Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Stealing Fýlar Eggs

Denní really likes birds. He probably wouldn´t go so far as to say that, but considering that he used to let a pet goose sleep in his bed (another favorite local story) and that he knows pretty much everything about all of the local birds, I would go so far as to consider him a bird enthusiast. You may remember Denní from other adventures, including Dyrhólaey and the basalt columns, and the epic puffin hike. He is Æsa´s father and part of the local tough-man legends around these parts. So last night while he was taking me out for pizza and Víking, the subject of birds came up, as it usually does when you talk to me. I learned that fýlar lay a single egg (sometimes one more) each breeding season, and they are the first seabirds to lay their eggs each year. But since they are so fat, they are the last to fledge. Denní had gathered some eggs just a few days before to give to his friend, and I expressed a desire to accompany him on his next trip. We made plans for the following day and I could hardly wait.

We went to the nearby cliff (the one that looms over the gold course) to find fýlar eggs in the evening. Although it is not a high cliff, it does have some tricky spots, so my job was mainly holding the bucket and following Denní around as he scooped up eggs. A little more about this person: Denní was born at a farm perched atop a mountain close to here, and spent his entire life exploring the area in the way that only little boys with Viking blood can explore. The way he fearlessly traipses over precarious rocks, or slides down a steep, gravely incline would make a mountain goat jealous. Having in health insurance, I tend to err on the side of caution, and tenderly navigate my pathways...even refusing to jump over small creeks (my legs are very short and I don´t trust them). So I can only watch this guy do acrobatics around me and put my youth to shame.
He had fashioned an egg staff with what looked like a small harpoon, and PVC joint on the end that is just the right size for a fýll egg. Although fýlar do not build nests, and they hang out right in the open, they can perch on the most sheer cliff face and they are often difficult to get close to. Hence, the eggs staff comes in handy. You may also remember that fýlar are the birds that use vomit as a defense mechanism. I had been very interested to witness this, and I got many opportunities. Denní actually got puked on one time, on his pants, and the egg staff was pretty much soaked in it by the time we were done. The smell is hard to describe. It´s fishy and sweet and completely acrid. A sticky smell. It´s a thick, oily goo that they use to feed their young. I cannot imagine being forced to eat this, but apparently it´s very tasty because young fýlar eat so much that they are too fat when they leave the nest and have to starve for several days before they are light enough to finally fly out to sea.
So that´s what it looks like. Luckily they usually give you a bit of warning before they spew. It´s probably not too fun for them, either. 

We gathered 36 eggs, which makes for a lot of sad fýlar. I hope that some of them are able to lay another egg. Once when Denní was around the other side of a rock for a long time, I watched a fýll come back to it´s nest to find the egg missing. It looked completely stunned, and kept staring at the empty spot, at me, back out to sea, and back to the empty spot again. It didn´t move it´s body at all and it was impossible for me to imagine that it couldn´t be sad. But if some fýlar are sad about losing an egg, then surely some of them must be relieved. No more responsibility! Well, that´s what I will tell myself anyway.

The final step to gathering these giant eggs is to test them for life. We washed them all and then sunk them in water. The eggs that rise up have already started to form birds inside. It´s still very early in the nesting season, so maybe only the eyes have formed, but we separate them for boiling. Some people say that the eggs taste better when the bird is growing inside. They are sweeter. I marked a few of them and will boil one and blow the other two out to make hollow eggshells. I took six eggs to cook for myself and the rest will be distributed to hungry Icelanders. 

I´ll let you know how they taste!

Monday, May 23, 2011


Volcano? I don't know what you're talking about.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dirty South

I have two Slovakian friends now. One of them is working here at the hostel for a couple of weeks, and the other one is working on a dairy farm in nearby Pétursey. She also has a car, which is somewhat of a miracle. They're both really great people and a lot of fun, and I had the opportunity to spend half of the day yesterday taking a mini-tour around our area here in the Deep South.

Katka works at a pretty big farm (although it is small by Icelandic standards) with about 40 milking cows and 20 more bulls and calves. They also have sheep, and they are the largest carrot producer in Iceland. The orange-carrot jam that we serve at breakfast was made from the carrots from this farm. They also supply our grocery store in town, although recently their stock of 40 tons ran out, so no more carrots for a little while. We did get a chance to see how a dairy farm works. I've only seen samples of the process at state fairs back in the United States, where all of the real down and dirty work isn't put on display.

The cows at Pétursey farm have to wait a few more days until they can be released into the open, so for now they are still in pens inside, which sounds pretty miserable. However, this might be the cleanest farm in Iceland. Maybe in the world. 60 cows cooped up inside and it didn't even smell bad. Don't get me wrong. There was definitely a smell. My clothes still smell like the cow house, but it's not unpleasant.

