It was already a great trip. I was one of the first Americans to enter Iceland once they allowed vaccinated tourists to enter the country, I had seen the greatest Northern Lights display of my life along the northern coast of Iceland, and then I received 20 text messages from friends all saying the same thing:
“OMG ANDY THE VOLCANO IN ICELAND JUST ERUPTED ARE YOU OK”
[I loved my friends enough to not reply for a while to make them really worry]
It turned out that the volcano’s eruption was rather docile, which was great news since it was so close to both Keflavik Airport and Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik (2/3 of the Icelandic population live in this region). Almost immediately, people started making their way out to caldera to see the newest parts of Iceland spewing forth, carving out a 6-mile pathway to the volcano.
When random photography connections turn into great friends
I’ve read countless articles and books about photography. They all seem to jump right into things like composition, camera settings, and social media tips, and they skip the best part! The best part about being a photographer is meeting other photographers.
I’ve made some significant investments in photo gear over the past couple of years, and one of my most prized cameras is my Fuji GFX100S. It’s an expensive little thing but the images are just wonderful from it. I’m a member of a Fujifilm GFX Facebook group and enjoyed conversing with other photographers there and posted that I would be in Iceland. A great guy by the name of Petur had replied and told me to let him know when I would be in country so we could go shoot together.
The day after I arrived, and the volcano welcomed me by erupting, I received a Facebook message from Petur:
…I was in! I had to rent a car and drive 6 hours from Akureyri back to Reykjavik, but you can’t miss up a chance to head out to a volcano with a random Icelandic photographer buddy (if that’s not a saying, it should be).
I met up with Petur and we hopped in his car to head out to the trailhead, ready for a long hike. On our way out there, Petur received a call and turned the car around. In his Icelandic bluntness, he said, “A friend found a big truck with extra seats, we will go there if that’s ok.”
He had me at big truck. And he was right, it was a big truck, used to drive across snowy fields to take tourists on snowmobiling and dirt-biking adventures.
We arrived at the volcano site, walked up a brief and steep hill, and then we caught our first glimpse of it. Not the volcano itself, mind you, but the lava it was yeeting into the air.
We walked down into the crater area. I looked around and saw countless Icelandics out enjoying the spectacle. It had the feeling of a music festival more than a nature experience, which made sense: people had been cooped up inside for a year at this point!
The photographers among us got out their tripods and cameras while others sat with groups of friends and got beers from their coolers to enjoy watching the scene. Elsewhere, a girl in a bikini posed in front of the lava for a photographer (when in Rome I guess).
My first picture of the volcano was one of my favorites. To me it shows the audacity of humanity in our efforts to document something so massive and awe-inspiring.
People define the concept of “hope” in many ways. I define it as that photographer hoping there wouldn’t be a sudden flow of lava or explosion around the volcano.
I eventually walked close to the lava flow myself and was fascinated by the slow flow of lava gradually overtaking the earth.
The scene changed as time went on and the relentless flow of lava caused various parts of the caldera to collapse.
Helicopters flew around the site, photographers no doubt inside and taking wonderful pictures. Below the helicopters were countless drones zooming close to the lava, their operators hoping for luck as they flew dangerously close to the lava.
The wind was howling through the scene, which was actually a blessing, since the sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide emitted from the volcano could be dangerous without wind to blow it away.
As dusk turned to night, the photos kept getting better, longer exposures showing the path of the lava.
The Icelandic government has a great perspective on public safety. They provide you with all the information you need to make a Great Decision about your safety, but you’re free to make a Dumb Decision if you so choose. There were Icelandic public health officials walking around with sensors to detect levels of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide to ensure things were relatively safe. They were wearing full protective suits and masks and standing about 50 feet back from the edge of the lava. I asked one of them if it was still ok to walk closer, and he looked at me, with my lack of protective equipment and/or safe breathing apparatus, and very politely said “I am wearing full protective gear and I am standing back here.”
Since I didn’t hear a “no” I went close to the flow one final time. The heat was astonishing! I grabbed two quick pictures, which turned into two of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken, and ran back to safer/cleaner air.
It turned out, in retrospect, that I should’ve been more careful or held my breath, since I couldn’t take a full deep breath without coughing for the next couple of weeks (sulfur dioxide is heavier than air and settles in the bottom of the lungs, making it harder to clear by coughing).
Honestly, though, no regrets. It was one of the best days of my life.
The only thing better than great pictures
I was so excited for the wonderful pictures I had been able to take, but what made everything better was sitting with my new Icelandic friends, chatting about photography, life, COVID, and everything else. I had been sitting at home in Dallas only a few days before, and now I was in Iceland with new friends next to a volcano that we rode to on a monster truck. You just don’t get to say that sentence very often!
We walked back down to the truck and made our way back to Reykjavik, but not before one final photo.
Like I’ve been saying, the photos were great but the conversation and camaraderie were better. I’ve stayed in touch with the guys and even met up with Petur again last July to go see puffins out in the Westfjords!
So what is the volcano like now?
Many of you loved following along on the first date I went on to Iceland. One of the grandest experiences on that trip was taking a helicopter out to the volcano. The small caldera I saw only two months before had, um, grown quite a bit.
The area upon which we stood in March was now under approximately 40 feet of new Icelandic earth.
Today, the volcano has become dormant, but it could start flowing again at any moment. I will never forget the moments I had out at the volcano, but more importantly the friendships forged in its flames.