Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
The Pastor of Thing-valla; his House and Church. — The Lögberg and its Olden Story. — A Lava Tract. — The Hrafnajau. — The Tintron — Icelandic Rivers. — The Bruara. — A singular Bridge. — First Glimpse of the Geyser Steam. — Anticipations. — The Little Geyser. — Strange Emotions. — Strokhr, or the Churn. — The Geyser Plateau. — Great Geyser and Basin. — Measurements.
PASSING out of the Almannajau, we crossed the river, and soon came to the pastor's house, or rather collection of houses joined together endwise, sidewise, anywise. There were no less than seven hovels, all connected. I saw but one glass window about the whole establishment. The huts were built mainly of rough stones, with the usual turf roofs of the country. Some of the gables were of boards. It would seem hardly possible that a man of ordinary stature could stand upright in one of these diminutive dwellings. The pastor himself, so Halgrim whispered to us, was standing in one of his numerous doorways, and bowed kindly and gravely to us as we rattled past. He was a small, spare man, with a timid face, rendered sadly sheepish by a close black skull-cap drawn on his head. His long-skirted tout switched his heels. I have no doubt he can talk irreproachable Latin, and is, withal, a very highly-valued and useful man — at Thing-valla. But what Iceland wants is the railroad and the telegraph, not Latin.
Quite near the pastor's house, and on the other side of the road, which is here fenced with stone walls, stands the church of Thing-valla. In New England I should have taken it for the schoolhouse. It is a quaint little edifice, about, twenty feet square, for a guess, built of boards, and painted black. The roof, too, is black, being of boards covered with tarred cloth. The curious little steeple much resembled a martin-house. Taken together, the church and parsonage is perhaps the prettiest, neatest station in Iceland. The lake, the cataract, the black wall of the jau, and, a little farther on, the rock of the Lögberg, give it a picturesque as well as an historic interest.
Half a mile beyond the church, we pulled up to take a look at the Lögberg, or Rock of Laws. Leaving the ponies in Weymouth's care, we went off across the ledges to the right. A walk of a few minutes took us down to the famous spot. No tourist should neglect the Lögberg. It is an interesting locality, remarkable as much for its craggy scenery as for its ancient story. Briefly, it is a vast rock, isolated by chasms on all sides, save a fathom-breadth neck which connects it with the rest of the lava plateau, in the midst and on a level with which it stands. The environing chasms are from thirty-five to forty feet in breadth, and fully seventy in depth. They are half filled with water; but so limpid and clear are its depths, that the bottom reflects the light distinctly through six fathoms. It was into this gulf that the condemned criminal was plunged, with a stone about his neck.
"I declare!" Kit exclaimed, shrinking back from the edge of the dizzy abyss, "I should rather be hung, I do think, than pitched down there."
"Any thing but hanging for me," said Raed, who is violently opposed to this sort of capital punishment.
"But what an awful sensation it must have given the poor wretch to go whirling down! What a shriek must have risen when he splashed into the water! How he must have struggled with the strangling stone! They say, that, formerly, the bottom of the pool was covered with the white bones of the victims."
"It must have been a very impressive mode of punishment," Raed remarked: "far more so, I judge, than our gallows-scenes."
The Lögberg itself is about four hundred and sixty feet long by seventy in breadth. The flat top is covered with turf. Here it was that the court and judges of the ancient republic used to assemble yearly to try offenders, — murderers, witches, &c. Once condemned, the road to death was a short one. The executioner stood ready to take them from the hands of their judges. The multitudes on the other side of the gulf could but look on in horror. Eight centuries have passed. No one would now mistrust what scenes these old rocks have witnessed; and history but faintly echoes them in legends and mouldy sagas.
Kit and Wash made sketches of both the Lögberg and the Almannajau, which, with the cataract, are plainly visible from the point where we stood.
Remounting our nags, we continued on, and in the course of half an hour had entered a tract so wildly desolate and black-hued, that we actually shuddered at its grimness and desolation. Over the whole region a seething lava-flood had poured, and tossed itself in volcanic wrath. Fury and molten fire seemed to have revelled and run riot, till the chill blasts of an arctic winter had turned it to silent stone. Here a black wave, split and foaming, had cooled as it broke; there a vast bubble of pent-up gases had burst as it swelled out, and cooled to glass. Mighty rents gaped beside the path, showing black depths bristling with jagged spikes and vitreous points. It took but a small stretch of the fancy to imagine them so many traps set by malevolent trolls for our ruin. A single misstep or stumble of our horses would have hurled as to destruction. The whole effect of the scene is suggestive of fiendish malice, — a death-struggle of the elements. in cooling, the lava had in many places taken the form of huge frogs, serpents, shells, and whirlpools. Often we fancied we discerned the grim faces of gnomes and ghouls staring evilly at us from out the sooty rifts.
