine, as long as we’re moving. If I had to come to a complete stop, that’s when I’d have to balance out that third pedal with the gas and hope I don’t stall the car in the middle of traffic. It also dawned on me that it was a Saturday and we were driving into the biggest city in the country, with a car that I didn’t know how to drive. I also knew that Mark and I would be taking turns driving the car, so even if I figured out how to drive the car, he would need to learn too.
I pulled over into some warehouse complex and we switched seats. It took about 20 minutes before Mark realized he wouldn’t be able to drive the car. So we switched seats again and on the drive, I suggested we avoid the major city and start by driving the circle. It would be straight driving with no traffic lights. It would give me a chance to get used to the car and then we can explore Reykjavik at the end of the trip. He agreed and we started driving southeast along the coast.
Driving in Iceland was a unique experience. We would drive for an hour with nothing around, and then approach a small town with a couple houses and a gas station and then another hour with nothing around. Driving in Iceland felt like driving on another planet. It made me feel really small.
Our goal was to just drive and if we saw something that looked exciting, we would stop. There was a point where I was getting really tired. My eyes were getting heavy and I looked over at Mark and he was sleeping in the passenger seat. I knew we’d have to stop at some point. We also didn’t have any plans for where we would camp yet.
As I was driving, I saw something surreal in the distance. It almost looked like a mirage. It was like I was so tired that I started seeing things. Except what was in front of me was real. In the hazy distance, I saw a cliff and a huge waterfall cascading down the side. I immediately woke up Mark and told him we needed to go here.
The waterfall was a lot further away than it looked because I’m pretty sure I drove for another half hour before we pulled up to it. This waterfall ended up being a really popular that I’ve seen all across social media. The waterfall is called Seljalandsfoss. It is 197 feet tall (Niagara Falls is 167 feet tall for perspective). There is also a small cave behind the falls, where you can walk and take photos.
We explored this area for a little while and soon realized there was another waterfall right down the road. The second waterfall was inside of a cave. Mark and I took this as an opportunity for fun photos. Between these two waterfalls, there was a campsite. From the campsite, you can see both waterfalls and walk right up to them. I knew we had to camp here.
And that’s what we did. We parked and set up our tent. There was a small building at the campsite with bathrooms and a kitchen. After Mark and I set up our tent, he took out his phone and we looked at an app he had downloaded showing an aurora forecaster. That night there was supposed to be high aurora activity. The rest of the week didn’t have anything. I remember sitting there thinking, if there was any chance of me seeing the northern lights, it would be tonight. So we stayed close to camp that first night.
We got dinner at a local restaurant (it was about an hour away into the next town). Iceland is known for its lamb and fish. Naturally, I got a burger. I really wanted the lamb but, with the money conversion, it was about $60 USD and the burger was only $20. And with my limited savings, I didn’t want to spurge. In all honesty though, that was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. Everything in Iceland tasted super fresh, as I’m sure all the food is from local farmers.
After dinner, we went back to the campsite. It was getting cold outside, so Mark wanted to go into the building and hang out for little. So I joined him in the kitchen area and worked on editing photos from earlier in the day. We kept peeking outside to see if there was any aurora activity, but didn’t see anything. There was a cat inside the building. I’m not sure if it was a stray cat or somebody’s cat that was staying at the campsite, but it was very friendly and kept coming up to us. We were the only people in the building. Every once in a while, somebody would come in to use the bathroom. Otherwise, it was pretty quiet.
It was later in the night, I think around 10:00 or 11:00 and Mark and I walked to the car for some reason; I totally forget why. But walking back from the car, that’s when we saw it. A faint glimmer in the sky. It almost looked like a cloud in the sky; a cloud moving quickly. Then, within a few minutes, the green and purple colors started popping out and got brighter. They slowly danced above us. This all happened in a matter of about 15 minutes and then they went away. The moon came up over the cliff where the waterfall was cascading, bright enough to wash out most of the stars and the lights along with them.
I remember going back to the tent with Mark to close out the day, and we were both so amazed from our first day. We were sitting in almost complete darkness, with the sound of a waterfall crashing in the distance. It was so soothing. We were in the middle of nowhere, at least an hour from the nearest town. I felt alive, and I’m sure Mark did in that moment too. Every concern or worry from the outside world faded away. It was just us and nature. Our first day had its challenges, but the rewards were far greater. This day really set my expectations for the rest of the trip. Would all the other days be just as great?
I didn’t know what to expect at the moment. But there were some crazy things ahead of us.