Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Westman Islands are spectacular, especially when well-lit
as they were by the June sun on this day.  Birds nest in the
cliffs, and sheep are seen grazing on the uppermost
grasslands. The town of Heimaey with its well-protected
harbor is seen within.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Here's more about our trip to Iceland.

So many have commented on how they enjoyed the photos and commentary I posted on our trip to Iceland that I've decided to extend this topic.

Many points of interest are within an easy several hours' drive from Reykjavik.  Many tour companies will pick you up and return you to your hotel after an outing in the countryside.  But I would encourage any traveler to Iceland, if you have time, to also overnight outside of the capital city.  The major roads are good roads and are paved, sometimes with small or no shoulders.  Graveled roads that we encountered were a bit rough, but not unexpectedly so.  You drive on the right hand side, which makes it easy.   Icelanders speak English and Danish as second and third languages.  You'll have no problem communicating.

Not everyone enjoys riding, or riding on trails along steep cliffs,
but just the same, you have to admire the view.  Evy was the only one
in our group to see a Puffin that day, and a first for the season
according to her trail guide.  A tour boat is in
the distance, and other islands of the volcanic grouping
of Westman Islands.  (Taken by her trail guide.)

Our general impression of Iceland was one of extremely friendly and helpful people.

There must be exceptions, but we didn't encounter them during our stay, although we passed close by Iceland's national prison at Litla Hraun, less than a mile from Eyrarbakki and, coincidentally, the  address used in letters mailed to Arni Gudmundsen by his sister in the 1880s when it was farmland.

This prison might well be the major local employer.  This is where Iceland's most hardened criminals are housed, and razor wire and fencing aside, the prison farmyard gives off the look of a work farm.  We learned later from our driver on our way to the airport that there are about 80 cells in this prison, with another 40 being planned for the future closer to Reykjavik.

Reading online information, Iceland has 137 prisoners in all, on average, per day, some held in smaller prisons elsewhere than Eyrarbakki.  The average is 43 per 100,000 population, as compared with USA's 756 per 100,000.  Why the rather low number of incarcerated prisoners, we wonder?  One reason may be, if you are given a prison term, you could wait from several days or weeks up to five years to serve your term, whenever a cell opens up.  Descriptions I've read for the prison facilities posted on line describe it as "not quite four-star," but not rough, either.  Prisoners are encouraged to make the best of their time by either working or enrolling in education classes.

The women's prison in Reykjavik has approximately 40 cells, we were told, and until recently women prisoners were allowed out on Fridays, from 9 to 4, for shopping.

Our driver translated a couple of expressions into English for us.  Here is one:  If I say I want to "kick his ass," I say, "I'm going to take him to the bakery."  Putting it into English, that's about as sweet a deliverance could be.

Years ago, according to the sagas, vicious crimes were settled through agreed payment of silver, cattle or horses to the offended surviving family, and ultimately, banishment by the Althing court, sending the violent offender from Iceland for three years.  Could there still be an unwritten form of societal banishment practiced, in lieu of incarceration?

Horse riding - a popular pastime

Horse riding is one of the easiest ways to get around such a rough and tumble countryside, and stables can be found in many locations.   Evy took the opportunity to trail ride on our trip to Westman Islands. As it happened, she was the only rider that afternoon.  She was picked up and dropped off at the ferry by the woman whose family has the stable, maximizing her time on the trail.   And because of her experience, she was given a chance to ride one of the owner's personal mounts.  Along the trail there was plenty of time to compare the similarities of life on Washington Island with Heimaey, the largest of the islands in the chain.  (With approx. 5,000 population)  As it happened, along one trail Evy came within 20 feet of a Puffin.  It was the only Puffin the owner has seen this season thus far.  More birds will arrive later in summer for nesting.

Birding is a popular activity, both for locals and for visitors.  Besides sighting birds, there is a tradition on Heimaey and neighboring (and otherwise uninhabited) islands to collect Puffin eggs, and also Puffins.  This tradition goes back many years, and it appears to be closely regulated.   Young men practice swinging on ropes, a technique they use to gather eggs.   Puffin is served on some restaurant menus, although we didn't try it.  During their tour of the island, our grandsons had the chance to try the rope swing, tutored by their guide.

On our way to and from the port we did see many sea birds that I thought were terns or gulls nesting in the thousands of pockets within the cliffs.   The lone houses built on top of the cliffs are there as dwellings for the sheepherders and egg collectors, and establishment of a dwelling also goes with ownership, the right to collect birds and eggs.

This Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit was looking
for food in the tall grasses near the top of the crater,
along a trail frequented by hikers.  Cropping the
original photo has reduced the definition.

A day or so earlier, while overlooking a crater, I spotted an unfamiliar bird with my binoculars.   Later, I learned it was an Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit, fairly rare, at least to non-Icelanders.  This is a long-legged, long-beaked coastal wader that nests in grasses, usually in the lowlands.  Judging by its bright, rust-colored head, this one was a male.

According to a birding site at www.arkive.org, this bird has a most unusual migration characteristic that allows it to mate:

"Black-tailed godwits meet in Iceland from mid-May to mid-June to breed, and in an amazing act of fidelity and timing, faithful pairs meet after over-wintering up to 600 miles apart. Arriving within three days of each other, pairs mate, breed and incubate their eggs together. The male remains with the hatchlings for a short time after the female has left to migrate back to her winter home. At the point the male leaves, he is unaware of the location of his partner, and so migrates elsewhere. This monogamous lifestyle can continue for up to 25 years and is only broken if the male and female fail to arrive within the same three days. There is, as yet, no understanding of how the pairs time their migrations with such accuracy."

Hot dogs, anyone?

Said to be a modern day Icelandic national food, our family members found the excellent Icelandic hot dogs available at small stands in various locations.   One such place was a franchise stand in the center of Selfoss, discovered accidentally one day while on the way to the grocery store, and altogether six return trips were made by Hoyt, Thor and Chad.  These hot dogs (we think they may be lamb hot dogs) are typically served with mayonnaise, onions, sweet mustard, and maybe ketchup, on a toasted bun.

