Letters Home: Taking a quick dip in the Arctic Ocean

Walti and Balasz putting in trail stakes above the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Betsy Kepes

Where I am living in east Iceland is far away from Reykjavik, the capitol and location of the only international airport in this country that is about the size of Kentucky. So though Route One, the Ring Road around the island, does pass through east Iceland most tourists do not.

My volunteer group, under the direction of Walti Hjadar, has been marking trails, rebuilding an old stone sheep fence at the top of a steep ridge, cutting the plastic off round bales of hay and sprinkling fertilizer on acres of newly planted trees.

Betsy carrying trail marker stakes. There are no trees so marking a trail takes longer than nailing a trail marker to a tree.

We work about six hours a day but we could work 24 as the sun never sets. It is odd to go to bed at midnight with light still streaming in the window. And I have trouble remembering which way is east as the sun never rises.

Last Monday we needed that daylight when we all piled into two four-wheel-drive vehicles and drove north to the coast. Walti and his brother Byarni drive on rough roads casually but expertly and they brought us to a remote trailhead where we all picked up newly painted trail stakes and began our work.

We replaced the faded and rotted trail stakes with our new ones, pounding them into the thin soil and surrounding each one with a pile of rocks.

The landscape was absolutely bare of trees or even shrubs, a windswept high ridge that eventually plunged down to a green oasis by the ocean. My knees were thankful for the flatter landscape.

The last part of the trail down to the ocean. Look for small dots that are people. Photo: Betsy Kepes

After lunch (Byarni had big chunk of lamb’s liver sausage that he offered to share with us but the gray color wasn’t appetizing) Walti wanted to walk a bit farther to the canister that marked the official end of the trail. From there we could see the arc of a beautiful beach and Alfredo and I took the dare. “Would you swim in the Arctic Ocean?”

We scrambled down a steep slope to a beach made of tiny pebbles and Alfredo fearlessly stripped down to his boxers and ran into the water. I followed and discovered the clear, salty water to be, not a surprise, very cold. Icy even. My plunge forward into the water quickly became a frantic retreat. But oh how wonderful to stand on that wild, remote beach at the top of the world with my skin radiating heat and the Arctic Ocean lapping against the stony beach. It made the long uphill hike back to the trailhead much easier.

Just after a swim in the Arctic Ocean. Alfredo from Mexico and Betsy from the not-so- North Country are celebrating being out of the water.

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