Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Riding Past the Rainbow Bridge

An Icelandic horse “will climb wherever a goat can clamber,” noted Sabine S. Baring-Gould in 1863. Baring-Gould, a Devonshire parson who wrote fairy tales, novels, and the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” was among the many British gentlemen who went adventuring in Iceland in the 19th century. The book of his travels, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas, is one of my favorites, particularly for the parson’s appreciation of our horses: “An Icelandic horse is a most remarkable object,” he wrote. “As he spins along, he holds his head toward the ground, observing it intently, so that he seldom trips, and when he sees a crack or hole in the lava, he swerves rapidly and avoids it. … He will climb wherever a goat can clamber, will trot over wastes of angular stone fragments, and tread fearlessly over bogs, supported only by a network of long grass.”

I was riding such a horse, thankfully, on an America2Iceland trek a few weeks ago when our Icelandic guide, Halli, decided to take us cross-country. Halli, whom I described in a previous post as a man with four arms (one for the reins, one for the whip, one for his GPS, and one for a cigarette), is much like his horses: tireless, intent, fearless, and a whole lot of fun. Nothing flusters Halli. Certainly not the lack of a path.

“We’re heading for that mountain,” he assured us. “Just ride straight for that mountain, the farmer said.”

We had come from beautiful Langavatn (Long Lake), a deserted, paradisical fishing spot high above Borgarfjord, where the late evening sun glowed on the blue water.

We needed to reach Hredavatn (Bull Lake), another pretty spot closer to what qualifies as civilization in the Icelandic countryside: Hredavatn is ringed by summer houses, sheep farms, and the business college at Bifrost, with a snack bar and gas station of the same name, and close to the crater Grabrok, a popular tourist stop on the busy Ring Road, which is Iceland’s Highway Number One.

The lake was also near a tunnel under the Ring Road specifically designed for horse traffic.

Note that Bifrost is the name of the Rainbow Bridge connecting heaven and earth, over which the gods and goddesses Odin, Tyr, Freyja, and the rest ride their horses every day to hold counsel beside the Well of Weird. (Except for Thor; he’s so big he has to walk.) When a horse dies, we often say it has crossed the Rainbow Bridge. This tunnel under the Ring Road was Iceland’s attempt to limit the number of horses (and riders) that took the bridge.

The night before, Halli had called some local farmers to confirm his route from Langavatn to Hredavatn, and thus to the tunnel. He’d learned that the traditional horse tracks through the highlands above Borgarfjord were still too wet to ride on. It had been a very late spring in Iceland. There’d been snow in some areas in late May. Riding on those sensitive paths would lead to erosion, so the farmers had sketched out an alternate route for our tour in mid-June. Emphasis on the “sketched.”

“Just ride straight for that mountain,” Halli told us.

I didn’t think so. I’d ridden in Iceland many times before and had never attempted what Halli was suggesting. Between us and “that mountain” was an Icelandic forest. Not a planted forest, with imported trees growing in nice rows, as you’ll see more and more around the Icelandic countryside these days. But a real Icelandic forest. Waist-high birches just coming into leaf, their twigs bursting with fat catkins, growing so close together, their branches so interwoven, that you couldn’t see the ground. We had just left a trail, gone through a fence, crossed a stream, up a steep slope, and spotted Halli’s mountain.

I looked around. A thin line, the mere hint of a path, stretched transversely across the hilltop behind us. “There’s a path, Halli,” I said.

He looked. “Not going the right way. We need to ride straight for the mountain.”

And so we did. Halli was riding a young horse with only two months of training. He had taken it on the trek so it would “get used to things” and stop being afraid. It plowed into the bushes. Yellow-green pollen burst in clouds behind it. We followed: four tourists, 15 loose horses, our riding instructor, and Halli’s daughter. We wormed and bullied our way through the forest, whose floor, we now discovered, was punctuated by sofa-sized rocks covered with moss, making the horses hop and jump—or clamber like goats—as well as twist and shove. Strangely, I did not hear a lot of branches break. The trees are as tough as the horses.

“Stop there,” Halli said quietly, as he halted his horse, its feet on a boulder it was just about to clamber over. Somehow the horse managed to pivot and come back toward us. “It drops off to the river there,” Halli calmly explained.

River? Looking down the valley I could see a river. I ran my eyes back along it until it disappeared under the forest. About 100 feet under the forest, I calculated. We nearly rode over a sheer drop of 100 feet—though doubtless the horses would have noticed it even if we riders were too concerned with keeping our knees and feet on the same side of the tree trunks as the saddle was. Baring-Gould also wrote of Icelandic horses, “neither persuasion nor blows will make them tread where their instinct tells them there is danger.”

So the horses, both ridden and loose, happily turned around and made their way back to the top of the ridge. Finding myself in the lead, I started down the thread of a path I’d seen earlier. In a few minutes, it dumped me onto a real track, churned up by horse hooves, alongside a sheep fence that led “straight for that mountain” Halli wanted us to reach. Before the trail debouched into a wide pasture along the river bank, Halli scooted ahead of me, took a reading off his GPS, and waved. “Ride straight for the mountain,” he called, and laughed.

We rode straight for the mountain, fording the river at a shallow spot, and walking our horses as calmly as we could through a sheep pasture dotted with days-old lambs and their mothers. Did you know that lambs’ tails wag in circles, like mini-propellers, as they nurse on their mothers?

The farmer was at the gate to let us through. He and Halli exchanged a joke—maybe about the directions? He smiled and waved us onto a gravel road right alongside the Ring Road, separated from the rush of buses, trucks, and tourist traffic only by a strand of twine that the horses were convinced was electrified. It was not. We reached the tunnel: a metal culvert just high enough for riders and horses to safely negotiate. We tolted on through, our hoofsteps echoing. We had passed Bifrost, and no one took the Rainbow Bridge.

The only casualty from our cross-country adventure? Halli lost his whip. He shrugged. “I’ve left a lot of whips out here,” he sighed.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

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