Thor had to have one last hot dog at the
Keflavik airport before flying home.
The only thing better than biting into one of these is to have a second hot dog at the ready, for when the first one disappears.

Woolen goods

Few who live in warmer climates can resist the beautiful woolen wear one finds for sale in many Icelandic shops.  The wool is known for its high lanolin content, it is soft, and the colors are generally natural, undyed colors.  Look carefully, though, as some sweater garments we found were knitted in China, or elsewhere, using Icelandic wool.  Nice, but nothing like having a sweater knit by Icelandic fingers.

Co-ops, in addition to many retailers, sell woolen goods produced by local knitters.  Prices may seem steep, but not for a warm sweater that will wear like iron, shed water and sleet, and help keep the wearer dry by wicking away body moisture.  There are no fleece products quite their equal.  There are fine wool dresses, jackets, and other stylish wear for ladies, in addition to the unisex sweaters.  You will see these sweaters worn everywhere, especially outdoors and when horse riding.  (Rain clouds are never far away.)   I got mine, a 3X found in a rack at the Gullfoss (waterfall) souvenir shop.   Here are Evy and son Atlas sporting hooded sweaters.

Thor, Mary Jo and Evy alongside the Gullfoss gorge.

Evy with son, Atlas.
So, we'll wrap up this extended Iceland visit with a few more photos, encouraging anyone who is able to visit Iceland.

Looking toward Westman Islands from black sand beach near the ferry jetty.

A poem by Eggert Olafsson (1726-1768) -

  We have traveled far across the land
  deserts, lava, sand, 
  glaciers, rivers, mountains steep, 
  caves, cliffs and chasms deep 
  - a comfortable journey from start to end.

-  Dick Purinton

View toward Eyjafjallajokull glacier.  

Monday, June 29, 2015


Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Recent postings have mentioned C. H. Thordarson and his renown for producing electrical equipment, and we fielded interest from people we met in Iceland who are familiar with his name and his reputation for invention and manufacturing.  We don't know just how much the Thordarson Electric Manufacturing Company contributed to the electrification of Iceland, or America for that matter, but reputation and his company's impact seems to have been far-reaching.

Friday, as we waited to board the ferry Washington in late afternoon for our return to the Island, we met  Paul Grieger, a man who occasionally come across items bearing the Thordarson Electric Company name as a collector.   He pulled from his car a piece of test equipment manufactured by the Thordarson Company that he was delivering to Rock Island for donation to the Thordarson display located in the northeast room of the boathouse.   He intended to camp on Rock Island for several days, his first visit there in 20 years.

Paul Nelsen Grieger holds a Thordarson Condenser Tester he
picked up at an auction, "The best one I've found so far."
Paul is a truck driver from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and he has a side business called, "Paul's Cool Stuff."  He specializes in antiques, collectibles and vintage paper.   This Thordarson test unit is the best in terms of its condition of any he's come across, he said.  

I regret not asking him if it's still in working order, or if by "best" he referred to the condition of the face and case.   I also neglected to obtain the date of manufacture.  I'll have to visit the exhibit on Rock Island to learn more.  

Then, on Sunday morning, I drove out to meet the Karfi as it returned to Jackson Harbor.   I saw Tim Sweet getting off the ferry, ending his week as docent, along with his wife, at the lighthouse.   I asked Tim if he met the man with the Thordarson piece.   "Yes," he said, and it had been given to Park Manager Randy Holm for display in the boathouse.  Filing of paperwork is required before the state will provide official acceptance, but once this process moves along the public should be able to see this piece on display among other Thordarson artifacts in the near future.

 - Dick Purinton

Monday, June 22, 2015


A visit with cousins at Hotel Fron in Reykjavik.
L to R:  Thor, Gudney, Dora, Bjorg, Mary Jo, Chad Dick Hoyt, 

Evy and Kirsten.  (The young boys had already eaten and 
skedaddled to their room to play games.)

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

When thinking back on our short stay in Iceland and the variety of things we did, it's hard to pick one activity or moment over another.  But in wrapping this up, and in an attempt to avoid recreating our entire week on the internet, I find it hard not to include a number of photo highlights here.

I think we would, as a group, rate our visit with Icelandic Gudmundsen cousins as the best, and most meaningful.   We hope it won't be too long before some of us visit them again.

And I have mental images, too, (better than photos in many ways) filtered for their pleasant, special memories.  One such image was of a golfer as he walked over the hill, bag over his shoulder, and passed close by our building, which happened to be alongside a golf course as well as sheep and horse pastures.  Our location wasn't far from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano and mountains, with a glacier for a backdrop.  The surprising thing, it was 10:30 in the evening, and I was taking a peek at the golden light outdoors through curtains before turning in.   That brightness compared with our mid-day sun at home.

While we got our first hours of beauty rest, Thor and Hoyt drove our bus twenty minutes or so to a rural road that led into the mountains and then hiked a half-mile or more alongside a warm stream in order to take a dip in Iceland's first swimming pool.   (Built with the intent on teaching people how to swim.)  They reported good swimming, joining other tourists in the midnight bathwater.

Atlas, Chad and Zander posed in front of a crater after climbing down
to the bottom.  Where there are volcanoes there will be craters, and this
one, rather small, was caused by implosion of material falling into
a pocket of molten lava, rather than exploding outward.

Near our Hellisholar hotel dining room 120 Icelandic horses were pastured.  They belonged to a 60-person riding group that was on a 3 or 4 day trail ride.  They had double their number in horses in order to trade off mounts when necessary.   Those horses certainly caught Evy's attention, and so did two lambs that had found an opening in the fence and wandered off along the roadside looking for their mother.

It does make me want to hug the lambs when I see this photo.  After hanging around for a short bit, they were off.   It was not uncommon to encounter sheep and lambs outside their pastureland, alongside the road,  one danger we were warned about when we rented our vehicle.

