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Simmerfoss: Attractive Nuisance in Iceland

August 26th, 2008 by Jeff Simmermon


There are no guardrails in Iceland. At Gullfoss, a waterfall taller than Niagara Falls and a major international tourist attraction, there is only a thin rope stretched at shin height around the edge of the rock 6 inches away from white pounding oblivion. The rock leading up to that rope — where all the best photos can be taken — has never been dry. It’s been slick with cold waterfall mist for thousands and thousands of years. That rope might a well be made out of dental floss for all the protection it’s offering.

Remarkably, nobody seems to mind. There are only 300,000 people in all of Iceland, and not many of those are lawyers. Our guide on a glacier tour said “all the guides in Iceland have a joke. We say that if you get into an accident and there’s an injured American lawyer in your group, just finish him off right there. Push him into a geyser or something and save us all the trouble of a long, drawn-out lawsuit.”

Our snowmobiling guide told us before we headed up onto the ice: “You may want to zig-zig on the ice on these things, maybe go real fast and spin around. I’m not telling you not to. What I am telling you is that only 2 meters away from this track are crevasses and ice holes that go down to the bottom of the glacier, and they’re really hard to spot. If you fall in, nobody will come after you and anthropologists will find your body in a few hundred years. If you don’t fall in, but your snowmobile does, you’re replacing the snowmobile. And if you think beer is expensive in Iceland, try replacing a snowmobile.”

I like that idea a lot. Imagine: a society that assumes its members have a fundamental sense of personal responsibility and a basic intelligence. There are no warning labels on toothpicks here, no giant CAUTION signs cluttering up the landscape. The average Icelandic person is fairly intelligent, thoughtful, well-educated and gorgeous. Even the drunken yobs in Reykjavik that punch billboards at dawn after a night of drinking have a sense of current events, of history, of cause-and-effect. It could be that the public education here is vastly superior to the United States.

Or it could be that all the serious bozos are allowed to take themselves out of the gene pool by chucking themselves off of cliffs whenever they like. If you happen to meet a stupid, ugly person in Iceland, be respectful but get away as fast as you can … they’re marked for death.

Admittedly, this sense of libertarian freedom can go too far, too. At Geysir, where hot cauldrons bubble and powerful geysers surge out of the earth, there is the same bit of dental floss urging the public to keep a respectful distance. Nobody does.

People traipse right up to the edges, crushing delicate flora under their boots. One family took their little girl up to the edge of a cauldron and encouraged her to dunk an egg into the sulfurous water in a butterfly net, boiling it instantly. A family of Japanese tourists posed for photos at the edge of another hot cauldron, smiling and waving as the water gurgled and farted ominously. There were no signs saying which hot puddle was a geyser and which was just a pool of volcanic water — no warnings of an imminent, forceful blanching. As you’ll see in the photo, I was unimpressed with the Japanese family:


Of course, it’s easy for me to point the finger — but unfortunately, I nearly proved my own theories today at Skogarfoss. Skogarfoss is a gigantic and utterly drinkable waterfall (it’s true, it’s all lava filtered glacial melt) on Iceland’s South coast, sort of near the town of Vik. It’s postcard perfect, the sort of waterfall that millions of classy clocks and inspirational calendars are based on, and there’s a narrow, winding and muddy trail that winds to the top edge. I was standing where Dave is in this picture:


and taking this photo.

Everything seemed fine, and honestly, the danger of it didn’t even occur to me. The path was well worn from thousands of years worth of Vikings and other tourists marching up to marvel. I was so rocked by the power and beauty of the falls (the suffix “foss” means falls in Icelandic) that my self-preservation instinct just kinda powered down. If you look here, you can actually see my ankle giving out in this photo Dave took:


Everything froze. My life didn’t pass before my eyes, exactly, I just felt a bump and the purest dose of adrenaline and terror as I hit the earth and one of my legs stuck out into space for a second. Then I got up and hustled down the path as fast as I could without risking another fall. Here’s Dave’s second shot of me getting up — taken once he realized I was okay:


We got off the falls and left, drove until we hit the beach at Vik and took a long walk on the black sand, watching the surf pound in and drinking a few Viking beers. I think we were both thinking about our own mortality. At least I was. But that’s the thing that makes Dave the perfect male friend: even though he documents you being an idiot, then calls you an idiot and helps you laugh it off, he doesn’t rub it in when it’s over.

And I mean, really — if I had gone over the edge and into the falls, who could my family sue? Nobody maintains that site, it’s just people tromping up, having a look and going back. There’s no negligence when nobody claims responsibility in the first place. My parents could sue the water, or the lava flows that made the ridge the falls were on, maybe — or the nearest farmer for not putting down astroturf over the mud. One thing’s for certain: if I had gone over that edge, the fall would have taken so long through so much incredible moss-covered rock that I’d have had time to say my goodbyes and enjoy myself a little before hitting the bottom.

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