Iceland: Land of Fire, Ice & Fat Bike Dreams
Part 3: Backcountry Cafes, Free Bins & A Mountain Mall
On nearly every long, strenuous and committing trip there will come a point where my energy output outweighs the fuel I am putting into my body. This tipping point is usually slow to form. Given my body type and conditioning, the “hunger monster” only begins to rear its head once I have already reached deep into my energy reserves. Once those familiar pangs become a constant companion, I know that they most likely will remain with me for the remainder of my journey…unless I consume massive amounts of calories.
Given the remote nature of our planned route and its lack of amenities, Joey and I were prepared for the possible never-ending state of hunger. We planned to combat this by leaving Reykjavik with over a week’s worth of food. Additionally, we had identified four potential spots on our route where we could purchase resupplies along the way. With over two and a half weeks in the backcountry, these supply stops were going to be essential for us to accomplish what we had hoped to do. Without them, our trip could be in jeopardy…
Loading up at our first backcountry cafe…
Sunshine. That’s right…sunshine! Wahoo! For nearly a week we had been in a continual state of dampness. After riding the previous day in some of the worst weather we had encountered thus far on the trip, we made it to the popular geothermal area of Hveravellir where there was a small campground, café, and hot spring. After a soak in the hot spring and some dinner we retired to our sleeping bags for the evening. Listening to the never-ending rain hitting the nylon over our heads, we fell asleep hoping for a reprieve from the weather the next day.
The morning dawned clear and for the first time since arriving in Iceland we felt the warmth of sun on our faces. It is amazing what a little sunshine can do for one’s disposition after being deprived of its essence for an extended period of time. Today was going to be an amazing day as we were going to attempt to leave the popular Kjolur Road which we had intersected the previous day for a more remote trekking route. The “Valley of the Thieves” gained notoriety in the 12th and 13th centuries as a route Viking armies used to move from conflict to conflict. In the 18th century, a rogue thief and his wife took up residence along the trail and started pilfering sheep among other things, thus, its reputation for thievery. Today the area is a beautiful trekking route that borders the east side of Langjokull, Iceland’s second-largest glacier.
Waking to blue skies and sunshine. Wahoo!
After another soak in the hot springs and a quick bite to eat at the café, Joey and I dropped into a lush valley of vibrant green grasslands with deeply rutted tracks. The tracks were so deep that we both had to remove our feet from our pedals and Strider bike along. One could only imagine what it would have been like to march up and down this valley so long ago. As we progressed down valley, the terrain became more rugged and we were soon riding across an expansive lava field trying to pick clean lines from one giant cairn to the next. For the first time on our trip, the views were what we thought we would encounter in this amazing land of never-ending natural beauty: a wall of blue ice fell into the valley on our right and snowcapped mountains dominated the horizon to our left. It was breathtaking.
Choosing wisely to avoid the Strider bike track…Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
Without inclement weather to hurry us along, we took our time trying to capture the beauty of the day with our cameras. Every turn in the trail afforded another amazing sight. I knew our cameras would not do the views justice so I lingered behind Joey for most of the day, just happy to move at a leisurely pace so I could soak in the experience. This is why we had come to Iceland.
A stunning view of Iceland’s second-largest glacier; Langjokull…Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
The final crescendo of our day was a ride across a broad glacial plane of volcanic sand and gravel interspersed with multiple braided stream crossings. Our fat tires made easy work of the soft terrain and we were soon gazing at the terminus of the glacier where it dumped into Hvitarvatn Lake. What a beautiful sight.
Joey making short work of the last leg to Hvitarvatn Lake…
My alarm clock for the day was the growling of my stomach. Hunger was setting in. The small café at Hveravellir provided little in terms of food supplies. The $10 waffle I purchased before our ride down the “Valley of the Thieves” was doing little to satiate my growing hunger. As we departed our wild camp for the morning, we had high hopes that our next resupply stop would have some food for us to purchase so we could keep pushing on. Our food supplies were now becoming a little lean.
We rolled into the small recreation area of Kerlingarfjoll at around lunchtime. This area is home to another rugged volcanic uplift of mountains and geothermal hot spots. The terrain is stark with green moss and blackened snowfields coloring the various shades of grey, yellow, and red comprising the mountains where a small campground and café were nestled. Seeking food, we found a café that offered expensive plated meals, but little in the way of food supplies that we could purchase for the journey ahead. All was not lost though, as upon investigation of the modest campground kitchen we found a free bin with two cans of vegetables, a can of peaches, a jar of pasta sauce, a small bag of rice, and a small package of spaghetti noodles. Wahoo! One man’s burden is another man’s treasure…or something like that.