  *    *     *     *

Joining us as a host for our visit in Eyrarbakki was Linda Asdisardottir. She also took photos for the Selfoss paper.   It was Linda who made pancakes with whipped cream for desert, and they were delicious.  Little Magnus ate four of them before we knew it!

Desert is served!  Linda Asdisardottir with Thor and Aidan.
Behind the museum, in one of three small buildings found there, were fish drying on hooks.  Evy took a photo representative of the once common activity of drying cod along the shore.  At one time, dried cod was a major export, but I believe that much of today's catch caught by modern trawlers is either shipped fresh or frozen.

While on the subject of fishing, we were determined to try whale.  Iceland is one of the few countries that still hunts whales, and it is available in stores and on certain restaurant menus.

Our opportunity came on our final night in Reykjavik, at a restaurant with menu items that ranged from lamb (a common Icelandic  dish) to escargot and minke whale.

The boys, who opted for hamburgers and a tenderloin, sampled the escargot (thumbs up from all!) and they loved the taste of whale.  Sliced into small strips and cooked medium rare, this minke whale compared with the finest beef anywhere - "The other red meat," Thordur called it.   Next time we won't wait until our final day to order whale.   Reading the news, Iceland ships much of its catch overseas to Japan (sometimes through a broker nation).  Iceland's whaling ships have been under pressure from Greenpeace, but they remain resolute as a nation to continue a practice they've long enjoyed.  However, Iceland also tracks the numbers and types of whales sighted and caught, and it is believed the balance shows an increase in the minke population.
Cod drying in museum shed in Eyrarbakki.  We noticed an
absence of insects, flies especially, one reason
why this method has worked so well for centuries.

Magnus and Aidan ponder the menu.
Among the traditional Icelandic dishes we tried was cured shark.  This delicacy we would not rate highly, and except for me, none of our family was able to get beyond the fishy stench the ripened shark gave off.  Naturally high in ammonia, the shark's meat is buried (we didn't find out for how long, but it seems it could have been buried a bit longer).  It is sliced into small cubes, and it remains about as pungent as anything I've ever eaten.  Most off-putting however, was the chewiness, a texture like super-gristle that refused to break down under my molars. 

After the fourth or fifth cube, my mouth warmed as if a nasty chemical had been released from the shark bits.  Shark would not be recommended other than to say, "I've done it!" and it requires a fair amount of chaser afterward, which is perhaps the point, after all.   

We can imagine viking ships off on long voyages, stormy weather or calm extending their days at sea, having only a sack or basket full of shark bits in reserve to keep them in good health.  That would be a last resort protein item, we should think, but a food that would last through any voyage.
Shark bits were pungent, and they had to
remain outside on the balcony before they  

wound up in the dumpster.  We didn't
find out where the nether parts of ram 

pickled in whey were sold, but that's a 
delight for another trip.


A news item we heard concerned the Russian training ship Kruzenshtern.  This large, four-masted sailing vessel arrived in port on our second day in Reykjavik.  Upon departure from the pier, before it had even cleared the innermost harbor, it rammed broadside two of Iceland's naval vessels.  Those ships were moored side-by-side at a pier not far from the municipal wharf where the Russian had ship spent the evening.  There was plenty of open water to maneuver and no undue weather to blame.   Upon its departure, whether from human error or mechanical failure, the world's largest sail training ship T-boned the naval ships, inflicting enough damage so that Iceland's navy would be declared unseaworthy until repairs were made.  Our driver on our way to the airport joked, "This has wiped out 2/3 of our navy."  The third naval ship is apparently the vessel on permanent display at Reykjavik's Maritime Museum, veteran of the famed "cod wars" against Britain's fishing fleet decades ago.

Putin will make good for repairs, we should hope, to soften this aggressive action!  (You can see the ships on impact by trolling through the web media titled, "Reykjavik Grapevine.")

-  Dick Purinton

After 70 years, now would be a good time to stop 
boastingand build bridges instead.   The 376-ft. bark Kruzenshtern 
was built by Germany in 1926, and it was seized in war 
reparations by the Russians in 1945.   


Eyrarbakki waterfront in 1900 with sailing ship and small
fishing boats, and a long, sloping stony beach.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

When reading Njal's Saga, several times it is mentioned that a ship came ashore at Eyrar (Eyrarbakki). For a long time, this was the only port on the southern shore of Iceland.  From there, the main character described in the saga rode his horse to his farm, or north across the level plain to the Althing at Thingvellir to seek redress for wrongs to him or his family members.

This is the scene as we drove south to Eyrarbakki for our visit with folks at the museum:   flat, green fields with sheep or horses scattered here and there, the mountains visible behind us, the open sea ahead.  Eyrarbakki never had what one would describe as a well-protected harbor, but instead, as the historic photo above shows, it took skill and knowledge to navigate the entrance and slip behind the outer reefs, to find moderate protection at this small coastal village.  The Atlantic is open to the south, the next points of land being Scotland and Ireland.  And yet, this was Iceland's main shipping port for centuries for exporting woolen products, fish, and for bringing foreign goods to Iceland's people.  Only much later did Reykjavik (which does have natural harbor protections here and there) become a major port and the leading city of Iceland.

We learned from Audur Hildur Hakonarsdottir's explanations that there were many reasons for why the first Icelanders emigrated to North America.  Those four men who left in 1870 (Jon Gislason, Gudmunder Gudmundson, Jon Einarson and Arni Gudmundson - who later took the name Arni LeGrove to avoid confusion with the Arni Gudmundson who came afterward to Washington Island in 1873) did so with purpose and intent.  William Wickman during his time as an employee in the Danish trading center in Eyrarbakki, came to know young men of the area, and when Wickman was later established in Milwaukee, Wisconsin a number of years later, he encouraged his friends to join him there.  Letters and documents indicate that these men then tried to find jobs such as fishing from Milwaukee, but that the method of fishing with nets and the language barrier proved too much.  Wickman, feeling an obligation to help them, persuaded them to cut wood on his property, recently purchased on Washington Island.  This island location and the opportunity to work and earn a living appealed to them, and their letters home spoke positively of their Washington Island experiences.  This led to more young people - men and women - to consider emigrating to North America.  Washington Island became their destination, at least initially, with its known benefits and a group of countrymen to greet them.  And so, in 1872, another group departed Eyrarbakki which included Arni Gudmundson (the second of the two Arnis by that name).

