Bike, Bath and beyond

Extreme cycling in Lake Mývatn doesn’t necessarily involve daring descents or treacherous trails skirting mountainsides because its volatile volcanic environs is already an education in the extremities of raw nature.

I’m about to ride through an area of extreme geology, an eruptive tract of the planet where piping-hot vents hiss and billow sulfuric steam through rifts in the earth at virtually every corner. It’s the kind of geology with severe anger-management issues, the type that will swallow you up good and proper—like some subterranean monster. And the only thing separating me from the fiery cauldron of magma below is a thin layer of volcanic rock. You can’t always feel its underground agitation, but you know it’s there, biding its time before unleashing its pent-up fury.

Smoky Hills

A little dramatic? Perhaps. But just ask the locals of Reykjahlíð on the shores of Lake Mývatn in northern Iceland just how devastating the wrath of the omnipresent beast that lurks below their town can be. From 1975 to 1984, the neighboring Krafla volcanic system erupted nine times, igniting an intense period of volcanic activity known as the Krafla Fires. After the initial eruption in 1975 which occurred five days before Christmas and lasted 12 hours, Reykjahlíð (“Smoky Hills” in Icelandic) was sentenced to nine years of insecurity as the threat of volcanic annihilation weighed ominously on its shoulders and the earth shifted beneath its feet, literally. During this nine-year seismic spell, the ground would heave and fall in sync with magma movements below, as if the great beast was breathing.

Explosive geology

I received this local history lesson over a couple of strong lattes with Raggi from Mývatn Activity just moments ago, before doing one of his Bike and Bath tours, and my respect for Mother Nature is rocketing sky high. Not that I didn’t already respect the raw power of geology on this volatile island. The previous day I spent rafting down the East Glacial River near Varmahlíð—Iceland’s signature white water rafting trip and one of the most extreme experiences of my life.

In contrast, today’s itinerary, at least on paper, promises to be far less intense—a leisurely two-hour ride through a lunar landscape carved by glaciers and molded by volcanoes followed by a relaxing soak in the Mývatn Nature Baths, the Blue Lagoon’s equally spectacular northern cousin. In fact, for the entire journey, I’ll be riding through a landmine of explosive geology, a dramatic set of global coordinates that are literally between mighty domains, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates engage in earth splitting action. 

Ancient forests

On our saddles, we begin the tour by cycling past the cheapest home in Reykjahlíð. “During the Krafla Fires, the foundation of the house ripped open, and now steam is escaping through the ground and into the basement. For obvious reasons, this is creating a big problem, and the resale value has substantially fallen,” Raggi tells me. Moving on—each turn of the pedals is met with crunchy protests beneath the tires as my bike grips the gravel track. It won’t be crunchy gravel the entire way, though, I’m told; there’ll be sections of road to ride on too.

Ahead the track passes through a small forest of downy birch, an ashy jumble of wrangled trunks and naked branches. Birch is the only tree species in Iceland capable of forming natural woodlands in this harsh environment. Presently they cover only a minuscule portion of the country (roughly one percent), but at one time more than a third of Iceland was adorned with this deciduous tree. It’s believed these birch forests were harvested for land-clearing and fuel when Norse settlers arrived in the second half of the 9th century.

Wrestling with nature

The trail continues north, passing small farmsteads guarded by majestic Icelandic horses. Further along, I spot the defensive wall constructed to protect Reykjahlíð from threatening lava flows during the Krafla Fires. Luckily the wall was never tested as the rogue lava streams chose a different path and spared the town of assured destruction. But it was close. Building walls and protecting themselves is nothing new for Icelanders who are used to wrestling with the formidable elements of their island.
For the next 10 minutes, the gravel path meanders around lava fields harboring mounds of jagged basalt melted into distorted shapes and edges. In Icelandic folklore, ancient lava fields are said to contain the petrified bodies of trolls caught out by the sun and turned into stone for eternity. I can see why they believe that.

