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The Northern Lights in Iceland

In the dark of an Icelandic night, I peered into a recently formed hot-spring cave illuminated by our truck's headlights. Runar Hjartarson, my tour group's guide, opened a little red cooler to serve up a surprise: pieces of putrefied shark. In the snow-covered lava field, we used toothpicks topped with little Icelandic flags to taste the hakarl, which had been "cured" by being buried in sand and gravel for months.

We visitors were excited at the sight of it because we had read about the infamous shark and had been daring each other to try it during our stay.

And so we chewed. Quickly. Then we washed down the smelly morsels with shots of clear schnapps known as "Black Death."

Well, the others did. I downed the shot, but only after I turned away and pulled the piece of shark out of my mouth. Runar smiled and looked at the others, hoping they liked the traditions of his homeland. They did.

I should have just spit my piece out. For the rest of my trip, the inside of my mittens smelled like putrid shark, and the odor kept transferring to my fingers every time I put them back on.

A friend and I had decided to take a cheap winter trip to Iceland, with plans to ride horses, swim in geothermal waters and visit geysers, waterfalls, hot springs and volcanic craters. But above all, we hoped to see the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights.

For days before we left, I checked the weather for Reykjavik (pronounced RAKE-ya-vick), the capital, only to see reports of cloudy skies. I buoyed myself by thinking of the many other natural wonders we would experience.

We arrived at Keflavik Airport at , after only four hours of sleep on the plane, and by 11, we were on the "

Stokkur, a more predictable geyser, shot up every few minutes while we watched and waited. Our guide told us not to stick our fingers in the pools of boiling water, apparently an irresistible urge for many people.

Next we headed for Gullfoss, or golden falls, where the River Hvita forms two waterfalls that drop into an astonishing cleft in the Earth. In this unusually cold winter, the coldest there since 1935, the land surrounding the falls was coated with gleaming ice and snow.

The tour lasted for five hours. The sites we visited were gloriously devoid of people, a bonus of going in February. The guide was full of interesting facts about "smoky bay" (the English translation for Reykjavik) and lava tubes and mischievous elves who derail construction projects (see related story).

All the while, we gazed skyward, assessing conditions for aurora viewing. The sky was bright blue, but were those clouds coming in? Back at the hotel we decided this night would be our only chance for the Northern Lights, what with reports of clouds moving in the next day.

We didn't have time to indulge our fatigue. We kept going, bypassing dinner.

Runar picked us up at our hotel and drove us off road, up steep, rocky hills to a spot overlooking Reykjavik. The sun was going down as we gazed at the sparkling city lights. Then we took off in search of the real lights: nature's lights.

The plan was to drive inland and hope the clouds would hold off. As we drove, Runar turned off the headlights. We drove by the light of the long Icelandic twilight illuminating the snowy ground. There were no other cars.

And then, riding shotgun in the truck, I spotted something in the sky, an odd patch of light in between the constellations. Could it be? Runar verified that it could be the start of the aurora. We pulled over, got out and waited for it to get stronger.

            The patch began to brighten and stretch, forming an arc overhead, like a monochrome version of a rainbow, from horizon to horizon. It was as if the wispy Milky Way had been made denser, brighter, more substantial as it stretched across the sky. I jumped up and down, screaming, "We did it, we did it, we did it!"

Runar smiled patiently.

Soon, another band of light overhead started twisting, spiraling and changing shape. Whitish lights also started beaming up from the horizon, forming spotlights in the sky. We caught sight of a shooting star and three satellites. The ground was cold and still. Overhead, it was as busy as an astral Grand Central Station.

And then the sky really broke loose. Even Runar was impressed.

The lights started dancing, forming a billowing curtain, the bottom edge dripping in pale reds and greens, the curtain extending longer and longer. We would look around and see similar spilling lights, shimmering and glowing, forming spiky stalactites in the sky, looking like the tail end of a burst firecracker.

They formed with a speed I'm not familiar with. The moon takes a day to change shape. Stars appear stationary, if twinkling. But here, the lights were moving constantly, forming and reforming, changing shape and colors. Heads all the way back, we peered in different directions trying to catch it all.

My friend, whose hobby is astronomy, commented, "I'm running out of adjectives."

And still the otherworldly light show continued, for about 20 minutes. Then, clouds moved in, pulling a cover over the lights and all the constellations that had been so clear. At that moment, a large yellow moon started its ascent at the horizon, rising between two peaks. It was enchanting.

With our appetite for the Northern Lights sated, we were ready to fully appreciate everything else Iceland had to offer. The next morning we mounted Icelandic horses, short and shaggy beasts who roll in the snow like puppies when their saddles come off. The horses' ancestors were originally brought to Iceland by Vikings in the 9th century, and they are purebred still. They are known for a gait called the tolt, a speedwalking pace that is much smoother than a trot.

Later, with sore legs and bottoms, we slipped into the soothing waters of the mineral-rich Blue Lagoon, formed from the effluent of the Svartsengi power plant. It sounds awful, but the power plant runs by steam from fissures in the Earth, and the pool of blue geothermal water, colored by algae, is pure and clean.

Our feet squished in the silica mud that is said to be good for rubbing on the face and exfoliating the skin. Although the outside temperature was near freezing, the water was so warm it felt good to climb out and sit for awhile on the adjacent wooden platforms.

Between the cloudy skies above and the steam rising from the waters, little was visible beyond a few feet. People would emerge from the mysterious mist, float by and disappear again.

One more adventure remained: The next morning we set off on a dogsledding expedition. We were driven to what seemed the middle of nowhere, the wind blowing hard across the open fields. The sled dogs were howling and raring to run. It was all the mushers could do to keep them still.

We piled four on a sled and the dogs took off. When we took a break on a frozen lake, the mushers gave us a chance to pet the thick coats of the calmer and now-playful dogs.

By the end of the third day, all that was left on our "must-do" list was to shop for Icelandic sweaters and buy a bottle of Brennivin, "the original Icelandic schnapps." I wouldn't be packing home any cured shark, but I did want to take some of that Black Death.

Ellen Perlman does not see the Northern Lights, geysers or sled dogs when she leaves her day job in Washington, D.C.

First published in the St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved

2007 Ellen Perlman. All rights reserved.