By Alisa Jones
My mom, Susan Huff, is a volunteer with Icelandic Roots. I was able to come on the 10th anniversary trip of Icelandic Roots as her guest. I am a school psychologist in an elementary school. Leaving at the beginning of the school year was not ideal, but this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.
We started with a layover in Seattle where we visited for a few hours with my sister, Melanie, and her family. Once I got on the plane in Salt Lake City, I realized I didn't like how my shoes were feeling, so we made a trip to REI with Melanie where Mom and I each got some Altra waterproof shoes, which were awesome for our trip.
We took a red eye flight and landed in Iceland at 10 a.m. We got an early check-in at Sunna Guesthouse and took a two-hour nap. Then we hit the town.
We had lunch at Cafe Loki and then visited Hallgrímskirkja. We went to the top to see the best views of the city. The colorful houses and rooftops are so unique. We then walked to Skólavörðustígur Street for some shopping. We both got new wool beanies. My mom´s has Icelandic sheep on it. Then we walked to the Harpa concert hall and to the pier to have Valdís ice cream. When they lived there, my parents often went there for a treat. Mom Facetimed my dad to reminisce. We ended the day with a famous Icelandic hot dog, pylsa. I’m glad we got that out of the way because neither of us wanted another pylsa.
On day two in Iceland, we took a taxi, then the bus to Selfoss to have a beautiful lunch with Mom´s friends, Valla, Greta, and Þorsteina. I loved getting to know them. We visited the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Garden and then did some shopping.
We waited for a dinner reservation at a darling bookstore near the Old Iceland Restaurant. Then we met up with Benedikt and Guðný for dinner. Benedikt was my parents’ supervisor at The National Archives of Iceland when they were missionaries there with FamilySearch. Old Iceland was a place my parents frequented when they lived in Reykjavík, and it's fantastic. It's small and always busy. There are so many cute cats around the city! I got the Icelandic flag painted on my nails before coming. We loved walking around the city, seeing the vegetation and architecture, and seeing a lot of people who looked like family.
The Start of the Tour
The first day with our tour group started at Bessastaðir, the presidential residence. Icelandic Roots was hosted by the First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, at Bessastaðir. We then went south and stopped at Eyrarbakki, a small fishing village. We visited a museum and the highlight for me, as a plant lover, was the collection of indoor geraniums. We saw Gullfoss, a huge double waterfall, and we visited the Skálholt area where we toured the church and stayed at the hotel there. The church is a rebuilt contemporary Lutheran church that was first built 1000 years ago. The altarpiece and stained glass were done in the 1950s by two women, Nína Tryggvadóttir and Gerður Helgadóttir. The pieces are so interesting and beautiful. We ended the day with a delicious meal at the hotel with skyr and kombucha for dessert. Favorites included the church art, the waterfall, and skyr (Icelandic yogurt).
Southern Iceland Saturday, we loaded onto the bus and toured southern Iceland. We stopped at Seljalandsfoss, a stunning waterfall with several other nearby waterfalls. On the bus, people took turns talking about the land and their ancestors. My mom talked about southern Iceland and about her family. We have a naughty former priest in the family who once lived in south Iceland.
Just driving around, you can see many waterfalls from the glaciers. We traveled on the Ring Road, which circles the entire country and connects many towns together. Every view is so, so beautiful.
We saw Skógafoss, which is normally very pretty. The day we were there the water was brown. This happens when the water comes from below the glacier. Still magnificent; just brown.
Next was Reynisfjara, the black sand beach. On the beach are incredible basalt columns made from cooling lava. We didn’t get too close to the water because the sea was wild. There are warnings posted for sneaker waves, and several people have died in the water there.
We ended the day at the Glacier Lagoon and Black Diamond Beach. Bits of ice or full icebergs float down the river and sometimes land on the shore. It was very windy. Favorites this day were walking at Seljalandsfoss and seeing waterfalls up close, and the views from the bus of the animals, vegetation, and landscapes.
On Sunday and Monday, we moved from the south to eastern Iceland. The large glaciers in Iceland melt and create over 10,000 waterfalls around the country. Because of all the waterfalls and rain, you can see many rainbows. There were several rainbow-painted roads and paths around Iceland. It is said that rainbows connect heaven and earth. The roads were also painted for Pride, and Iceland is considered one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the world.
We visited Seydisfjörður, a city at the innermost point of a fjord. This city has one of these famous rainbow roads. Icelandic Roots donated a plaque at the port in Seydisfjörður commemorating the place where Icelanders departed for North America.
