Iceland in Winter
Written by Deborah Geigis Berry
Photography by Gerri Griswold
The greatest little country on earth is most beautiful in winter, says Winchester’s Gerri Griswold, who shares her passion for Iceland’s people and places on small-group tours where adults eat candy, strip down to their bathing suits during snowstorms, and spend evenings chasing the Northern Lights
Gerri Griswold, of Winchester, is blown away by Iceland. During her annual winter pilgrimage to Europe’s second largest island, near the Arctic Circle, the wind can reach speeds of 70 or 80 miles per hour, forceful enough to rip asphalt off the road and send cars skidding into the frosty tundra. “When the wind blows in Iceland there’s nothing like it,” she says. “It gets right up your nose and down your body.” Despite the chill, Griswold has no problems filling her tours to Iceland, about a five-hour flight from Boston. In January, she will return to Iceland for the 40th time, accompanied by 14 travelers who have signed on for her five-day excursion to ring in the new year. Since 2010, Griswold has led trips (in summer and winter) through her agency, Krummi Travel, which specializes in adventures to the country she calls “the greatest little nation on earth.”Home to 130 volcanoes – about 30 of them active – 600 hot springs, and 24 waterfalls, fjords and glaciers, Iceland is pure magic in winter. The country, 80 percent uninhabited, wears its glistening robe of snow with the majesty and power of a warrior. When the sun appears, for four or five hours a day, it washes the landscape with golden light. After dark, the Northern Lights, glow-green streaks that appear when light particles interact with the earth’s magnetic field, sometimes paint the sky.Formed 25 million years ago by a fissure in the Mid-Atlantic Range, Iceland so resembles an otherworldly kingdom, it’s a filming site for the HBO historical drama “Game of Thrones.” Europe’s northernmost island, about the size of Kentucky, pulses with natural energy and produces one-third of Earth’s total lava flow. In 2010, readers may recall the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, producing an ash plume that affected European air traffic for a month.Into this unearthly land Griswold goes, so travelers can “experience Iceland through my heart.” Though weather conditions can turn on a dime (make that a Krona), winter temperatures average about 32 F° thanks to the Gulf Stream. Over the years, Griswold’s group has trotted over frozen Lake Mývatn on Icelandic horses, donned swimsuits during a snowstorm and soaked in the milky blue waters of the Blue Lagoon – a national pastime – cruised along a black lava beach in trolley pulled by Greenland Dogs, and dined on Icelandic lamb, whose free-range diet of moss and wild berries produces succulent meat.Over the years, Griswold has seen a spike in tourism. Iceland’s population is 330,000; in 2014, the country welcomed 998,600 visitors, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board. Lonely Planet named West Iceland one of the top 10 places on earth to explore in 2016. Tour buses chug down the Golden Circle, the 186-mile route replete with some of the country’s most visited natural wonders, including the Tectonic Rift at Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss (Golden Falls), a waterfall that plunges 100 feet into a canyon that is frequently crowned by rainbows, and Strokkur, a geyser that shoots 100 feet every 10 minutes. Not a fan of mass-market travel, Griswold keeps her trips small, intimate, and playful. “You are not cattle at a roundup,” her trip summary states. “You are not riff raff. You are as special as the island nation you have come to visit.”
FORCE OF NATURE
Like the country she loves, Griswold, too, is a force of nature. A WTIC traffic reporter for 17 years, she rises at 4:15 a.m. to take her dog, Bradley, for a run and feed her animals, including an African gray parrot who swears like a sailor. From 5:30 to 8:30 a.m., she gives the traffic report from her four-acre farm, connected to the Farmington radio station via a broadcast line. Via computer, she can monitor roadway conditions thanks to cameras positioned throughout the state. By 9:30 a.m., she’s in her office at White Memorial Conservation Center, in Litchfield, where she is director of administration and development, as well as bat education and avocation. Known as the Bat Lady, Griswold educates and illuminates understanding of “the only mammal that truly flies.” (Seasons profiled the “Bat Lady” in the autumn issue; see the story on your Android or Apple device by downloading the Seasons app.)Griswold’s affection for Iceland developed in 2002, when she and her husband, Eddie, found a deal on a flight out of Boston to Reykjavik. As the plane traveled over the island, Griswold gazed upon steaming lava flows and black sand beaches and became enchanted. While Eddie spent much of his time in cafes in Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital city, Griswold explored the country. She encountered the raven, her favorite bird, and learned it frequently appears, along with trolls, elves and ghosts, in Icelandic folktales.Each of her 20 trips to Iceland that followed deepened Griswold’s connection to the country. By 2010, she decided to form Krummi Travel (krummi is Icelandic for raven), out of a desire to share her passion for the land and its people with others – a select group of others. Griswold limits the size of her groups to 15, and is forthright about who she doesn’t want on the trip: “no crybabies, cranks or pantywaists.”Her target audience is go-with-the-flow types who seek fun and fellowship and are not hell-bent on sticking to the itinerary. “Sometimes we need to forego something to do something better,” Griswold says. She draws singles, couples, men, women, 20-somethings and octogenarians. “It’s not about age, it’s about spirit,” she says, recalling the time an 85-year-old woman, who lives in Bridgewater, hopped on a snowmobile for the first time and sped across a frozen lake. “I want people to feel like kids again.”While the group travels on a 16-passenger Mercedes tour bus, participants pass around a bag of candy. Connecting with local people who Griswold has befriended over the years is also a treat. Fridrik, her local guide, sometimes leads the group to unexpected places. On one trip, for example, the group visited the workshop of Pall of Husafell, an artist who has won national honors for his art and his ability to craft pitch-perfect xylophones from slate and pan pipes from stalks of rhubarb. On another journey, she planted a men’s choir – all local dairy farmers – in a natural basalt amphitheater to surprise her guests with traditional Icelandic music.Like Griswold, some of the people who have taken her trips have found their time in Iceland cathartic. A couple who met on one of her excursions plans to marry. Someone else, however, took the trip and decided to file for divorce. “My objective is to get you under the skin of Iceland,” she says. “If you trust me, your life will be changed.”
Krummi Travel’s winter trip, from January 2 to 7, 2016 (prices range from $2,240-$2,450 per person), is sold out. Griswold is now accepting reservations for her summer 2016 trip, Crazy Ass Swimming Pools, June 24 to July 9, 2016 (cost of the two-week trip is $5,800 to $6,800 per person). For more information, go to krummitravel.com.
Deborah Geigis Berry, a longtime travel writer and guidebook author, has visited Vietnam, Thailand, Sweden, Jordan, and the former Soviet Union. Iceland is next on her list.