Eyrarbakki in 1885.   The main street in Eyrarbakki was said to be the first in Iceland.  
Here the buildingsare of turf, stone, board and batten.  Later, around the 
time of WWI, lightweight and durable corrugated steel sheets replaced 
wooden and turf exterior materials.

Economic times in Iceland were not flourishing in the 1870s, and opportunities may have been limited to earn a living or even to own land.  But according to Hildur, these were for the most part men with an education who could have made it had they stayed in Iceland.  It was equally the adventure that drew them to try something new, she believes.

In other parts of Iceland, especially the north and eastern fjords, increasingly cold weather prevented the grazing of animals that depended upon natural grasses that grew in higher elevations.   Arctic drift ice then blocked harbors in summer, an unusual occurrence that made fishing and vessel transportation more difficult.  The situation of a few who owned land leasing sections to tenant farmers discouraged the desperate who could see no future.  Women, despite sometimes being very well educated, could not obtain permission to marry unless their future husband owned land.  Society was structured so that landowners had the privileges, and yet even some of them found the 1870s and 80s so difficult that they seized on the advice of steamship company agents and purchased tickets to sail west.  Many of these Icelandic immigrants found their way to Canada (the Winnipeg area especially) and northeastern North Dakota, where land was readily available.

Hildur's display follows the first four young men, and then also the life of Arni Gudmundson of the 1872 emigration.  Arni's father, we learned, was a man with a recognized status in the area, which may have led to Arni's later being fondly referred to on Washington Island as "the Squire."  He served for many years as Washington Island's Town Treasurer and Justice of the Peace, similar to a position his own father would have held in the Eyrarbakki area.

Audur Hildur Hakonardottir explained the events
depicted in her museum display at the Eyrarbakki House.
Museum Director Lydur Palsson is at left.

The history of Eyrarbakki, then, strikes close to home, with Arni Richter being a grandson of Arni Gudmundson (also spelled Gudmundsen).  But old Icelandic history as told through the sagas brings interesting connections as well, even though many of these sagas were written around 1200 and describe early Iceland settlement of a century or two before that.  They tell about the way of life in old Iceland, the turf dwellings, the difficulty of raising animals for sustenance, the jealousies and differences with neighbors (and even relatives) that often resulted in severe penalties or bodily harm to one another.  A tough time in which to live, for sure, but yet there was a common support for a system that recognized the importance of independent living, on the one hand, and allegiance to the law of the land.

This photo of the Danish merchant's home that is now the 
museum appears in the book, "Husid A Eyrarbakki" by Lydur Palsson 
in 2014, and also on a postcard sold at the museum.   Man standing 
third from left has been identified as Thordur Gudmundson, father 
of Arni Gudmundson.  (Year is 1884.)

Our modern day visit to Thingvellir brought shivers from historic drafts:   the dramatic cleft in the earth where the continental plates come together;  the "Law Rock" where Iceland's laws were recited aloud and court was held by chieftain judges to resolve the differences brought forward in law suits by its citizens;  the fast-flowing Oxara (Axe) River that empties into Thingvillevatn (Lake Thingvellir); and the broad plain below the rocks where horses were pastured, children would have played, and commoners would have set up their tents during the two-week annual event.

Hoyt stands on walkway that leads through dramatic rift at Thingvellir.

At a location of great prominence, within several hundred feet of the Law Rock itself, we viewed the foundation remains of the booth (as they were called) of Snorri Sturluson, the noted poet and writer and perhaps the most powerful of all Icelandic Chieftans in his day.  Such booths, of which several foundations can still be seen, were small dwellings made of rock and turf (which over the centuries have settled to low mounds) and wooden poles for rafters, over which cloth or skin tops were spread as a roof.  Such a temporary summer abode would have been reclaimed year after year by its owner who attended this special event.

In the year 1,000 the Althing convention voted become Christian, a remarkable transformation. Those who did not follow (according to the saga) could be killed, but in fact paganism continued to thrive alongside Christianity for a time, and even today, superstitions and beliefs in trolls and elves still is a part of the Icelandic culture.

Many Icelandic converts of means made pilgrimages to Rome in the centuries that followed the island's conversion, and a few volunteered in the Crusades.  Today a Lutheran Church stands in the valley below the rocks, and I believe that the minister assigned there is, more or less, caretaker and manager for this historical setting.   (We received a rather lengthy and detailed historical explanation from the then minister there on our visit in 1987.)

On the descriptive information for Snorri's booth we read the text that included the explanation of     "… translation by Dick Ringler."   Ringler is a Professor Emeritus of the UW-Madison Scandinavian Department, and he frequently visits Washington Island with his wife, Karin (Erickson) staying at their family's cabin in West Harbor.  Together, the Ringlers spent a number of years in their younger days on an Icelandic farm learning the language and culture, and Icelandic history and literature became Dick Ringler's specialty.

Hoyt and foundation remains of Snorri's booth.
In 2012, when working on the Thordarson and Rock Island book, 

I was given assistance and advice by Dick Ringler, along with a 
copy of his book:  Bard of Iceland, Jonas Halgrimsson, Poet and Scientist.

Saga Center

In preparation for our trip to Iceland I began reading Njal's Saga, to help me gain an understanding of life in early Iceland, and more importantly because we would stay in the general area where much of that Saga took place.   Our lodging for two nights was in Hellisholar, under the shadows, so to speak, of the volcano Eyafjallajokul.   The eruptions of 2008 that spewed ash into the air and shut down flights across much of northern Europe for weeks have been quiet, and what we saw against a deep blue sky was a white dome of ice and snow.   (Tee shirts and mugs sold in area souvenir shops proudly state that Iceland got the best of Europe…in rather graphic language.)

