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Jim Colyer

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After missing the Northern Lights in Alaska, I traveled to Iceland, December 4-9, 2007, hoping to see them. Iceland is a Scandinavian country lying between Norway and Greenland. It is an island nation the size of Kentucky with a peninsula extending from its northwestern corner that looks like a crab with pinchers.


Iceland was a Danish colony until 1944. It became independent when the Nazis occupied Denmark. Iceland's flag has the Scandinavian cross, a red cross outlined in white against a blue field. Greenland was granted self-rule by Denmark in 1979.


People like to say that "Iceland is green, and Greenland is covered with ice." Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream. It was not nearly as cold in Reykjavik as it was in Boston.


I flew U.S. Airways to Boston and took Icelandair. I landed at Keflavik International Airport. Keflavik was built by Americans during the Cold War. It is 45 minutes from Reykjavik. I heard One Of Us by ABBA on the Flybus. ABBA follows me everywhere.


The population of Iceland is 300,000, 200,000 of which live in the capital of Reykjavik. Icelanders are reserved and businesslike, fortified against an extreme climate. They are descended from the Vikings who came from Norway in the 9th century. There are lots of square-faced blondes.


Icelanders teach us something. They prosper on an island in the North Atlantic under harsh conditions. Why? Because they make the most of everything. They heat their city with geothermal energy, utilizing the many hot springs. They take care of themselves and each other.


Reykjavik is the northernmost capital. The daylight at noon on December 8 was like soft twilight. SUVs crowded the streets.


That tall building in the city center is Hallgrims Church. It is Lutheran. I climbed the tower. It was misting rain and quite gloomy. The Leifur Eiriksson Hotel, where I stayed, faces the church. I could see it through my window. The statue of Leif Ericson is in front. Leif was the first European to set foot in North America. He was born in Iceland. The planet Venus was in the morning sky and shown beside the church.


The people speak Icelandic but also English. Their language has changed so little since the 9th century that they can still read the medieval sagas.


Iceland's unit of currency is the krona, abbreviated ISK. $1000 got me 54,000 krona. It takes getting used to. A bottle of water cost 200 krona.


Reykjavik is where Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky held the World Chess Championship in 1972. In 2010, Reykjavik will officially be designated the Chess Capital of the World. Fischer, with a long history of personal problems, resides in Iceland.


I went out with Reykjavik Excursions three times. My first tour was the popular Golden Circle. It lasted eight hours and cost 7000 ISK. I saw my first geyser since Yellowstone. The landscape was stark and barren. There were no trees. It was cold, and snow was on the ground. I was thankful for my long johns. Iceland is fire and ice, volcanoes and glaciers. Its arctic-like setting displays its deadly beauty as the yellow sun skirts along the horizon in a turquoise sky.


It was cloudy the first two nights. Clouds seem to materialize from nothing only to quickly disappear. I took the Northern Lights tour on both my third and fourth nights. I kept trying. Did I see the lights? Technically, yes. Were they spectacular? No. Conditions were better the second time out. It was clear and cold. The coach parked for an hour, and everyone got off. There was a broad band of white light in the north below the Big Dipper. It may have been my imagination, but I thought it had a greenish tint. Our guide called it the "beginning of the Northern Lights." He said the raw material was there but that it lacked the final touch needed to burst into activity. It was better than nothing. I got my bearings. The north star was high in the sky like it was in Alaska. The summer triangle was visible, a surprise. Vegas, Deneb and Altair are down this time of year in Kentucky and Tennessee. I marveled at Cygnus the Swan in December. Orion was low as it was in Alaska. Mars burned bright in the constellation Gemini. There were Capella, Aldebaran and the Pleiades, the classic sky which I saw from my parents' back porch in 1961-62. I felt fortunate to be able to see the celestial sphere from different angles. I came away realizing that one does not go to Alaska or Iceland for a few days and see the Northern Lights in their glory. Those stories are told by people who spend their lives there.


Jim Colyer http://www.jimcolyer.com/papers

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