This black and horribly-distorted tract was bounded on both sides by red, hilly ridges, fenced in by white peaks shooting up into a dim, leaden horizon.
An hour or an hour and a half took us to the Hrafnajau, or Raven Chasm, which at first seems to present an impassable barrier. Picture a rent in the lava-field a hundred and twenty-five feet deep, jagged and chaotic beyond description, then add a narrow, crooked causeway, or bridge, spanning this abyss, all of the wildest, blankest rock, and you have the Hrafnajau. It lacks the regularity of the Almannajau; but it is more terrific to the passer.
Six or seven miles farther on we came to a towering rock, or needle, which Halgrim pointed out with his whip as we rode past an overhanging crag.
"What is that?" said Wash.
"The Tintron, sirs," was the reply. "It has hole in top."
We spent nearly an hour climbing about it. Like all the rocks here, it is vitreous, and of volcanic origin. It rests tilted up on a mound of scoria, a little below the trail. Its height is about thirty feet, but so jagged and notched, that it can be climbed, if one has the nerve to attempt such a feat. The most singular feature about it, however, is that to which Halgrim had referred, — the hole in the top. This hole is about three feet in diameter, and seems to have been a miniature crater. Kit threw several pebbles into it. They seemed, he said, to go rattling down to an unlimited depth. For several seconds he could hear the sounds till they died away in the black depths. The Tintron gave us the impression of having been a diminutive volcano.
Going back to the trail, we took a lunch, and, after a short rest, went on descending the side of a ridge into a valley where there was a small, rapid river, which we forded, drawing up our legs like crickets to keep them dry.
Iceland abounds in rivers. For the size of the island, and the extent of country they drain, they are very large and rapid. In nearly every case we were obliged to ford them. Iceland hasn't got to bridges yet. Hold! I forgot the Bruara, which we crossed during the second afternoon of our trip to the geysers. This stream has a bridge of a rather novel sort. On coming to the bank, we supposed it was a ford, — a very dangerous one it looked too. The current toward the middle ran like a mill-race, foaming and roaring among rocks. The trail led directly down to the water, however; and Halgrim drove in without a word.
"Is it really safe?" Raed shouted.
"The Bruara, sirs," replied the Icelander, his voice half drowned by the torrent.
There wasn't much consolation in these words for us, who judged the Bruara by its looks. Raed, who was a little ahead of the rest of us, prudently halted to see how Halgrim got through. Somewhat to our surprise, as the leading pony approached the middle, we heard the clattering of his hoofs on planks, and saw them all walking quietly over, with just their fetlocks buried in the water and foam.
"Some sort of a bridge there," muttered Raed, spurring in.
The rest of us followed. Sure enough, out at the channel, where the stream ran madly between two ledges, there was a plank platform spanning the deeper part, and pinned securely to the rocks on both sides. At either end of it the water poured past up to the ponies' bellies, and ran in a streak of foam over it. Perhaps the stream was higher than usual; but it struck us as a rather strange bridge.
"Do you call that a bridge, Halgrim?" Bit asked when we were safely on the other side.
"The Bruara — the bridge," said he.
"Does Bruara mean bridge?"
Halgrim said yawh, for yas occasionally.
We passed but three huts during the afternoon, and saw but one person, a woman, we thought, driving sheep at a distance. To the right the country sloped off to a wide valley, with here and there a thicket of low brushwood. To the left rose a long volcanic ridge. Beds of moss, white as snow, lay interspersed amid the ledges.
About five o'clock, Raed pointed suggestively to a column of white vapor rising over the rolling ground, seemingly six or seven miles away.
"Is that the geyser steam?" I exclaimed.
"I expect so," said Raed.
We all gazed toward it with queer feelings struggling up. Could it be true that we were really so near the famous geyser of which we had read and heard so muck ever since we were mere children? — those wonderful geysers, a cut of which had adorned the first pages of our earliest school-geography? An hour more, and we should be there and see the real thing. No picture this time, but the genuine hot-water fountain! Why, it seemed almost too good to be real.
Halgrim saw us looking off, and immediately said, "The geysir, sirs."
I think he had meant to get us up nearer before pointing them out. Rude as are the most of these Icelanders, they have a sort of national pride in their wondrous hot springs, and expect travellers to be greatly astonished at them.
"They are not to be much seen so far," be turned to explain after we had ridden a few rods in silence.