Example of a "High Seat," or place of honor
often accorded special visitors to a farm home,
displayed in the Saga Center.

Just a few miles away in the town of Hvollarshollar is the Saga Center, and displayed are early artifacts along with modern day landscape photos and descriptive artworks that relate to pertinent paragraphs from Njal's Saga.   This museum experience brings this particular saga to life, especially the realization that there are many geographic and farm name references still existing today, and that a significant portion of the fictional saga accounts were based on real people, places and events.

-  Dick Purinton

Another view from Snorri's booth.  According to the sagas, disputes 
would sometimes be settled by sword duel on the grassy island in the Oxara River.  
Lutheran church is in background.
Sword and shield on display at the
Saga Center.

Saturday, June 20, 2015


One of several stunning paintings that hang in the small gallery of Iceland's
newest geothermal power plant.  This stop was an unexpected educational
and sensory surprise, just a few minutes' drive east of Reykjavik.
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

While our visit lasted only for one week, our experiences were so varied, of scenes filled with contrasting beauty, of interesting and well-informed people we met along the way.   Our senses were heightened.

Clean, hidden power of the landscape is also expressed in the
several paintings that are on display within the public areas of the
Hellisheidi geothermal power plant.

I hoped to get into a bit more detail on the Eyrarbakki museum, but just as we seemed pulled in different directions by so many things to see and do, I'm also easily distracted when I review some of the photos taken during our week in Iceland.   So, we'll start out with Iceland's newest geothermal power plant at Hellisheidi, very likely the most modern and cleanest in the world, just a 20-minute drive from Reykjavik.  Visitors can browse displays on their own, and they are invited to do so.

Tour guide Kristian explains the possibilities of geothermal
energy at this location.  Only a nation with trust and confidence would
consider opening such an innovative, major power generating
facility as an opportunity to educate and inform the pubic.

Our guide, Kristian (whose parents coincidentally have a place near Eyrarbakki) explained how geothermal energy worked, and answered our questions, but there are numerous displays, including several videos and a glassed-in view of the floor of one half of the power plant, that one can easily follow.  

Hot water and steam are captured in this facility from a well two miles deep that was drilled into the water table near the foot of an inactive volcano.   Hot water flows through a large, insulated pipe,  providing Reykjavik's hot water needs, while the captured steam drives large turbines connected to generators. This installation was completed by Mitsubishi in 2006, and it produces 150 megawatts - on just one half of the operating plant.   The City of Reykjavik uses only about 10% of the current output.  The remaining 90% is consumed by Iceland's three aluminum smelting facilities.  Bauxite ore is shipped from Australia to Alcoa and Rio Tinto smelting plants (and one other plant that I can't recall).  Extreme, high temperatures are required to reduce the ore, and this is achieved with electrically powered ovens.  This is clean, renewable (and I think we could say, inexhaustible) power for this smokeless city and smokeless industry.

Magnus and Aidan at Hellisheidi, with lava fields and steam
vents behind them.

The volume of hot water available appears endless.  Reykjavik heats not only homes and businesses, but its streets, too.  There are other, older geothermal power plants located in the western part of Iceland, besides the one at Hellisheidi.  The northern and eastern Iceland, we were told, does not have the same geothermal power opportunities.   Residents in those areas receive electricity supplied by abundant hydropower.

While on this topic, I should mention that I met with Mr. Asgrimur Jonasson one morning, a retired professor of electrical engineering, in the lobby of our Hotel Fron.  He is writing a book on the electrification of Iceland in which he is describing various cities and their electrification history, with a special focus on two men he considers instrumental to Iceland's transformation.   One was Frimann B. Arngrimsson (who emigrated to Canada as a young man and took the name Freeman B. Anderson, and then returned later in life to Iceland).  Arngrimsson was an electrical engineer, and I suspect from our conversation that this man did much of the actual planning and designing for electrification.  The other man Mr. Jonasson credits with helping to establish the Icelandic electrical grid was C. H. Thordarson, an Icelandic immigrant whose name is familiar to visitors of Rock Island, who was an inventor and producer of electrical transmission equipment.  Thordarson, as far as we know, made only one trip back to Iceland as an adult, accompanied by his youngest son, Tryggve.  I assume that it was Thordarson's equipment that made the Icelandic electrical grid a possibility.   Asgrimur's book, when completed in several years, will be published in Icelandic.  I was pleased to offer whatever background information I could on Thordarson to add to his research.

A taxi driver with passion!

Now, while still on the subject of Iceland's electricity and Thordarson, I must relate one of those most fantastic occurrences that seemed to pop up here and there on our Iceland visit.

Hoyt and Kirsten, Chad and Evy and their boys, on the second afternoon of our stay in Reykjavik, went swimming in the large city pool.  This is a beautiful outdoor, Olympic-sized pool with several "hot pots" alongside, and these hotpots vary in temperature from lukewarm "amateur" pot in gradual increases to the seasoned hotpot lover's 'lobster boil' hot.  In the latter, you will find only the older gents of Reykjavik who seemed able to withstand the heat.

Hoyt hailed a taxi for their ride across town to the pool, and within a block or so of pick-up, their driver asked the common start-a-conversation question, "So, where are you from?"

Hoyt replied, "A small island in Lake Michigan."

Driver:  "You mean Rock Island?"  

Hoyt and Chad turned to one another in surprise, thinking, "No way."  

Halldor Gisli Sigurthorsson, taxi driver, became so excited in talking about Rock Island and Thordarson that he missed his turn and drove instead onto the sidewalk and around the back of a hot dog stand in order to approach the swimming facility entrance.   "When you're ready, call me, and I'll pick you up," he said, wishing to continue their conversation about Thordarson.

Taxi driver Halldor Gisli Sigurthorsson, also an inventor
and creator, modeled after his favorite personage,
C. H. Thordarson.    

