Katherine Wheatley

Friday, February 20, 2009

Canadian Mermaids

One clear September morning, when Wendell Ferguson and I were driving up Highway 105 to get to our gig in Red Lake, Ontario, I pointed to the roadside and exclaimed “Pillows! I can’t believe it. Pillows!” Wendell looked out the window and said “Wheat, I don’t see any pillows”. I said, “There’re tons of them. Pull over”. He thought I was nuts. Why, if in fact they were there, would I want someone’s discarded pillows? He nonetheless accorded my excitement and pulled over. And there they were. Perfect pillow basalts. Tons of them. FYI, pillow basalts are volcanic rocks that form underwater. There’s more info below in case you're interested.

Before I was a working musician, I worked for the Canadian Geological Survey. Then, music was my hobby. Now, as I travel between shows on Canada’s highways where the rock cuts show the best of the Pre-Cambrian shield, geology has become my hobby.

This is a long way of letting you know that for me, my trip to Iceland to run a half-marathon with Team Diabetes was extra special because Iceland’s geology is so fascinating. It is one of the only places on the planet where the mid-oceanic ridge, the longest mountain range in the world and the boundary along which the tectonic plates separate, is above water. Most of the range lies deep under the ocean. So, there I was with my friend Claire in this unique land where one can straddle two diverging continental plates. North America is drifting west. Europe is drifting east.

The most compelling part of the geology, however, is not the heady tectonic activity. The best part is that groundwater percolates through the rocks, comes into contact with volcanic sources, heats up and makes its’ way to the surface, providing exquisite bathing opportunities.

A few days after running the half-marathon in Reykjavik, Claire and I hitchhiked 27 km into Iceland’s rough interior to a place called Landmannalauger. There, in a valley surrounded by mountains, piping hot groundwater and pristine glacial water meet. They both flow into a river. The river is the temperature of a bath that’s too hot to get into quickly, but not so hot that you don’t get used to it. If you want “hotter”, you make your way to where the steaming groundwater is flowing in. If you want “cooler”, you go towards the glacial source. Smooth river stones are on the bottom. If you dig your toes in to the stones, your feet get hotter and hotter.

While soaking in this most wonderful place on the planet, Claire and I met an Icelandic gentleman who happened to speak French. We had a really friendly, albeit really slow conversation. His French was impeccable, but ours was, comment dit on?, "high school from the 1970s".

Claire and I could have stayed in the river forever, but we had to get ourselves back to the highway where we’d left our "tin can". It was a Toyota Yaris not suited to the rough road that led to Landmannalauger. We’d hitchhiked in quite easily, but very few cars would be going out, so we anticipated a 27 km hike.

We were 5 km into our walk back to the highway when a bus pulled over. Our Icelandic friend, the one we’d spoken French with in the river, stepped out to offer us a ride. Turns out he was a tour guide. He was taking a busload of French tourists around Iceland and he had two seats empty on the bus. He welcomed us, treated us to lunch, showed us beautiful sights we wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and delivered us to our Toyota Yaris. He called us his “Canadian Mermaids”. Imagine. Freckled and in our 40s. Mermaids. His kindness and warmth and compliment have stuck with us and we have both told this story many times. Hope you enjoyed it.


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