« PreviousContinue »
ICELAND. Volcanic Origin of the Island.-The Klofa Jökul.-Lava-streams.-The Burning Mountains of Krisu.
vik.-The Mud-caldrons of Reykjahlid. - The Tungo-hver at Reykholt.-The Great Geysir.—The Strokkr.--Crystal Pools.---The Almannagja.—The Surts-hellir.—Beautiful Ice-cave.—The Gotha Foss.--The Detti Foss.-Climate.-- Vegetation.-Cattle.-Barbarous Mode of Sheep-sheering.-Reindeer.—Polar Bears.--Birds.—The Eider-duck.--Videy.--Vigr.—The Wild Swan.-The Raven.--The Jerfalcon.—The Giant auk, or Geirfugl.–Fish.--Fishing Season.-The White Shark.Mineral Kingdom.--Sulphur.--Peat.—Drift-wood. TCELAND might as well be called Fireland, for all its 40,000 square miles I have originally been upheaved from the depths of the waters by volcanic power. First, at some immeasurably distant period of the world's history, the small nucleus of the future island began to struggle into existence against the superincumbent weight of the ocean; then, in the course of ages, cone rose after cone, crater was formed after crater, eruption followed on eruption, and lava-stream on lava-stream, until finally the Iceland of the present day was piled up with her gigantic “jökuls,” or ice-mountains, and her vast promontories, stretching like huge buttresses far out into the sea. .
In winter, when an almost perpetual night covers the wastes of this fire-born land, and the waves of a stormy ocean thunder against its shores, imagination can hardly picture a more desolate scene; but in summer the rugged nature of Iceland invests itself with many a charm. Then the eye reposes with de
light on green valleys and crystal lakes, on the purple hills or snow-capped mountains rising in Alpine grandeur above the distant horizon, and the stranger might almost be tempted to exclaim with her patriotic sons, “ Iceland is the best. land under the sun." That it is one of the most interesting-through its history, its inhabitants, and, above all, its natural curiosities-no one can doubt. It has all that can please and fascinate the poet, the artist, the geologist, or the historian; the prosaic utilitarian alone, accustomed to value a country merely by its productions, might turn with some contempt from a land without corn, without forests, without mineral riches, and covered for about two-thirds of its surface with bogs, lava-wastes, and glaciers.
The curse of sterility rests chiefly on the southeastern and central parts of the island. Here nothing is to be seen but deserts of volcanic stone or immense ice-fields, the largest of which-the Klofa Jökul-alone extends over more than 4000 square miles. The interior of this vast region of névè and glacier is totally unknown. The highest peaks, the most dreadful volcanoes of the island, rise on the southern and south-western borders of this hitherto inaccessible waste; the Oraefa looking down from a height of 6000 feet upon all its rivals-the Skaptar, a name of dreadful significance in the annals of Iceland, and farther on, like the advanced guards of this host of slumbering fires, the Katla, the Myrdal, the Eyjafjalla, and the Hecla, the most renowned, though not the most terrible, of all the volcanoes of Iceland.
As the ice-fields of this northern island far surpass in magnitude those of the Alps, so also the lava-streams of Ætna or Vesuvius are insignificant when compared with the enormous masses of molten stone which at various periods have issued from the craters of Iceland. From Mount Skjaldebreith, on both sides of the lake of Thingvalla as far as Cape Reykjanes, the traveller sees an uninterrupted lava-field more than sixty miles long, and frequently from twelve to fifteen broad; and lava-streams of still more gigantic proportions exist in many other parts of the island, particularly in the interior. In general, these lava-streams have cooled down into the most fantastic forms imaginable. “It is hardly possible,” says Mr. Holland,“ to give any idea of the general appearance of these once molten masses. Here a great crag bas toppled over into some deep crevasse, there a huge mass has been upheaved above the fiery stream which has seethed and boiled around its base. Here is every shape and figure that sculpture could design or imagination picture, jumbled together in grotesque confusion, whilst everywhere myriads of horrid spikes and sharp shapeless irregularities bristle amidst them.”
By the eruptions of the Icelandic volcanoes many a fair meadow-land has been converted into a stony wilderness; but if the subterránean fires have frequently brought ruin and desolation over the island, they have also endowed it with many natural wonders. : In the “ burning mountains” of Krisuvik, on the south-western coast, a whole hill-slope, with a deep narrow gorge at its foot, is covered with innumerable boiling springs and fumaroles, whose dense exhalations, spreading an intolerable stench, issue out of the earth with a hissing noise, and completely hide the view.
EFFIGY IN LAVA. The Námar, or boiling mud-caldrons of Reykjahlid, situated among a range of mountains near the Myvatn (Gnat-Lake), in one of the most solitary spots in the north of the island, on the border of enormous lava-fields and of a vast unknown wilderness, exhibit volcanic power on a still more gigantic scale. There are no less than twelve of these seething pits, all filled with a disgusting thick slimy gray or black liquid, boiling or simmering with greater or less vehemence, and emitting dense volumns of steam strongly impregnated with sulphurous gases. Some sputter furiously, scattering their contents on every side, while in others the muddy soup appears too thick to boil, and after remaining quiescent for about half a minute, rises up a few inches in the centre of the basin, emits a puff of steam, and then subsides into its former state. The diameter of the largest of all the pits can not be less than fifteen feet; and it is a sort of mud Geysir, for at intervals a column of its black liquid contents, accompanied with à violent rush of steam, is thrown up to the height of six or eight feet. Professor Sartorius von Waltershausen, one of the few travellers who have visited this remarkable spot, says that the witches in Macbeth could not possibly have desired a more fitting place for the preparation of their infernal gruel than the mud-caldrons of Reykjahlid.