We had just sat down in our hotel restaurant to visit with Mary Jo's cousins, slightly after 4 pm, when we saw the taxi van pull up to the curb out side our window, and the tall driver (about 6'-7") with beard got out and shook hands with Hoyt as the rest of our family came in to join us.  

Just as excited to have this encounter was Hoyt, who popped in to ask me if by chance I had a Thordarson book in my suitcase, one that I could sell or give to the driver.  We then agreed to meet with Halldor the next morning in the lobby of our hotel at 8 am.

This man Halldor will, someday I'm sure, visit Washington and Rock Islands, given his keen interest in all things Thordarson.  In his spare time, he is building an electric car that he described as having at its heart a motor patterned from one of Thordarson's electrical inventions.   More than that I cannot say, because I didn't fully understand it, but it was apparent that Halldor did!   He was thrilled to visit and talk about Thordarson, and also to receive a copy of my book.  His broad knowledge of Thordarson's patents and inventions, and of some comparisons that have been made between Thordarson and Nicola Tesla, resulted from his hours on the internet researching his subject.

Then, we exchanged addresses, shook hands and expressed pleasure in our meeting one another as Halldor drove off to work.   However, during our final hour in Iceland, after entering the Keflavik air terminal. who did Hoyt spy outside the window unloading passengers and luggage from his taxi?  It was Halldor, once again.   By now, six days after we met, he was already one hundred pages into his book which sat prominently above the wheel on the dashboard of his taxi, for reading between customer fares.

Some day we hope to meet Halldor again in our Wisconsin location.

-  Dick Purinton

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Emigration to Washington Island began at this seashore, by rowing a
smaller boat to reach a larger steam vessel.  Audur Hildur Hakonardottir,
the special exhibit creator, and Lydur Palsson, Eyrarbakki Museum Director,
explain how the outer reef provided needed protection but
also made for a tricky entry for ships.  Despite this, it was one of
the very few places along Iceland's south coast suitable for landing ships.
Here, they are standing atop a sea wall that extends for miles
along this stretch of coastline.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

We returned two days ago from a week's visit in Iceland, and our entire family, from young boys on up, believe our experiences surpassed all expectations.

Among the activities on our itinerary were the attraction, natural and cultural, that any traveler to Iceland will wish to see.   Our trip focused first on Reykjavik (attractions along the waterfront, the many museums, shops, restaurants and one of the city's famous geo-thermally heated swimming pools), but Reykjavik is also where we connected with Gudmundsen family cousins.  Our dinner and visit with them one evening was especially meaningful, a chance to reconnect after quite a number of years without seeing one another.

However, we spent most of our time in the country, doing the so-called Golden Circle, an easy-to-drive circuit in the southwestern quadrant of Iceland.   Distances allow for these natural and historical sites to be visited easily in several days' time.   We took four days, and on one of those days we visited Eyrarbakki.  We believed this to be a highlight of our trip in many ways.

Eyrarbakki's Danish House museum and associated buildings are
situated behind an old seawall built of stone.

Knowing in advance we would meet a number of people representing the historical museum and displays there, we brought along some gifts, including an old life ring from the ferry Eyrarbakki.  Although this didn't exactly fit in the displays already found there, it was graciously accepted.  (We weren't about to take it back home with us!)

Magnus and Thor view model of Eyrarbakki's Danish
trading center of the late 1800s.  Model's location is the same
waterfront setting as the original building.

Our hosts awaited our arrival, and due to their thoughtful preparations and also their great interest in the subject of emigration from Eyrarbakki to Washington Island (then the leading seaport for trade along Iceland's southern coast), we found instant connections through the exchange of information.

Holmfridur Arnadottir  (second left in photo below) by sheer coincidence met Audur Hildur Hakonardottir (far left) when they were seated next to one another on a plane trip.  Hildur at the time was preparing her emigration exhibit, and it was a problem that of 17 persons who supposedly boarded a ship to America from Eyrarbakki, only 15 persons could be later accounted for.  As it turned out, a couple, a young woman who was pregnant, and her husband, elected not to go at the last minute,  and consequently they did not board the ship.  Holmfridur, then, knew that she was a descendant of that couple, knew of a story passed down in her family, but wasn't aware of the date they were to have sailed.  Today she lives not far from Selfoss, the largest town in the area, not far from Eyrarbakki.

Museum Director Lydur Palsson (holding life ring) provided a description of how things were in Eyrarbakki in 1872 when these 17 persons contemplated leaving Iceland.  There was a large store in the town that traded and exchanged merchandise from the farmers of the southern area, which was operated by a Danish merchant.  (This is the store where William Wickman, a Dane who worked as a store clerk, came in contact with a number of young Icelanders, and his later encouragement when he had moved to Milwaukee eventually led to their decision to leave Iceland in 1870, and shortly thereafter, to travel from Milwaukee to Washington Island where Wickman had purchased property.)  The Danish merchant and his family lived in a home that was substantial by Icelandic standards, along with some of his staff.  This finely restored building is now a national monument and is the museum's centerpiece.  Other museum buildings are nearby on the grounds:  a fish drying shed, sheds for sheep and for poultry - and across the open space we visited a very fine maritime museum, because Eyrarbakki was also a well known fishing port.

Egg House owner and his collection at the turn of the last century.

We must also mention the "Egg House," a structure newly built and dedicated in 2004, patterned from historical photos of a building that stood on that same spot over a century earlier.  It housed then - and does again - a mounted bird collection along with various bird eggs, considered an unusual and exemplary collection in its day.  Three Washington Islanders provided financial support (in addition to a national grant) for the design and construction of this new Egg House building. Arni Richter, a grandson of Arni Gudmundsen who departed Eyrarbakki in 1872 as one of the 15, flew to Iceland along with Hannes Anderson and Jeannine Ronning for its dedication.  (Arni was 93 at the time.)

Hildur sought photos and information of those early Icelandic immigrants through emails this past winter, and both Janet Berggren, Island Archivist, and I responded with materials we thought might be helpful.  The exhibit, now completed, is in the upper portion of the Danish house, in what might have been a small bedroom for children or household help.    Old trunks provided seating for our group, as Hildur explained what triggered emigration, and why Washington Island then became a destination for Icelanders.

