Central Penn Alumni Take Iceland: Days 1 & 2

For the first time in nearly a decade, a group of Central Penn College alumni and staff embarked on an international trip together to build connections and represent our incredible institution abroad. A total of 47 alumni, staff, faculty and fans of Central Penn College boarded a charter bus on campus on Wednesday, November 2. We boarded our flight direct to Reykjavik on Icelandair from Dulles International Airport.

The flight path took us north over Pennsylvania (and ironically the Summerdale campus). We continued north through New York state, then shifted Northeast along the St. Lawrence Seaway. We witnessed the late-night lights of Montreal then continued across Canada, finally crossing over the Davis Strait before crossing over the airspace of Greenland. It was then that I noticed a faint light in the distance and snapped this photo of the Northern Lights from the plane around 1:00 a.m. local time.

After leaving Greenland airspace, it was all ocean travel until we saw the lights of the Iceland coast. Touching down at 6:20 a.m. local time, we were in the air a total of 5 hours and 45 minutes.

After gathering all our travelers after border security – here is a photo of my visa to enter Iceland – we rallied by exit doors and prepared to board our charter bus to Selfoss.

The drive to Selfoss showed us a landscape covered in a frosted dew that looked, unlike anything to be found in Pennsylvania, New York, or any other part of the Northeastern United States. The landscape was rocky, nearly entirely treeless, and dappled with enormous rock formations rising hundreds of feet above the earth. It looked as I would imagine a habitable moon or a yet-to-be-explored distant planet might look.

Forty minutes into our travel to Selfoss, the soil appeared more black, with signs of the volcanic origins and presence of this island nation. Sparse farms with steam vents shooting hot steam into the air were sprinkled like outposts as far as the eye could see.

We turned south in Hvarigerdi, nearing Selfoss, our home for the next six days. The mountains were now snowcovered to the east as the sun began to emerge over them at 9:00 a.m. local time. The Atlantic Ocean and the black volcanic sand beaches were visible to the south.

Our hotel sits on the banks of the Olfusa River, which has a strong and rippling current as it bends and weaves through the treeless landscape. A mountain with a sheer cliff sits to our north and presents a beautiful and picturesque landscape constantly visible from the hotel’s lobby and north-facing rooms.

Many of our travelers took the morning to settle in and nap. A little jet lagged from the four-hour jump ahead in time, we knew the next five days would be full and require full energy from all of us.

At the opening dinner held at the Hotel Selfoss restaurant, travelers introduced themselves one by one. Most are alumni with spouses or parents as traveling companions. The most seasoned alumni graduated in 1974 and the most recently completed programs in 2021.

After a welcome to the trip and sharing greetings from our President Linda Fedrizzi-Williams back in the states, we dined on local vegetables, chicken, and lamb. The dessert was a scrumptious lava cake and fresh vanilla ice cream.

My wife, Serena, and I settled in near the lobby fire to play a game we love – Qwirkle – when an alert came across my phone. Hello, Aurora was an app I downloaded while still in the states to alert us to the presence of visible aurora borealis – the Northern Lights. We grabbed our phones sans jackets and headed out into the frigid Icelandic night.

Across the sky was a grey light, appearing almost to be smoke or clouds to the untrained eye. We walked deeper into the darkness away from the lights of the hotel, and the grey clouds began to become a light shade of green. I put my phone on a tripod and snapped this photo of the Northern Lights, giving our eyes permission to see what only would be visible through an extended exposure. It was like magic.

A local woman approached and shared with us that the key to seeing the lights is to remain outside. “Seconds make a difference,” she shared. “In one moment there is nothing, and in the next moment there is brilliant light shining and shimmering across the sky.”

Her advice turned out to be right. The longer we stood the more grey-then-green mist emerged. Then suddenly without warning the lights brightened and were visibly green to the naked eye. We snapped more and more photos, then had the idea to take a timelapse video. More brilliant lights emerged.

Serena returned to the room to retrieve jackets and gloves while I remained outside and transfixed by the natural display.

After snapping dozes more photos we returned to the lobby of the hotel and our game. Another alert came on Hello Aurora and we dashed outside and snapped this photo. A visibly shimmering ripple of light danced across the sky above the hotel like a current. It was green, white, and blue and highlighted in spots by a pink hue.

Then a shooting star flashed and another. We took more and more photos. The lights were simply the most beautiful natural occurrence either of us had ever witnessed, save only the birth of our children.

It was now near midnight. Realizing it was best to save our energy for a busy day three ahead, we retired to our bed, but not before posting a few more photos of the incredible Northern Lights with our students back home via the CPC App.

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