Each year, Iceland welcomes approximately 2 million visitors, most of whom remain in populated coastal areas near the capital, Reykjavík, and along the southwestern portion of the island’s circumferential “Ring Road.” But in the Land of Fire and Ice, nearly all the ice—98 percent, approximately—sits in the sparsely populated central Icelandic Highlands, a high-elevation plateau that covers almost half of the country’s interior.
Adventure photographer Chris Burkard’s latest book, At Glacier’s End, is an ode to the Icelandic Highlands—more specifically, to the glacial rivers that wind through the rugged landscape, one of the greatest areas of largely uninhabited and undisturbed nature in Europe. Burkard’s images are showcased alongside text by writer Matt McDonald, who tells the story of Iceland’s precious waterways in the book.
Burkard first laid eyes on the Highlands’ sublime landscapes through his plane window on a flight from Ireland to Iceland in 2010. Though he’d first visited Iceland two years prior, he hadn’t arrived to the country following this route, and what he saw left an impression.
“I looked out the window to see these intricate patterns and vibrant colors spewing out of the river mouths and into the ocean,” Burkard writes in the book’s foreword. “It was a kaleidoscope of color breaking apart, like arteries full of blood and disintegrating into the ocean. My face left a greasy imprint on the plane window. . . . I knew I needed to learn more.”
Over the next decade, the acclaimed adventure photographer made several trips to the Highlands, where he captured aerial images of the area’s uninhabited volcanic deserts, glaciers, and rivers from a small Cessna flown by a local pilot named Haraldur Diego.
Fittingly, At Glacier’s End outlines the history of Iceland’s rivers, which, through hydropower business, have come to provide an economic backbone to lesser-visited areas of the country, where tourism is scarce. According to McDonald, aluminum mines are second only to climate change as the biggest threat to the Iceland’s glacial rivers; this threat is particularly profound in the Highlands, which serve as the headwaters for all of Iceland’s major rivers.
Not all hope is lost. The 145-page coffee table book features the Icelandic government’s initiative to create a Highland National Park, which would protect much, if not all, of the natural landscape. (Iceland’s Parliament is slated to vote on the national park “optimistically by late 2020,” McDonald says.) At Glacier’s End also includes insights from the local Icelanders working to protect the Highlands, who share the idea that tourism—believe it or not—could actually help save Iceland’s central wilderness.
Even though overtourism can certainly be detrimental to Iceland’s wilderness, the book makes a passionate case for travel as a force for good. “The Icelanders we met really believe that sustainable travel is their way forward,” Burkard says. “I hope [this book] serves as inspiration and a manual of sorts, for how all countries can save the places they love.”
This May, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir announced the country’s plan to reopen to international travelers as soon as June 15 after coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdowns. Whether you visit the small island nation as soon as permitted or wait until later to make the trip, At Glacier’s End is a reminder that travelers can play a major role in supporting the places they’re in awe of, too.
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