Steam powered

Pedaling further into the belly of the beast we enter the smoky Bjarnarflag geothermal area and its red and white geodesic domes. These domes collect the rotten-egg-smelling sulfur billowing out of the boreholes dug up to power the Bjarnarflag Power Plant. Some of these holes reach over 2300m deep, puffing out steam at a whopping 200°C. You have to be careful where you dig, Raggi explains, as it’s possible to instigate man-made eruptions. “It happened last century; the engineers were drilling for steam, but lava started shooting out and they had to plug it up quickly.”

The Bjarnarflag Power Plant is both Iceland’s smallest and oldest geothermal power station, and since 1969 it’s been supplying the local town with its energy. Its success in harnessing the earth’s geothermal activity inspired larger projects in Iceland, such as the construction of the nearby 60MW capacity Krafla Power Station in 1977, currently Iceland’s largest geothermal power plant, supplying the country with a quarter of its energy needs.

Geothermal bakery

Back on our bikes, we ride past a large turquoise pond—the remains of a former diatomite processing plant built in the late 60s. Although it looks inviting, especially on a chilly day, the water is not fit for bathing (not to be confused with the nearby Mývatn Nature Baths).

Crossing the road, we make a brief stop at the local underground bakery and its subterranean ovens. Raggi’s wife is there, and she gives me a quick cooking class on baking hverabrauð (hot spring bread)—a version of Icelandic rúgbrauð (rye bread made from rye, flour, sugar, salt, yeast and water) that’s cooked in ovens heated by the area’s volcanic steam. These ovens are dug into the hot earth and covered with squares of wood and stones; it takes about 24 hours to bake a loaf. “We used to bake our bread on the other side of the road, next to the Bjarnarflag Power Plant. But since the Krafla Fires, the steam hasn’t been hot enough for baking. So we dug some new ovens here,” she explains. Although rúgbrauð is also baked using modern conventional ovens in the rest of Iceland, hverabrauð baked with volcanic steam has its own distinct taste—there’s nothing like it, I’m told.

Cavernous comfort

Time to set off to our second last stop, a 700-year-old steam cave. From at least the 14th century, local farmers, in that true Icelandic spirit, capitalized on the cave’s geothermal activity and turned it into a steam bath. Could there be a more relaxing and suitable reward after a hard day’s work in the cold and often icy conditions?

The farmers built benches into the cave to make steam bathing more comfortable, but it eventually fell into disuse, as it remains today, although it’s still very active. “It’s windy today, but normally the whole cave and surrounding landscape is huffing and puffing with steam and smoke,” Raggi tells me. I believe him. The walls of rock inside the cave are warm, and I can feel surges of the dewy heat radiating out from its shadowy depths. You can still see remains of the old construction inside; outside, crowberries and juniper berries grow along the ground.

Extreme therapy

We reach the Mývatn Nature Baths a little after 6 pm. Essentially the northern equivalent of the Blue Lagoon, but with far superior views, these local hot springs get their mineral-rich water from the nearby Bjarnarflag Power Plant. Before changing into my bathers and melting away in the turquoise lagoon, I’m treated to a little pre-soak snack of Arctic char on a freshly-baked slice of hverabrauð with butter and a little salt—a local favorite. It’s slightly sweet and decidedly moreish.

It’s then a bitingly cold dash to the blue-tinted thermal waters of the hot springs, followed by an awkward stumble down its slippery ramp and finally into its 39-degree embrace. The evening sky is turning pink and red; it will never blacken, not at this time of the year. In a few days, hundreds of runners from around the world competing in the annual Mývatn Marathon will cross the finish line here, and the staff is in preparation mode. And just like this Bike and Bath tour, a relaxing soak in the volcanically-heated baths is the race’s well-deserved culmination—extreme geology has its benefits, too.

The hottest spots near Lake Mývatn

  • Where to sleep: Hotel Laxá
  • Where to eat: Eldey restaurantat Hotel Laxá and Vogafjós.
  • What to see: Dimmuborgir, Hverfjall, The Bird Museum, Krafla, Askja, Lofthellir Cave, Dettifoss Waterfall, Goðafoss Waterfall … the list goes on
  • What to do: Amazing activity tours with, scenic flights with Mýflug Air, a dog sledding tour with, super jeep and snowmobile tours with and so much more.

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