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Experiencing an Icelandic volcano

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Lava flows from Iceland’s newest volcano

By Loren Fisher

Last year I missed seeing the full eruption of the volcano in Iceland. I got there late and it had pretty much fizzled out by the time I saw it. When it erupted again Aug. 3 I knew I’d be there in a couple of weeks and would have a good chance of seeing the full power of it. 

I’ve been watching live videos, reading all I could, learning where to go and what to expect. Initially it was a 10 hike to it and 10 miles back. That made me rather depressed because I’m not in shape to hike 20 in a day carrying camera gear. Last week they blazed a new trail that is only 4.3 miles out and that many back. I wasn’t sure I could do that so I went on a couple of long hikes here in Vermont to see if I’d die. I survived and knew I could make it to the volcano.

Dusk and night time are magical when the lava is flowing so I planned on going in the early evening. The sun sets around 10 p.m. this time of year and I knew it would take me over two hours to hike out to the site. Volunteers have cleared part of the path but I was reading that there were plenty of rocks to walk over and quite the climb at the beginning.

I loaded up my backpack with a camera and a wide angle 15-35mm lens and 100-500 mm telephoto lens, a tripod, my drone with spare batteries, some food, extra clothes and plenty of water. I brought along a pair of hiking poles since I knew the terrain would be rough.

The unique perspective from the drone shows lava flowing from the volcano.

Even though I was going out by myself, I knew I wouldn’t be alone, and I was right. There was a constant line of people making the journey, people were always within 10 feet of me, or passing me, and I could see the line of hikers in both directions. The first part was fairly smooth but the climb started right away. My plan was to take it slow and easy, not push myself too hard and just take my time getting there. I had to make several stops during the climb to catch my breath. That was OK until I got passed by about 10 hikers that were 75 plus. I wasn’t about to get gassed by a bunch of 80-year-olds. So I kept pushing and pacing myself by staying in front of them. They stopped more than I did, so I was able to keep a constant pace.

The rocky field looks down on the last year’s volcano that is still steaming.

Then I got to the rock field. The volunteers had cleared some rocks out of the way but there was more than a mile of walking over jagged rocks ranging in size from oranges to cantaloupes. And they were tightly packed together so most of the time I was walking on angled rocks rather than on dirt. It was slow going, I had read about several people breaking their ankle or having tough falls, so I carefully picked each step and used the hiking poles to keep my balance. Once through the rock field it leveled out and then it was just a matter of hiking the final mile or so. I could see the volcanic smoke in the distance and it kept me motivated.

The volcano is erupting in a valley and the hike brought me up over a hill and when I crested the hill, there it was. Fire from the earth erupting in magnificent beauty. At least 2000 people were spread out over the large hillside taking in the spectacle. As other people first saw the volcano you could hear the gasps and exaltations in many languages. I sat down and was in awe as I watched the action below. I pulled out my camera and made some shots and decided to move over to a hill right at the edge of the flowing lava. I put my drone in the air only to be confused because there were at least 20 other drones that looked like mine flying over the volcano. It was hard to know which was mine but I made some video and still shots and brought it back as darkness was settling in. I wanted to concentrate on shooting with my camera and not messing too much with the drone.

A close-up photo of lava erupting.

I walked over to the edge of the hill which was about 150 feet high and rather steep going right down to where the lava was flowing. I considered going down but the climb back up would be difficult and I still had to hike out. When I was on top of the hill with my drone the wind was blowing and it was rather cold. I dressed fairly light knowing I would be hot while hiking. I walked, or slid, down the hill about 20 feet and sat down. The heat from the volcano was radiating up the hill and made sitting there pretty comfortable even thought the air temperature was about 50 degrees. 

Then I noticed something I didn’t expect. The sound. Belching and gurgling molten rock spewing into the air made a constant loud roar.

Looking straight down from the drone creates an abstract design.

It had taken me 2-1/2 hours to get there and I just sat in the darkness on the hillside with the only light coming from the volcano, feeling the heat and taking it all in. I almost forgot to make more photos, I was mesmerized. Rivers of lava flowed through the valley, at one point I could see a new river pouring in a different direction. I made more photos, I pulled out my telephoto to get some very close shots. The lava would shoot 1000 feet in the air and splatter over the cone that was forming around the opening. 

I wanted to stay all night but I knew I had a tough hike ahead of me in the dark so I packed up, put on my headlamp and started back up the trail. Two hours later I was back at my rental car, exhausted, exhilarated and feeling fortunate.

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