By Smoke and Pedal: Extreme Cycling in Lake Mývatn
First published in WOW magazine, Issue 5 2018, PDF
Extreme cycling in Lake Mývatn doesn’t necessarily involve daring descents or treacherous trails skirting mountainsides, because its volatile volcanic environs is already an education in the extremities of raw nature.
I’m about to ride through an area of extreme geology, an eruptive tract of the planet where piping-hot vents hiss and billow sulphuric steam through rifts in the earth at essentially every corner. It’s the kind of geology with serious anger-management issues, the kind that will swallow you up good and proper—like some subterranean monster. And the only thing separating me from the fiery cauldron of magma below is a thin layer of volcanic rock. You can’t always feel its underground agitation, but you know it’s there, biding its time before unleashing its pent-up fury.
A little dramatic? Perhaps. But just ask the locals of Reykjahlíð on the shores of Lake Mývatn in northern Iceland just how devastating the wrath of the omnipresent beast that lurks below their town can be. From 1975 to 1984, the neighbouring Krafla volcanic system erupted nine times, igniting a period of intense volcanic activity known as the Krafla Fires. After the initial eruption in 1975 that occurred five days before Christmas and lasted 12 hours, Reykjahlíð (which translates as “Smoky Hills” in Icelandic) was sentenced to nine years of insecurity as the threat of volcanic annihilation weighed scarily on its shoulders and the earth shifted beneath its feet, literally: during this seismic nine-year spell, the ground would heave and fall in sync with magma movements below, as if the great beast was breathing.
I’ve received this local history lesson over a couple of strong lattes with Raggi from Mývatn Activity just moments ago, prior to doing one of his Bike and Bath tours, and my respect for Mother Nature is rocketing sky high. Not that I didn’t already respect the raw power of geology on this volatile island. I’d spent the previous day rafting down the East Glacial River near Varmahlíð—Iceland’s signature white water rafting trip and one of the most extreme experiences of my life.
In contrast, today’s itinerary, at least on paper, promises to be far less intense: a leisurely two-hour ride through a lunar landscape carved by glaciers and moulded by volcanos followed by a relaxing soak in the Mývatn Nature Baths—the Blue Lagoon's equally spectacular northern cousin. Yet for the entire journey I’ll be riding through a landmine of explosive geology, a dramatic set of earthly co-ordinates that’s literally between two worlds: the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in a tense embrace here, like two bulls locking horns.
On our saddles, we begin the tour by cycling past the cheapest home in Reykjahlíð. “During the Krafla Fires, the foundation of the house ripped open and now steam is escaping through the ground and into the basement. For obvious reasons, this is creating a big problem, and the re-sale value has therefore lowered substantially,” Raggi tells me. Moving on, each turn of the pedals is met with crunchy protests beneath the tyres as my bike grips onto the gravel track. It won’t be crunchy gravel the entire way though, I’m told; there’ll be sections of road to ride on too.
Ahead the track passes through a small forest of downy birch, an ashy jumble of wrangled trunks and naked branches. Birch is the only tree species in Iceland capable of forming natural woodlands in this harsh environment. Presently they cover only a minuscule portion of the country (roughly one per cent), but at one time more than a third of Iceland was draped in the deciduous tree. It’s believed these birch forests were harvested for land-clearing and fuel when Norse settlers arrived in the second half of the 9th century.
Wrestling with Nature
The trail continues north, passing small farmsteads guarded by majestic Icelandic horses. Further along I spot the defensive wall constructed to protect Reykjahlíð from threatening lava flows during the Krafla Fires. Luckily the wall was never tested as the rogue lava streams chose a different path and spared the town of assured destruction. But it was close. Building walls and protecting themselves is nothing new for Icelanders who are used to wrestling with the formidable elements of their island.