Among the hot or boiling springs of Iceland, which in hundreds of places gush forth at the foot of the mountains, some are of a gentle and even flow, and can be used for bathing, washing, or boiling, while others of an intermittent natüre are mere objects of curiosity or wonder. One of the most remarkable of the latter is the Tungo-hver, at Reykholt, in the valley of smoke,” thus named from the columns of vapor emitted by the thermal springs which are here scattered about with a lavish hand. It consists of two fountains within a yard of each other—the larger one vomiting a column of boiling water ten feet high for the space of about four minutes, when it entirely subsides, and then the sinaller one operates for about three minutes, ejecting a column of about five feet. The alternation is perfectly regular in time and force, and there are authentic accounts of its unfailing exactitude for the last hundred years.
But of all the springs and fountains of Iceland there is none to equal, either in grandeur or renown, the Great Geysir, which is not merely one of the curi
osities of the country, but one of the wonders of the earth, as there is nothing to compare to it in any other part of the world..
. At the foot of the Laugafjall hill, in a green plain, through which several rivers meander like threads of silver, and where chains of dark-colored mountains, overtopped here and there by distant snow-peaks, form a grand but melancholy panorama, dense volumes of steam indicate from afar the site of a whole system of thermal springs congregated on a small piece of ground which does not exceed twelve acres. In any other spot, the smallest of these boiling fountains would arrest the traveller's attention, but here his whole mind is absorbed by the Great Geysir. In the course of countless ages this monarch of springs has formed, out of the silica it deposits, a mound which rises to about thirty, feet above the general surface of the plain, and slopes on all sides to the distance of a hundred feet or thereabouts from the border of a large circular basin situated in its centre, and measuring about fifty-six feet in the greatest diameter and fifty-two feet in the narrowest. In the middle of this basin, forming as it were a gigantic funnel, there is a pipe or tube, which at its opening in the basin is eighteen or sixteen feet in diameter, but narrows considerably at a little distance from the mouth, and then appears to be not more than ten or twelve feet in diameter. It has been probed to a depth of seventy feet, but it is more than probable that hidden channels ramify farther into the bowels of the earth. The sides of the tube are smoothly polished, and so hard that it is not possible to strike off a piece of it with a hammer.
Generally the whole basin is found filled up to the brim with sea-green water as pure as crystal, and of a temperature of from 180.0 to 190°. Astonished at the placid tranquillity of the pool, the traveller can hardly believe that he is really standing on the brink of the far-famed Geysir; but suddenly a subterranean thunder is heard, the ground trembles under his feet, the water in the basin begins to simmer, and large bubbles of steam rise from the tube and burst on reaching the surface, throwing up small jets of spray-to the height of several feet. Every instant he expects to witness the grand spectacle which has chiefly induced him to visit this northern land, but soon the basin becomes tranquil as before, and the dense vapors produced by the ebullition are wafted away by the breeze. These smaller eruptions are regularly repeated every eighty or ninety minutes, but frequently the traveller is obliged to wait a whole day, or even longer, before he sees the whole power of the Geysir. A detonation louder than usual precedes one of these grand eruptions; the water in the basin is violently agitated; the tube boils vehemently; and suddenly a magnificent column of water, clothed 'in vapor of a dazzling whiteness, shoots up into the air with immense impetuosity and noise to the height of seventy or eighty feet, and, radiating at its apex, showers water and steam in every direction. A second eruption and a third rapidly follow, and after a few minutes the fairy spectacle has passed away like a fantastic vision. The basin is now completely dried up, and on looking down into the shaft, one is astonished to see the water about six feet from the rim, and as tranquil as in an ordinary well. After about thirty or forty minutes it again begins to rise, and after a few hours reaches the brim of the basin, whence it flows down the slope of the mound
into the Hvita, or White River. Soon the subterraneous thunder, the shaking of the ground, the simmering above the tube, and the other phenomena which attend each minor eruption, begin again, to be followed by a new period of rest, and thus this wonderful play of nature goes on day after day, year after year, and century after century. The mound of the Geysir bears witness to its immense antiquity, as its water contains but a minute portion of silica.
After the Geysir, the most remarkable fountain of these Phlegræan fields is the great Strokkr, situated about four hundred feet from the former. Its tube,
the margin of which is almost even with the general surface, the small mound and basin being hardly discernible, is funnel-shaped, or 'resembling the flower of a convolvulus, having a depth of forty-eight feet, and a diameter of six feet at the mouth, but contracting, at twenty-two feet from the bottom, to only eleven inches. The water stands from nine to twelve feet under the brim, and is generally in violent ebullition. A short time before the beginning of the eruptions, which are more frequent than those of the Great Geysir, an enormous mass of steam rushes from the tube, and is followed by a rapid succession of jets, sometimes rising to the height of 120 or 150 feet, and dissolving into silvery mist. A peculiarity of the Strokkr is that it can at any time be provoked to an eruption by throwing into the orifice large masses of peat or turf; thus choking the shaft, and preventing the free escape of the steam. After the lapse of about ten minutes, the boiling fluid, as if indignant at this attempt upon its liberty, heaves up a column of mud and water, with fragments of peat, as black as ink.