In 1987, a group from Washington Island of nearly 80 visited Eyrarbakki as part of a "homecoming trip," but then we had less time to look around, and I don't recall the museum then being open.  (The home may then have been privately owned.)  We visited the church, the old school and a community building where we were served coffee and sandwiches, as I recall.   While many of Eyrarbakki's buildings appear to have been there for many years, the town has also undergone changes, with remodeling necessary over time, and the restoration of the Danish house is but one example.

In order to absorb more of the town and its buildings, Hoyt, Thor, Chad and I returned to Eyrarbakki that same early evening (daylight lasts all night in mid-June).  It was low tide.  We walked along the sea wall, then among lava rocks and beach kelp, and further down the shore we examined a large, modern-style concrete pier that was constructed for fishing vessels in the early1960s (but abandoned when it didn't work out).   Before leaving town, Hoyt peered into the local safety building to see what sort of equipment they maintained.  While he was doing so, a woman approached him on her evening walk and asked if she could help.   Hoyt began a conversation with her, and it wasn't long before we realized she was a long-time citizen of Eyrarbakki.

Chance meeting with this Eyrarbakki
resident. We soon found interests in common,
including C. H. Thordarson, Icelandic immigrant
and electrical inventor.  Inga was quite elated,
it seemed, that we named our youngest son Thordur
Gudmundsen - the name of both father and brother of Arni
Gudmundsen, we had learned earlier that day.  The Gudmundsen
name was apparently retained as a family name
(rather than Arni Thordursson, for example), a
departure from the patri-linear naming of
Icelandic children.

Inga Lara Baldvinsdottir, of course, knew of the original first four emigrant men, and of Arni Gudmundsen, the Gudmundsen family, and of the three Washington Islanders who had been in Eyrarbakki for the Egg House dedication.  She also knew Mary Jo's cousins in Reykjavik (also Gudmundsen descendants.)  When I recalled that Mary Jo and I were with a group of Washington Island people in 1987, and we visited Eyrarbakki, she responded with, "I served you coffee!"  

Inga commutes to her job at the National Museum in Reykjavik four days each week, a drive of somewhat less than two hours.  When I mentioned I had written a book about C. H. Thordarson, she became animated, knew exactly who he was, and she also knew something of Thordarson's connection with Rock Island.  Although Thordarson was not from Eyrarbakki (I believe his family home was in the north), his name is well-known to Icelanders.

Low tide, exposed volcanic stones and reefs.  In the center of this
photo taken about 8 pm are the remains of an old Eyrarbakki pier,
and the dark mass to the right was a modern, 1960's pier built to moor fishing vessels.  
There were hopes that Eyrarbakki would grow to nearly 6,000 people if it
regained status as a fishing port, but that never happened.  The town
languished economically until more recently when tourism gave it a push.
Now, one of Iceland's hottest restaurants is adjacent to the museum,
the Ruada Husid, or Red House, which features fine lobster dishes.

It would be hard to improve on the connections we made that day in Eyrarbakki, which added greatly to our overall experience in Iceland.

-  Dick Purinton

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Renown for their literacy, this print of an early etching
shows a family in a turf home being read to around a fire.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Our family is flying to Iceland next Sunday, June 7th, an approximately 6-hour direct flight from Minneapolis to the Keflavik airport.

Our plans were laid over a year ago, with details and pre-payment for airfares and accommodations made in advance.  We worked with one of the staff of the Icelandic Farm Holidays cooperative, which arranges for stays in rural Icelandic locations where farms have B & B's, or hotels, ranging from more rustic to very modern.   In Iceland, once away from Reykjavik, the modern day capital, there are miles of countryside between farms, with a few villages scattered here and there, but mostly farms.  These farm settings, many of them, go back to very early times, and they define the life of Icelanders from nearly the time of settlement (approx. 930 onward) through the early part of the 20th century.   Today these farms are modern, raising sheep, and sometimes cows with dairy, but the land as a rule does not support large herds of cattle, which require a great amount of cropland to support them.  Only in certain areas, in river valleys and along glacial outflows, or in the bottomlands near inlets, is there sufficient level land fertile enough to raise crops.  Cultivation farming, as we know it here, is for the most part nonexistent.

But it is precisely these differences in culture and appearances that makes Iceland intriguing and inviting to visitors, the contrasts with volcanoes, several of them active, glaciers, geysers and vast lava fields, in addition to the green valleys with streams and coastal lands.  It is impossible to visit this island nation and see the land without forming a great appreciation for their hardships, cleverness in adaptation, and their respect for their genealogy and forbears.

Having Icelandic family connections will heighten our interest and appreciation, too, as well as knowing several other people with whom we hope to visit during our brief stay.

Make no mistake about it, as a nation Icelanders are kind and intelligent people who have, by and large, made the most of their independent roots.  To more fully appreciate this, we've been reading a number of books, trying to absorb the Icelandic mindset as best we can, to further understand those with whom we'll visit and encounter in our one week of travels.   The famous sagas written centuries ago, of course, speak to this independence, and the Haldor Laxness book Independent People ought to be required reading for all visitors, but modern day books about Iceland and its people - I even include the popular Detective Erlandur fiction series by author Arnauldur Indridason among our reading - are means of learning more about the people, their habits, interests and aspirations.

It is the Icelandic culture that is really interesting, that brings an otherwise beautiful but barren landscape to life.  Theirs is a very modern culture, a reflection of a nation that relies on fishing and farming (sheep raising especially), but also a people who are well-educated, well-read, who can also boast of modern, technology-driven enterprises related to geothermal energy and genetics.

Tourism is very important to the Icelandic economy, and we've been watching closely the labor strikes that were scheduled for late May and the first week in June.   Work groups that could have counted among them nearly 70,000 workers (almost 1/4 of the population) had each announced two days of planned strikes, and if negotiations didn't measure up, then a full blown strike would imminently follow.