"Do they shoot up big, Halgrim?" Kit asked.
"They shoot up very high!" he exclaimed enthusiastically.
"How often does the big one go up?" Wash asked. "Once in three and four days now, sirs."
"So long as that?"
"Yas: sometimes he is a week now. He used to go up often, — go up every six hours: now he is slow. He does not so high go up, either; not so high; not so hot; not so much."
"That agrees with what we've read," remarked Raed, — "that the Great Geyser is dying slowly. Some change is going on in the funnel, or pipe. In time, these irruptions will cease altogether."
"How long has the Great Geyser been running?" Wash asked. "Does anybody know?"
"It began in the year fourteen hundred and something," said Kit. "That's all I can tell relative to its birth."
"I never could learn that any one knew just the year it first burst out," Raed observed. "It was some time in the fifteenth century, as Kit says."
Wash remarked that he had read that two Danish travellers, named Olsen and Paulsen, saw an irruption of the Great Geyser, during which the water was thrown three hundred and sixty feet high.
"Guess they stretched it a little," was Kit's comment on this story.
"How high does the water shoot up, Halgrim?" I asked.
"Goes up seventy feet," was the answer.
"I wonder if he means Icelandic feet," Wash queried. "My old geography said it went up eighty and ninety feet."
"Bet you we don't see it over sixty!" Kit offered. "But it will be a joke if we should have to wait a week for it."
"I mean to see it, now I've come so far, if I have to stay here a fortnight," said Raed.
"Do travellers ever have to go home without seeing it, Halgrim?" I asked.
"Sometimes, sirs. The Prince Napoleon came to see it. He could only stop two days. The geyser would not go up. He had to go back without seeing it."
"That was rough on the prince!" laughed Kit. "The geyser ought to have been more polite."
"Well, the prince has met with more serious ill luck than that since then," Wash remarked.
"How many geysers are there, Halgrim?" Raed asked.
"There is the Little Geysir, the Great Geysir, and the Strokhr (pronounced Strokker). Then there be others many, smaller."
"The word strokhr means 'churn' in Icelandic," Kit remarked. "I saw it so stated in Mr. Metcalf's works. The Icelanders called it a churn, because they fancied that the motion of its waters resembled churning."
"Strokhr is the one you can make go up by throwing in sods, isn't it?" Raed inquired. "Do they throw gods into the Strokhr, Halgrim?"
"Yas, sirs: that will him make throw up."
"Well, Halgrim, set those forward ponies galloping," exclaimed Kit. "Let's be getting on. What did you say was the name of that long mountain off there ahead, — that jokul over there, Halgrim?"
"That is the Langarfjal."
Riding on over low hills and slight green valleys for three or four miles farther, we came to another bog lying along the base of the Langarfjal bluff. Following along this bog for some little distance, we crossed it without difficulty at a favorable spot near the huts of a shepherd family. Several of the children stared after us from the doorway. Such great round faces and tow heads are not to be seen out of Iceland.
Spurring on, we soon drew near the slender column of steam which marks the position of the Little Geyser. Eager and expectant enough we were, no doubt. Up, up, up, streamed the steam-cloud, and a rumbling, restless sound rose from the ground. Raed was a little ahead; and, on coming within half a dozen rods of the steam jet, he jumped off his pony, and ran for it: the rest followed close behind him. The earth was red here, and gave back hollow echoes beneath our footsteps. We all seemed to feel the near, alarming presence of some terrible agent, the outbreaking of which is always attended by peril to man. Beneath our very feet throbbed and raged those olden fires which have burned and fused the earth as in a crucible.
And yet the Little Geyser has nothing very impressive in its performances otherwise than these feelings which it gave us. It is a little round hole in the earth, two feet in diameter, and, as we afterwards found, about thirteen feet down to where it crooks off laterally. The steam gushes up blithely; while a hollow, boiling sound tells of the volcanic fire-heat below. There was no water in sight in the shaft on the afternoon of our arrival. We could not see down more than five feet for the steam; but on several occasions during our stay the boiling water gushed up, though never to the height of more than three or four feet, overflowing, and running down the side of the slope. Quite near the funnel of the Little Geyser there was a puddle of mud in violent agitation. It was thick, black, and viscous as treacle, and kept swelling up in bell-shaped bubbles that occasionally burst with a dull that, letting out tiny whiffs of steam. From the Little Geyser, the slope on which this wonderful system of springs is situated rises gradually to the steep side of the Langarfjal ridge. The whole number of the springs is about forty, little and great. The slope, or, as some travellers call it, the plateau, out of which they gush, is about four hundred yards long, and of varying width. Whatever the original soil or rock may have been, it is now strongly saturated and charged with mineral matters brought up with the water. The yellow hue bespeaks the presence of sulphur; and a great deal of what seemed to me burnt clay and crumbling trap-rock lay about. Evidently at some former period the whole slope has been subjected to an intense heat. It seemed to have been baked to a cinder. Steam anal smoke, accompanied by odors of sulphur, steal up from numerous little fissures all about.