We arrived as the farm owners were cleaning out the system. There was still a little soap in the lines, but usually they are cleaned after milkings. We walked around and Katka showered affection on each of her favorite animals. She can tell them all apart and has names for them, and told us about their various personalities. Calves drooled on her fingers and newborn lambs bleated in her face, to her incredible delight. I think Katka has found her calling in life. I've never seen someone get so much joy out of being around farm animals. She is like a loving mother to them all. And she's only been there for three months!

It's funny that as a fairly compassionate person, and someone who was a strict activist vegetarian for five years (and considering starting up again), I really just don't have much love for animals. I appreciate them and care about them, but I simply just don't melt around them the way that a lot of people do. I feel pretty strong about birds, and my heart really feels for them. There's some kind of connection there, for sure. But with mammals, I don't feel that. I don't even like petting dogs. Being in a room full of steaming, stamping, braying cows was fascinating, but I wasn't exactly in my comfort zone. Seeing someone going around kissing their slobbering faces was also a little baffling. It's always a good feeling to see someone else so delighted and happy, so that's what I enjoyed about it.

I suppose the other unusual thing about a person like me visiting a dairy farm is that I absolutely despise milk. Up until very recently, even the thought of someone else drinking it would make me gag. Icelandic milk does taste a bit different from milk in the USA, so I've been able to put crowberry milk over cereal some mornings and I don't feel sick. But drinking a glass of milk? Forget it. People are always telling me that I just haven't lived until I've tried milk "straight from the cow". And there is definitely something about that that sounds lovely. So my big motivation for coming to the farm was to finally try some of this famous "SFTC" milk.
Fortunately for us, one of the milking machines was malfunctioning a little and the milk from there was directed to go to the calves. And us. Katka divvied up the cans for the babies and we shared a glass of warm milk. Surprisingly, none of us had ever sampled it, even Katka who milks twice every single day. I think Michal liked it the best. He drank most of it. We all agreed that it has almost no taste and was surprisingly thin. I wasn't impressed and still felt a little grossed out. Especially when we watched one of the cows being milked drink from a bucket of fresh milk. Milk that may have been her own but was definitely her neighbors. There was something a little kinky about that. I almost felt like I shouldn't have watched it.

I'm still not sold on milk, but baby cows sure do love it! And everyone likes watching baby cows drink milk.

After our little farm adventure and gaining a whole new respect for the amount of work that goes into farm life, we headed out to the base of Eyjafjallajökull where there is an old swimming pool. I had been there before, briefly, but was interested to see it again. Michal and Katka have never really been anywhere, so it was a good adventure for everyone. The pool was built in 1923 and is heated with water pulled from underground. You may remember that Eyjafjallajökull is the volcano that erupted last year and bothered all of those people in European airports. It's still a very active area and further up on the glacier, the ground is still red and will continue to be hot for a few more years.
The pool was never one of the fancy town pools with showers and other frills. It was simply built into the side of the mountain with some modest changing rooms. I'm pretty sure there was never even a toilet. When Eyjafjallajökull erupted, a massive amount of ashy water rushed down into several places, including the valley that this pool occupies. As a result, the valley was cut much larger and a rocky river rushes through it, completely black with cliffs of ash flanking the sides. Scientists calculated that during the eruption, up to 1,000 cubic meters of ash were being send into the air every second. 1,000 cubic meters will fill 100 trucks. Entire walls and numerous large piles have been made of the stuff, and luckily it makes pretty decent fertilizer.
The other effect of the volcanic ash was that it completely filled the pool. It also pushed open the changing room doors and filled each of the three rooms and collapsed the benches inside. It's a mess. However, it's incredibly remote and beautiful.
To get to the pool, you must trek across the river. Waterproof shoes are necessary unless you don't mind getting wet, or are brave enough to attempt balancing on a pipe that spans a portion of the fast-flowing, ice-cold glacial meltwater. Then just follow the path and look for the plumes of steam and you're there.

The pool is called Seljavallalaug and was never maintained. A small sign in Icelandic posted on the side of the building tells when it was built, who the first person was the swim there, and to please clean up after yourself and no dogs. Even when it wasn't full of black ash, it would often have algae growing on the edges. On the day we visited, algae was indeed in full bloom on the remaining wall, but the water was hot and inviting, and I stripped down and plunged in. I had expected the water to be very shallow, but it was actually fairly generous. Standing up in the deepest part, the water came to my waist. A gentle slope of ash under the water made a decent beach and lean against. When it was stirred up, the visibility dropped to almost zero, and it was a similar experience to the Blue Lagoon, being able to vanish just an inch below the surface.
Michal joined me in the pool only a minute after, and Katka eventually overcame shyness in favor of a luxurious soak, and soon we were all marveling at our incredible luck to be in such a place. Katka pointed out that we would remember this for the rest of our lives, and I was very glad she said that because she was right.

The only thing missing was towels.
...Next time!