Fortunately for us, included in the work groups most heavily relied upon by the tourism industry, such as trucking, freight handling at airports, food inspections, and the service industry as a whole, were settled late last week, according to news we read online in the Iceland Monitor.

There's much to see and do in the countryside, more than
we can begin to take in during our week.  But the Icelandic Farm
Holidays organization was extremely helpful in planning
our vacation, including our overnight stays in country lodging
outside Reykjavik.  (Booklet has maps, places to stay, etc.)
The Monitor's headline read:   Strike called off:  waffles time!   Deputy State negotiator Magnus Jonsson was shown with a brimming bowl of waffle batter.  "Making waffles," the article read, "is a traditional way of marking and celebrating the successful conclusion of negotiations of this type."

Details of the settlement have yet to come out, but increases metered over a several year period were hinted at.

Wages have been at a standstill and the economy was more or less stagnant until this past year, ever since the bottom dropped out in 2008.  Workers were seeking to make up lost ground in wages.

With our trip already planned and most of it already paid for, we were greatly relieved, not wanting to cancel or to land in an island nation virtually stopped due to worker strikes.

Not a bad way to bring both sides closer together in a small nation with small cities, where grudges and bitterness can linger and fester.  Waffles for everyone, we thought, if that will help make our trip go more smoothly.

-  Dick Purinton

Monday, June 1, 2015


Coop Open House invitation, artwork by Emmet Johns.

Washington Island, Door County -

We'll step afield today for a slightly broader look at the writing scene in Door County which seems to be not only alive and well, but gaining a bit of momentum with the Island Literary Festival now heading into its third year, and an ambitious but solid effort to provide writing opportunities at the newly organized Write On! Door County.   And of course, there are many other efforts, such as the ongoing classes offered at the Clearing, plus quiet, independent efforts ranging from creative writing to journalism within peninsula and island shores.

Making connections with fellow writers was also in mind when Steve Schwandt and I drove to the open house and dedication of Norbert Blei's coop, moved not long ago to a field near Juddville. On that Saturday afternoon we joined a crowd of folks who came to hear music, poetry and prose readings - some of it Norb's, some by students of his classes - and to visit, and to walk the grounds and view the conceptual plans for future Write On! facilities.  Of course, we inspected the coop, his writing shack of many years that now seems spacious and empty without his piles of materials, and without Norb at his command center.

With Charlie Calkins inside Norb's Coop.

We met Charlie Calkins, a good friend of Norb's and a collector/dealer of early Wisconsin books and maps.  Charlie and Norb's son, Christopher, took on the task of cleaning out the coop with its decades of accumulated magazine and newspaper clippings, books and associated materials, and artworks, before a crew moved the coop from the Blei Europe Bay property to its new location at Write On! near Juddville.

We took a trip down memory lane with Charlie, the times we had met Norb in his coop, standing room only for a visitor of one, because of the material stacks that narrowed to a single aisle of about 18 inches that led to his desk, where nearly all of his writing and communications took place.   There was the 'Norb Blei Rolodex', the accumulated phone numbers with names and addresses taped to his desktop, at his fingertips for phoning or addressing notes.  And although the walls today are pretty much bare, his many clippings, photos and artworks that were thumbtacked to the walls, now removed since the clean-up, left behind a telltale patchwork of lighter, fresh rectangles against otherwise darkened cedar boards.

Many of the readers at the mic that afternoon were former students of Norb's from his writing classes over the years.   Outdoors it was chilly, breezy and overcast, and standing still in one spot was good practice, I thought, for our upcoming trip to Iceland where June temperatures hover between 40-50 F daily.  But in the hour and a half we were there, we managed to renew acquaintance with many friends, bought a copy of Soundings (a poetry collection representing works by many of Norb's former students), and viewed an architect's rendering for the landscaping and future home of Write On!

Another connection made with last Saturday's activities in Juddville leads into mention of the first Norbert Blei Literary Award, a writing contest now underway.  Poets and writers are encouraged to submit entries over the next several months.   An excellent panel of judges will read submissions, with the winners to be announced during the Washington Island Literary Festival in September.

This festival, now in its third year, will be held over three days, Sept. 18-19-20.  This timing is several weekends earlier than the first two years, in order to better coincide with fall colors and what we hope will be more pleasant, welcoming island weather.

Here is the announcement for the first Norbert Blei Literary Award.  Good luck to those who wish to provide an entry!   -  Dick Purinton

                                              WASHINGTON ISLAND LITERARY FESTIVAL

The Norbert Blei Literary Award to honor the late renowned Door County author Norbert Blei has been created and the first entries in short story and poetry will be due July 1, the Washington Island Literary Festival Committee announced this month.

“As a teacher Norbert Blei was dedicated to nurturing the writing talent of others and we feel that this literary award will not only honor his memory but also keep alive many of the goals of his Cross Roads press, which sought to recognize talented writers by publishing their work,” said Elizabeth Wallman, co-chairperson of the Washington Island Literary Festival..

A $250 prize for both the winning short story and poetry will be awarded, with the winners given an opportunity to read their work at the festival, which will be held September 18-20 at the Trueblood Performing Arts Center and other locales on Washington Island.

Judges will include Jean Feraca, author and retired host of Wisconsin Public Radio and Judith Barisonzi, author and retired professor of University of Wisconsin Colleges.

The theme of this year’s Washington Island Literary Festival is “Spirit of Place: Literature of the Land and Sea,” and will include Outside Magazine writer Hampton Sides, author of “In the Kingdom of Ice,” Lin Enger, author of “The High Divide,” Danielle Sosin, author of “The Long Shining Waters,” and many other Midwest authors and poets.

All writers are invited to enter the contest.  For more information and guidelines, visit http://truebloodpac.com/norbert-blei-literary-award/.       For more information or to register for the Washington Island Literary Festival, see  http://truebloodpac.com/3rd-annual-washington-island-literary-festival/.

New coop on edge of Write On! meadow.