Canned peaches; a much needed snack…
I awoke to an empty shelter with only myself as company. After a short previous day and a filling dinner of rice and canned vegetables Joey was up and ready to roll. I climbed out of my warm sleeping bag to find a low ceiling of clouds and drizzle. Joey must be getting his coffee fix on. It was definitely was a hot drink type of morning. I found my riding partner in line to consume the $17 all-you-could-eat continental breakfast. Looking at the granola, yogurt, fresh bread, fruit, and various cheeses and meats, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to gorge myself either. Sneaking a sandwich into my backpack we packed up and began the two-day ride to our next identified resupply stop. We were hoping that the pasta sauce and noodles would provide us the energy to get there.
Searching for a view…
As we rode the four-wheel drive road around the north side of what is known as the “Witches Mountains” the light drizzle deteriorated into a full blown gale of pelting rain. The views of the Hofsjokull glacier to our north were nonexistent as our heads were forced down to avoid the stinging rain. It was going to be one of those days. After 15 miles of cold, demoralizing riding we came upon a hut. Yes, a chance to escape the elements for a while! The door was locked. With no other choice offering warmth other than to ride, we continued on into the barren landscape. Riding south with a massive glacier to our backs we followed a series of painted wooded markers across a lunarscape of volcanic sand, gravel and rock. Our world was void of vegetation and animal life. We were truly on the moon.
Riding on the moon among glaciers…Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
Occasionally there comes a point in an adventure where circumstances force you to make a decision that will ultimately determine the outcome of the trip. Halfway through day nine we had such a decision to make. Finishing off the pasta and sauce that we had pilfered from the Kerlingarfjoll campground free bin, we now only had one day of food left.
We had two choices:
1) Most likely end our trip by riding 80 miles or so out of the highlands to the nearest town that had a super market; or
2) Continue on deeper into the highlands to yet another potential resupply stop.
Either decision would require us to consume the last of our food supplies. As we sat in the small café of Hrauneyjar watching the wind relentlessly fly by, we pondered our fate. We had made our way to this stop on our map hoping that we could secure some supplies. There were once again expensive plates of food to be purchased, but little else in the way of snacks or nonperishables for us to buy in order to prolong our trip. After a $15 egg sandwich and fries, we made the decision to continue on deeper into the highlands in hopes that the small store at Landmannalaugar would have the much-needed food supplies to continue our trip.
Yet another amazing “Highlands” view…
At 2 AM I awoke to an empty stomach and silence. The outside world was calm, in stark contrast to the previous day’s horrendous winds. With the decision made to forgo riding out of the highlands in search of food, we battled the worst winds of our trip making little headway to the “Mountain Mall” of Landmannalaugar. The steep terrain combined with the high winds made riding virtually impossible. The unrelenting gusts of wind tossed us like rag dolls along the gravel track we were on. We were using a lot of energy just to stay upright let alone move forward to what we hoped would be a well-supplied food stop. At four in the afternoon, we called it a day and found a sheltered reprieve from the wind. Lying in our sleeping bags we listened to our stomachs growl and the wind vibrate the high-tension power lines above us into an eerie nonstop ring. It was just another day in Iceland…nothing was easy.
Heading to Landmannalaugar and our last potential food stop…
At 5 AM our tires rolled under the silent power lines into one of the most stunning landscapes we had yet encountered in this amazing country. Black volcanic mountains rose high above us covered with deep emerald green moss. Snowfields lingered up high with steaming geothermal vents dotting the horizon. It was sunny and quiet; a great morning for a ride. After consuming our final snacks for breakfast, we were officially out of food. We enjoyed the early morning ride lingering to take advantage of the good light so as to capture the area’s beauty with our cameras.
Icelandic sheep leading us to our resupply…
At 7:30 AM we rolled into the tent city of Landmannalaugar—the popular trailhead for the Laugavegur Trail. This popular hiking trail attracts trekkers from all over the globe and is a highlight for many who visit Iceland. It is typically completed in four long days and cuts through some of the southern highlands most beautiful and striking terrain. With the colorful rhyolite mountains contrasting with expansive lava fields, it is easy to see why so many tourists flock to the area during the summer months. Our intention was to ride a portion of the trail. Whether or not we would be able to though, would be determined by what we found in the “Mountain Mall” when it opened at 8 AM.
The “Mountain Mall”…our trip saver…
The “Mountain Mall” was an old school bus converted into a little camping store and café. When the store’s proprietor, Edgar, swung open the rear door of the bus, and revealed shelves of nonperishable camp food, Joey and I let out a whoop. Our gamble had paid off! We were going to be able to finish our journey in the highlands.
An hour later, and with $150 less in our pockets, we had four days of food in our packs. This would be more than enough food to finish our exploration of the highlands before heading to the southern coast for a few final days of riding where grocery stores would be plentiful. It was now time to relax for a bit by soaking in the soothing waters of the nearby hot spring. Another stunning trail was on our horizon with a remote backcountry hot spring located at its end. Now if we could only buy a bit of sunshine…
Finding more sweet riding on the Laugavegur Trail…Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
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I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.