For the next 10 minutes, the gravel path meanders around lava fields harbouring mounds of jagged basalt melted into distorted shapes and edges. In Icelandic folklore, ancient lava fields are said to contain the petrified bodies of trolls caught out by the sun and turned into stone for eternity. I can see why they believe that.
Pedalling further into the belly of the beast we enter the smoky Bjarnarflag geothermal area and its red and white geodesic domes. These domes collect the rotten-egg-smelling sulphur billowing out of the boreholes dug up to power the Bjarnarflag power plant. Some of these holes reach over 2300m deep, puffing out steam at a whopping 200°C. But you have to be careful where you dig, Raggi explains, as it’s possible to instigate man-made eruptions. “It happened last century. The engineers were drilling for steam, but lava started shooting out. They had to plug it up quickly.”
The Bjarnarflag power plant is both Iceland’s smallest and oldest geothermal power station, and since 1969 it’s been supplying the local town with its energy. Its success in harnessing the earth’s geothermal activity inspired larger projects in Iceland, such as the construction of the nearby 60MW capacity Krafla Power Station in 1977—currently Iceland’s largest geothermal power plant, supplying the country with a quarter of its energy needs.
Back on our bikes, we ride past a large turquoise pond—the remains of a former diatomite processing plant built here in the late 60s. Although it looks inviting, especially on a chilly day, the water here is toxic and not fit for bathing; it shouldn’t be confused with the nearby Mývatn Nature Baths.
Crossing the road, we make a brief stop at the local underground bakery and its subterranean ovens. Raggi’s wife is there, and she gives me a quick cooking class on baking hverabrauð (hot spring bread)—a version of Icelandic rúgbrauð (rye bread made from rye, flour, sugar, salt, yeast and water) that’s cooked in ovens heated by the area’s volcanic steam. These ovens are dug into the hot earth and covered with squares of wood and stones; it takes about 24 hours to bake a loaf. “We used to bake our bread on the other side of the road, next to the Bjarnarflag power plant. But since the Krafla Fires the steam hasn’t been hot enough for baking. So we dug some new ovens here,” she explains. Although rúgbrauð is also baked using modern conventional ovens in the rest of Iceland, hverabrauð baked with volcanic steam has its own distinct taste—there’s nothing like it, I’m told.
Time to set off to our second last stop: a 700-year-old steam cave. From at least the 14th century, local farmers, in that true Icelandic spirit, capitalised on the cave’s geothermal activity and turned it into a steam bath—because could there not be a more relaxing and suitable reward after a hard day’s work in the cold and often icy conditions?
The farmers built benches into the cave to make steam bathing more comfortable, but it eventually fell into disuse and is no longer used, although it’s still very much active. “It’s windy today, but normally the whole cave and surrounding landscape is awash in steam and smoke,” Raggi tells me. I believe him. The walls of rock inside the cave feel like heated stones, and I can feel surges of dewy heat radiating out from its shadowy depths. You can still see remains of the old construction inside; outside, crowberries and juniper berries grow along the ground.
We reach the Mývatn Nature Baths a little after 6 pm. Essentially the northern equivalent of the Blue Lagoon, but with far superior views, these local hot springs get their mineral-rich water from the nearby Bjarnarflag power plant. Before changing into my bathers and melting away in the turquoise lagoon, I’m treated to a little pre-soak snack of Arctic char on a freshly-baked slice of hverabrauð with butter and a little salt—a local favourite. It’s slightly sweet and decidedly moreish.
It’s then a bitingly cold dash to the blue-tinted thermal waters of the hot springs, followed by an awkward stumble down its slippery ramp and finally into its 39-degree embrace. The evening sky is burning pink and red, but it will never blacken, not at this time of the year. In a few days, hundreds of runners from all around the world competing in the annual Mývatn Marathon will cross the finish line here, and staff are busily in preparation mode. And just like this Bike and Bath tour, a relaxing soak in the volcanically-heated baths is the race’s well-deserved culmination—extreme geology has its benefits, too.