How do you describe an ice cave?
“The cave I was going to take you to is filled with water today, so you might die if we went there. Instead, have you heard of Crystal Cave?” Our guide, looking ruthlessly Icelandic with his ice blue eyes far over my head, seemed to be asking a rhetorical question.
“Yes!” Answered Ben, the member of my little trio who had done all the research.
“We go there.” Answered our guide. Excess verbiage does not survive the climate, perhaps, where the garrulous are prone to frostbitten tongues.
My two friends and I joined the guy who runs the Arctic Arts Project and a friend/guide/coworker of his on the benches of a familiar family-roadtrip bulky van from the 1970s, with one significant difference: this thing was lifted five feet off the ground on monster truck tires. I thought it a tourism affectation…until we hit the gravel moraine left by the retreating Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Then the timpani of tires, the artillery of airtubes, the titans of tread, all made sense.
“Think the Dacia could make this?” asked Oshyan, the third member of our traveler trio, referring to our funky little white rental SUV.
“That’s why the rental companies hate you,” answered the Icelandic photographer from the Arctic Arts team. (Hastening to assure us that he was joking, Icelanders don’t actually hate anyone.) The dashboard of the Dacia featured a prominent sticker warning us that river crossings and off-road terrain were not covered by the insurance policy, and we would be liable for all damage.
The five of us bounced around the benches like lotto numbers, attempting conversation in short intervals, whenever clavicles weren’t hitting the roof or sternums smacking seat-backs. They told us of a film crew from Outside magazine who had taken two jeeps into the highlands, and in their bravado and foolish showmanship, gotten hopelessly stuck.
“They had sunk all the way past the tires. People had to go pull them out. They were all thrown in prison, for damaging the land.” A country that imprisons people for damaging the land? Add this to Iceland’s criminal prosecution of bankers for their roles in the financial collapse, and I think I’ve found the nation of my heart.
Our guide wasn’t listening, peering instead into the white abyss. “This is the hard part” he confessed. “Finding a small hole in the glacier, all this gray and white, can be hard. And it moves. Ah.” Such is the Icelandic version of “Eureka!”
The opening looked mysterious. Welcoming, promising and forbidding. The sort of place that inspires troll legends.
“We are the first here, but there will be more. Make the most of your time.” More taciturn advice from our guide. I was lifting my camera as we went inside, but it froze halfway up, and my jaw dropped, breath caught, eyes wide. How do you describe an ice cave?
Blueblueblueblue. Cold. Crystaline. Motionless and mobile. Water overhead and water passing your ankles. Snow in cones under shoots. Icicles grow in the corners, but the ceiling is a reverse bubble, faceted but smooth. Eternal and ephemeral, ice from millennia ago in a cave that will be gone within weeks. Ancient and newborn. Blue. White. Gravel. Such stillness.
I had hoped to let the images speak for themselves, but to my frustration, the files I brought back do not match the corresponding memories of their creation. I had hopes of digital editing salvation, but here I am, laundry almost done, last leftovers disappearing off my plate, and a plane to catch in not so many hours, and the answer to that riddle still escapes me.
They’re still not too shabby, though.
Cathedrals of stone (made by men) are impressive. Cathedrals of redwood trees (made by gods) ache with the divine. And now, cathedrals of ice (made by Time) are repositories of chronology, libraries of geologic potency.
There is much to see in this world.