We stayed at Lake Hotel Egilsstaðir and visited many farms and churches in the area. When my parents were in Iceland, they scanned parish records at The National Archives. In the records, the birth dates, death dates, etc. are noted, as well as the farm name where these events occurred. In genealogy, this farm information helps identify family connections. At one farm, my mom made friends with a farm dog. We also saw lots of sheep.
While we were on the trip, I again watched the movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which I highly recommend because it shows so much of Iceland. We saw a turf house built for elves at a farm.
We visited Vök Baths where we relaxed in the naturally hot waters. We also jumped into the cold lake. Favorites were the rainbows, the incredible weather we had, and the baths.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, we headed from the east to the north. We visited Vopnafjörður and the Bustarfell Museum and farm. On the Icelandic Roots database, you can find relatives. My mom, along with others in our group, met an Icelandic cousin working at the museum. We toured the East Iceland Immigration Center, the group placed another plaque, and we planted trees. There are many reforestation efforts in Iceland because the first settlers cleared the land of trees for building and fuel. We saw the geothermal activity at Skútustaðagígar and then the Goðafoss waterfall. Favorites included planting baby trees, the incredible Goðafoss waterfalls, and Icelandic horses.
On Thursday and Friday, we were in the north. We saw Grundarkirkja, a distinctive church with a stunning row of mountain ash trees full of berries. We spent two nights in Akureyri, which is the largest city in the north. We saw Hælíð, which is a newer museum about tuberculosis. I had no expectations about a TB museum, but it was incredible. We met the woman who created it and runs it, María Pálsdóttir. We visited the Akureyri Christmas House, the Botanical Gardens, and the cathedral. We saw another rainbow staircase and another colorful street. It was fun getting to know the other Icelandic Roots volunteers on the trip. Around town, we saw several trash cans covered in wool monsters. Our hotel overlooked the fjord, and as we were packing, we saw a beautiful sunrise. Favorites included the stunning views from the bus, the TB museum, and the botanical gardens.
Hofsós & Hólar
On Friday, we went from the central north at Akureyri to the northwest of Iceland. Once again, the rain brought beautiful rainbows. We toured The Icelandic Emigration Center in Hofsós, and I loved the photo exhibit of immigrants. We saw Hólar Cathedral, which is one of just a couple of Catholic churches in Iceland. Most are Lutheran. Several of us are related to the Bishop, Gislí Gunnarsson, so we took a cousins picture.
Icelandic Roots placed a plaque at Sauðárkrókur commemorating another site of departure for many Icelanders from their homeland to the west. Those who immigrated to North America settled in the Manitoba, Canada area or Utah. Brigham Young sent all Icelanders in Utah to settle in Spanish Fork, which became the first permanent Icelandic settlement in North America.
People left Iceland in the hope of better living conditions and opportunities. Volcanic eruptions and harsh environmental conditions made life in Iceland very difficult. Emigrants usually got passage on a mail ship to Liverpool or Edinburgh, then on a passenger ship to North America.
Beginning in 1854, 410 Icelanders came directly to Utah, most of whom had converted to Mormonism. They took a riverboat to St. Louis, then walked 1400 miles to Utah, arriving 300 days after leaving Iceland. Later immigrants who came after the railroad was completed in 1869, including our ancestors, travelled to Utah by train.
In 1883, my great-great-grandmother, Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, and my great-grandfather, Gisle Bearnson, left Iceland and settled in Spanish Fork. I feel very grateful for my Icelandic ancestors and heritage.
Saturday and Sunday we ended our trip around the Ring Road in western Iceland. We found four-leaf clovers! With a guide, we visited a replica of a long turf house. We were inside the turf house for a long time, and I saw some spiders and wanted a deep breath, so I went outside and got to see some Icelandic horses playing, including a foal!
We saw the waterfalls in Borgarnes and two fantastic museums about the Icelandic sagas (Leif Eiriksson Center) and the discovery of Greenland and America (The Settlement Center). We saw Mossfell Church, which is where our ancestor, Bjarni Jónsson, was christened.
The Last Night
We arrived for our last night in Reykjavík just in time to catch a concert of the Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra at Harpa Concert Hall. We loved visiting the Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavík which overlooks the water and was near our hotel.
I took photos of our group on the bus. I loved traveling with and getting to know these people! Our bus driver, Gunnar, was so helpful and good to us. We were gone a long time! I started feeling like this was my new life--getting on and off the bus, seeing waterfalls--and these were my new people. But alas, we headed home to our real lives and our people, and I was ready. I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity with my mom in the homeland of our people.
Icelandic Roots volunteer Jack Plumley created a short video of the 2023 Icelandic Roots Icelandic Plaque Dedication Tour. Watch it here.