Will Work For Food

The first part of my trip complete, it was time to report for volunteer trail maintenance duty at Iceland’s Thórsmörk National Park. What would it be like to live in a tent for two weeks while repairing sections of Iceland’s most famous hiking trail, the Laugavegur? I was about to find out!

One of the reasons I retired early was so that I could pursue adventures like this one without having to work around a project schedule or other constraints at work. I was lucky enough to do so, and now it was time to get out there and really take advantage of my new-found freedom.

There are lots of volunteer projects available throughout the world, and I considered several of them, but what I liked about the one offered by the Iceland Forest Service was that it seemed more sincere than many of the others. They weren’t looking to milk volunteers out of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to “help”. They really needed help maintaining their trails, and if you were willing to make to effort to get there, they were willing to take good care of you, asking nothing but a genuine effort out on the trails. Given my backcountry trail maintenance experience with Washington Trails Association over the years and my desire to see more of Iceland’s backcountry, this sounded perfect!

Project Planning, Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland

Chas Goemans (left), Volunteer Coordinator for the Iceland Forest Service, discusses project plans with volunteer trail maintenance workers, in Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland.

The Thórsmörk trail volunteer program was started in 2012, and hosts approximately 70 international volunteers each year. As they say on their website, “Volunteers are selected directly from applications and do not pay a participation fee. We are committed to “free volunteering”.” Applicants can request either a two week or six week stay. Assistant crew leaders stay for the season.

Chas Goemans is the Volunteer Coordinator for the area. Chas works with potential volunteers from the start of the application process, and even schedules a phone interview with each applicant to insure that they know what they are getting into and are prepared for the adventure. Once onsite, Chas makes everyone feel at home.

Most of the volunteers during my stay were college-aged, coming primarily from England, France, Germany, and the United States. And the Icelandic volunteers? Well, there were none. As it was explained to me, Icelanders don’t really get the concept of volunteering – why would they do that when they could either be working to earn money or relaxing? Hence, all the volunteers were international.

As for age, there were one or two folks my age who departed the day I arrived, but none the two weeks I was there, so I got to be the token “old guy” in the group. I think I represented.

Trail Work Discussion, Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland

Members of a trail maintenance work party stop to discuss potential projects, in Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland.

While we do sleep in our own tents for the duration, this is not necessarily a completely backcountry experience, depending to which team you are assigned. There are several camps, and the base camp in Langidalur is the most posh. Here you will find restrooms with running water and hot showers, designed for guests staying here, but also available to volunteers.

The volunteers also have a covered kitchen area all to themselves, which is attached to a small social building where they can store extra gear, enjoy breakfast and dinnertime meals, prepare trail lunches, and even select a book to read from the small library.

A secondary camp is located about 4 km up the river. Básar (pronounced bow-zer) consists of a tent shelter for dining, and offers more of a typical tent camping experience. While I didn’t camp there, the different camps are encouraged to invite members of the other camps for dinner occasionally to socialize, so I did get to visit several times.

Along the Laugavegur Trail, Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland

A group of trail maintenance volunteers, led by Volunteer Coordinator Chas Goemans (right), heads along the Laugavegur Trail to work in the backcountry for the week, in Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland.

There’s often also a backcountry camp established somewhere to service trail segments that are too far away from the main camps to make day hiking to them practical. I participated in a food supply mission to one of these camps, a group of huts called Emstrur about 15 km from base camp. The hike from Langidalur to Emstrur passes through otherworldly terrain that seems more suited to the moon than to our planet. Beautiful in its own right, the area contains some gorgeous river canyons, and the glaciers of nearby volcanoes are always in view.

River Canyon, Þórsmörk Natinoal Park, Iceland

The Laugavegur Trail passes through stunning scenery such as this river canyon, in Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland.

Volcano Huts, Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland

The Volcano Huts reception area and restaurant provided Internet, phone charging, cold beers and a place to relax for those volunteers willing to make the easy 2km hike from our base camp at Langidalur, in Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland.

Besides hanging out in the social/dining room at base camp, there were other places to visit during down time (in addition to the obvious choice of more hiking after a day of back-breaking trail work). A mere 2 km from base camp was a more developed area called the Volcano Huts, which included a restaurant and snack bar near the reception area. This was a great place to recharge, and by that I mean your smartphone as well as yourself. They even had Wi-Fi for those of us (myself included) who liked to reconnect from time to time.

I mentioned earlier that Chas liked to take care of his volunteers, and it was on Friday nights that he pulled out all the stops. Any backcountry teams were back in base camp for the weekend, and the folks from Básar made the trek over for dinner, because on Friday nights Chas served up a feast fit for royalty. The grills came out and we roasted up leg of lamb. Fancy cheese and pate platters were served. Crackers, breads, jams, and all kinds of Icelandic products and delicacies were passed around the table. Beer was even available, although we had to cough up roughly $1 a can, since the Iceland Forest Service does not buy beer, even for volunteers!

One night Chas even had a package of kæstur hákarl, or fermented shark for us to try. This delicacy, a national dish of Iceland, consists of shark which has been cured with a fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months until it has a lovely ammonia-rich smell and fishy taste. The late chef Anthony Bourdain is said to have once described kæstur hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten. Now for Anthony, that’s saying something! And yes, I tried it. While I didn’t ask for seconds, at least I didn’t gag.

Midnight Bonfire, Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland

Trail maintenance volunteers and park employees enjoy a Friday midnight bonfire after a week of hard work, in Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland.

After a delicious Friday night dinner, there was only one thing left to do — build a bonfire! This Friday night tradition involved both volunteers as well as employees of the park and the huts. This meant we had actual Icelanders to party with, and these people know how to party! The bonfire party would go on well into the morning — this photo was taken just after midnight. While the scene in the photo looks tame, I can assure you that as the morning wore on, the level of partying could reach an advanced stage. Let’s just say I headed for my tent when the gasoline can came out, and leave it at that.

So all in all it was a great experience. I learned some new trail maintenance techniques, got to see some outstanding backcountry scenery, and experienced some delicious delicacies that you have to go to Iceland to appreciate!

Next time I’ll wrap up my trip to Iceland with a search for puffins on a nearby island. Who knows what delicacies I’ll come across on the island!

Shedding Arctic Fox, Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland

An arctic fox, most of its winter fur gone for the summer, eyes the photographer, in Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland.

Lunch Break, Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland

Volunteer trail maintenance workers enjoy the view during a lunch break, in Þórsmörk National Park, Iceland.

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2 Responses to “Will Work For Food”

  1. Eugene says:

    One minor note: I think in Iceland you can safely leave out “cold” when describing that a facility offers beers. Every building has a door. 😉

  2. Eugene says:

    Also, I’m glad you got to eat some lamb! I love Icelandic lamb vs. all other lamb – so much less gamey. (I only know this because my cousin had a farm for several years, and she raised Icelandic lambs. They’re also good for dry hands – just pet their fur – particularly the little baby ones who haven’t rolled around in dirt a whole bunch yet!)