After eying Little Geyser for a few moments, we turned all together, and ran for the Strokhr. Some competitive, boyish spirit made us each anxious to get the first eight of each spring, or at least not let the others be ahead. Arrived at the mouth of the famous churn considerably out of breath. An angry growl, followed by a awash and hiss, led us to halt rather hurriedly several yards from the orifice.
"Going to erupt?" Wash queried.
The ominous sounds ceased directly.
"But isn't it a big tube?" Kit exclaimed, stealing cautiously up.
The mouth of Strokhr is not raised like that of the Great Geyser. It is simply an opening in the siliceous rock, which some have compared to a saucer, though we failed to see the resemblance. It is not quite circular. We found its average diameter to be nearly eight feet at the surface, diminishing as it descends, till, at a depth of thirty feet, it is scarcely over two feet across. The total depth of the pipe (as far as our stone and line informed us) is between forty-four and forty-five feet.
When we first looked into it, the water was boiling and swirling at a depth which we guessed to be nineteen or twenty feet. Steam whirled up spitefully at times, though never very densely.
"Considered as a place to tumble into," Kit remarked, eying the footing about the brink, if it hasn't an inviting look."
"You are right," heartily responded Raed, drawing back, as if not quite at ease about Wash, who was peering over his shoulder. "One souse into that would boil a fellow like a lobster! Never get out alive. Ought to be a railing round it — for somnambulists."
"I'll see that Wash is picketed all secure to-night," Kit said.
"Now for the great one!" shouted Wash, quite indifferent to these saving resolutions of his friends.
We all heeled it again off diagonally up the slope to the north-east, where a thin, steaming column, about which the hot air quivered, denoted the locality of the world-wide wonder. A scamper of a hundred and fifty yards took us to the foot of the mound of rock, in the top of which is the mouth of the geyser-tube. The mound itself is raised about forty feet above the Surrounding slope. We climbed up, — it is not very steep, — and found ourselves standing on the rim of a huge circular basin of brown rock, as smooth inside as if sandpapered every day. This shoal basin is fifty-two feet in diameter from north to south, and sixty from east to west; not quite circular, yet so nearly so as to have that appearance. The mouth of the geyser-tube is nearly at the centre, of the basin. At the point where the tube opens into the basin, it is ten feet in diameter, and, so far as we could see, an almost perfect circle. The depth of the tube is seventy-five feet. Letting the sounding-line drop in on one side, it is seventy-four feet, and on the other side seventy-six feet: I therefore give the average depth at seventy-five feet. The tube does not contract like that of the Strokhr, but maintains an almost uniform diameter as far down as can be seen. The tube, like the basin, is of siliceous stone, polished, and smooth as glass. As a work of art it would be wonderful; but as a work of nature it is indeed so.
When we first climbed the mound, the basin was quite dry; and, after surveying it in a kind of first-view wonder for some minutes, we got down into it, and walked up to the mouth of the pipe. It was not without a feeling of awe that we ventured to gaze for the first time into this mighty boiler. I saw my own feelings reflected in the faces of my companions as we trod the hard echoing floor of the basin, and cast our eyes timidly into the huge, gently-steaming orifice. It was nearly full, and seemed quite limpid and clear. We could see far down the sides. It did not boil like the Strokhr. It seemed in a very quiet and contented frame of mind; though its surroundings were rather suggestive of a violent and explosive temper. In fact, the general aspect of all the springs that afternoon was peaceful. Some queer noises were from minute to minute audible underneath. "The old shebang hadn't stopped," so Weymouth thought. Business had not been suspended yet. The trolls, fire-fiends, or whoever ran the establishment there in the shadow of the Langarfjal, were clearly at home, and had steam up; but they kept their doors closed. Kit thought that they might be "taking account of stock," "greasing the big wheel," or something of that sort.
Well, it would be no use trying to hurry the Great Geyser, who, according to all accounts, was a very disappointing old chap, always snubbing and slighting tourists, including his Excellency the Prince Napoleon But we could wait, and had started with the intention of waiting till the old fellow would be glad to heave up or "bust."
"But we can keep Strokhr to play for us," Wash reflected; "unless, indeed, he has lost his antipathy to mode."