A historic hotbed for global catastrophe with a rich Nordic culture of folklore, the bond between Iceland’s powerful nature and its people is built on a mystic respect.

“I am as Icelandic as a person can be,” said Atli, 53, Classic Journeys guide and local expert.

Atli possess a rich historical knowledge of the land, and his bloodline traces back 1,200 years to the very first group of settlers. From volcanic eruptions with global repercussion to tales of Iceland’s great unknown, his heritage gives him a unique understanding of the area.
Iceland guide Alti standing on glacier
“My father grew up in a real turf house, like what you imagine for a hobbit hole,” explained Atli, setting the scene. “When you talk about the mythology of these lands, if you ask my father who grew up under those circumstances, the actualities of elves, trolls and the hidden people are absolutely real.”
Iceland turf house traditional grass roof wooden house
For hundreds of years his ancestors were shark fisherman that provided oil to kings and queens around the world to burn in their lamps. During those times major volcanic eruptions in Iceland caused global repercussions to weather patterns, blacking out the sun with ash.

“Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’ because there was no bread. The reason why there was no bread in France, or anywhere in Europe, was because ash from an Icelandic volcano’s explosion blocked the sun in most of Europe, so there were no crops and almost no summer. The resulting crop failures likely triggered the starving people of France to rise up in the French Revolution.”
Iceland jagged rocks black sand beach
Not only did ashy summers play a role in triggering events such as the French Revolution, but those harsh summers from volcanic fallout would result even more severe winters.

“I grew up listening to fascinating stories, such as one time when he was lost in a snowstorm and something grabbed him by the hand and led him home without him ever seeing what it was. He is absolutely convinced something is out there that he really can’t explain.”
Iceland tour guide under beach pier
Icelandic mythology today has possibly become weakened with the younger generations, Atli thinks. But it was because of stories like these that his family raised him to have the respect and appreciation for the natural landscapes of his homeland. A land that Atli stresses is still under constant pressure for corporate development.

Vatnajökull National Park

The Vatnajökull National Park is a perfect example of such important but vulnerable terrain. Absolutely massive, the park is centered around Europe’s largest glacier, totaling 5,460 square miles, and captures 14 percent of the country. Iceland is lucky to call this park its very own national treasure.
Iceland landscape waterfall national park
Although he admits quite a few people can follow their ancestry back to the 9th century, only a select group can say that they played an active role in the development of the Vatnajökull National Park. Through his participation as a member of the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association, Atli was called upon to be a leader in the initial creation of the park.

From the ocean you can find caves created entirely of ice and lagoons full of icebergs surrounded by glaciers.
Iceland glacier ice cave blue traveler exploring
Going inland there are more glaciers to be found but also volcanoes and boiling hot geysers. These unique mixtures of fire and ice make the Vatnajökull National Park one of the most interesting places in the world— all of it, protected and available to be experienced.
Iceland landscape volcanic mountain waterfall colorful nature
An obvious location to be recognized on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, it was not until as recent as July of 2019 that is was. Thankfully, the natural environment was inscribed for its unique value to humankind, noted for its incredible features as well as the ability of those features to tell “an incredible history and at the same time reflect the current climate crisis.”

Not long ago that the Vatnajökull National Park was at great risk for development, but in 2008, it became officially recognized and protected. It was due to the dedication of passionate, local individuals and a few environmentally-focused organizations working together campaigning, protests, writing letters and articles that preservation of this part of Iceland was possible.
Iceland winter landscape snow on land and lake
But without the promise of tourism, Atli explains, the initial efforts may have been left moot.

Simply stressing the image of untouched land, full one-of-a-kind displays of nature at its most extreme, was not enough to get the job done. It took more than just awareness. It took economic justification.

“Tourism helped a lot. People don’t understand but money talks,” explained Atli of the process to gain momentum. Going up against major industrial corporations proved difficult until they found a common ground. “Because we could make the argument that it was valuable, money-wise, to preserve a big area like this. As it turns out now, the biggest industry in Iceland is tourism.”
Iceland guide and guest smiling with ice on glacier
Ice caves, glacier lagoons and waterfalls are just a few of Vatnajökull National Park’s incredible features that Atli feels privileged to share with Classic Journeys tourists from around the world.

“I guided the first tour in Iceland,” recalls Atli, thinking back to when Classic Journeys reached out to him to curate their Iceland tours with them seven years ago. “I also guided the last tour before we hit the pause button [due to the coronavirus], and I will guide the first one once we start again.”
Iceland group winter tour waving from glacier hike

Skyler Wilder is an award-winning journalist with a Sports Emmy in “Outstanding New Approaches” at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games; a digital producer for the International Surfing Association, Dew Tour, Toyota, Red Bull and NBC; and an independent photojournalist with stories published in Men’s Journal among many publications. Follow him @northwestwilder

Also written by Skyler: When They Aren’t Guiding: Kommi Tells Secrets to Seeing Aurora Borealis

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