At first I thought they were horses. We’d seen hundreds of hairy, stout horses that day while driving along Iceland’s southern coast. But something was different about the creatures I saw grazing near the base of a glacier.
First of all, they were all the same color: a simple pattern of tan and light brown. Icelandic horses come in many different colors, from white to rich brown to black.
Goats? That was my second guess. Also incorrect. They were far too large.
As the road led us closer to the animals, I realized what we’d stumbled across: a herd of reindeer.
Iceland is home to about 7,000 reindeer, and they can only be found in the eastern parts of the country. They spend much of their time foraging in the highlands near Mount Snaefell, according to NASA Earth Observatory. However, in the winter, they descend to graze near the coast, where it’s warmer.
My friend Kim — my companion for the trip — found a place to pull the car over. Meanwhile, I squealed with excitement and fumbled with camera lenses. Braving the frigid wind, I squatted on the side of the road and photographed the beautiful animals.
The experience made me feel like I was peering through a window into a past version of Maine.
Maine used to be home to reindeer, although in North America, we call them caribou. They’re the same species, with the scientific name of Rangifer tarandus. However, subspecies have developed unique characteristics. Reindeer can be wild, semidomesticated or domesticated. Caribou are just wild.
“Sketchy records indicate that northern Maine was once home to hundreds of thousands of caribou,” wrote Matthew LaRoche, superintendent of Allagash Wilderness Waterway, in an article published by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
They arrived in the state without any help from humans, but the same can’t be said for their departure. Maine had a healthy population of caribou into the late 1800s, but their numbers quickly dwindled due to overhunting and loss of habitat. The last report of a small herd was in 1914 in the Katahdin region.
Maine tried to reintroduce caribou twice: once in 1963 and again in 1993. Small herds from Canada were released in Baxter State Park. In both cases, in just a few years, they either died or migrated out of the area. It just didn’t work.
The species’ story in Iceland is entirely different. Reindeer are not native to the island. Instead, they were shipped there from Norway in the 1700s by royal decree after diseases killed a bunch of the country’s sheep. It was thought that the hardy animal could be domesticated on farms. But they were too wild, and there wasn’t enough interest in farming them.
Today, Iceland’s reindeer are wild, wandering the countryside eating plants and lichen. They almost died out at one point, but today, there’s a stable population. In fact, the country issues 1,200 tags yearly for hunting them.
I researched reindeer before visiting Iceland in March. I knew we’d be traveling through the right area to spot some, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I figured it’d be like spotting a Maine moose: sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. So when we saw a whole herd of reindeer, I was elated.
That wasn’t the only time while in Iceland that I felt like I was looking into Maine’s past.
Iceland is known as the “Land of Fire and Ice” because it’s home to active volcanoes, piping hot geysers and massive glaciers. In fact, it’s home to the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull.
Maine’s last glacier melted away about 11,000 years ago. And the area’s volcanoes last erupted long before that, millions of years ago. Their eruptions helped form much of the state’s coastline and islands such as Isle au Haut. And several Maine mountains are technically the remains of volcanoes. These mountains include Traveler Mountain in Baxter State Park and Mount Kineo in the Moosehead Region.
Today, Maine has no active volcanoes. So, as a lifelong Mainer, I was amazed by the sprawling lava fields and geothermal areas in Iceland. I’d never seen anything like it.
I’d also never seen a glacier before. To mark the occasion, I booked a six-hour guided hike on Falljokull, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull. It was a major highlight of the trip.
Prior to the hike, Icelandic Mountain Guides outfitted our small group with helmets, crampons and harnesses. Our guide asked if any of us had worn crampons before. I was the only one to raise my hand. So he asked where I’d worn them. I told him, “Maine! Where I live!” We have plenty of ice in Maine, I said.
Yet the ice of the glacier was entirely different from any ice I’ve seen in Maine. Namely, it was blue. Pale blue. Bright blue. Deep blue. So many shades of blue. It’s the result of light being absorbed and scattered as it travels through the thick, clear ice.
Standing on the glacier, I thought about how Maine was once covered in a mile-high ice sheet. I’d never been able to visualize it before. But as I looked out over the ice of Iceland, I could start to imagine what it would have been like. Just a little bit.