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Midnight Sun in Iceland

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland- A camper just came into the common area of the campsite in Reykjavik. “Excuse me,” he called out, “could someone please tell me what time it is?”

“Yes,” another guy answered, “it is 1:45.”

“AM?” the camper questioned.

“Yes. Did you just wake up?”

“I am so disoriented here.”

It is the midnight sun, temporal vertigo is part of the Iceland travel experience.

——-

“Where are you going?” a laser tech asked me on the bus from Maine to Boston.

“Iceland,” I replied, “I hear they have a lot of sun this time of year.”

This was the first and last time I would ever make this joke.

Perhaps it is to flirt with cliche to write about the long summer days of Iceland, but to avoid this fact would be truly negligent writing — not to mention overtly blase. The midnight sun is also a new experience for me, and all new experiences in travel should be recorded.

The amount of daylight during the Iceland summer plays a major role in the cultural nuances of this country, as it goes from one extreme to the other as the season changes from summer to winter. “We sleep all day in the winter and we don’t sleep at all in the summer,” one Icelander put it to me. This fact is obvious in everything that happens in this country. In the summer, people are up at about until way late into the “night,” and in the winter I imagine that they stay inside, tucked away from the dark and cold.

Summer night celebration in Iceland

Iceland is a country of extremes: extreme wind, extreme weather changes, and extreme shifts in daylight.

—————

When I arrived in Iceland, I did not know really what to expect in reference to the midnight sun, but I found out quick my first night there when it became apparent that it really does stay light 24 hours a day during these summer months. I woke up after my first sunny night in Iceland and found it impossible to tell what time it was. Sunlight shown into my tent, just as it had done the night before when I wnet to sleep. I could have been asleep for days or a matter of moments, I could not tell. So I stumbled out of my tent, guessing it was roughly morning, and made my way to go out for the day. I stopped into the office of the campsite to check what time it was: 11AM. Though, for all intensive purposes, it could have been 11 PM for the amount of light that was shining at this time the night before.

I walked out to the outlet store section of the Reykjavik, I made way to enter a few shops just to find the door’s locked and the insides abandoned. The placards on the doors read that each shop was open from roughly 9AM to 6PM Monday through Friday. It was Friday, what was going on?Could it be after 6PM? Could the stores have closed for the day? Could I have misread the clock at the campground or could it have been showing an incorrect time?

I went vertigo.

[adsense]It is amazing the sense of disorientation that occurs from simply not having any bearing on the time of day. It scrambles all of your perceptional capabilities. I have been from one end of the world to the other, but I have never felt this particular sense of dislocation before. Not knowing in the slightest what time it was — morning, night, mid-night, mid-day — sent me into a mild fit. There were no cars around and no people, I was walking through a ghost town. I began thinking that I could have stumbled out of my tent in the middle of the night. All bearings on my surroundings were gone. I smiled, I laughed. Deep down somewhere all travelers enjoy the stimulation of being lost. In those moments of standing in a deserted shopping district in Reykjavik, not knowing at all what time of day it was, I have never felt more lost in my life. WTF was going on?

Then I remembered something very pertinent: June 17th is a national holiday.

It was June 17th. I was found. I had not stumbled into a midnight ghost town, but out into a closed down shopping district that was deserted because nobody goes to work or shopping on this holiday.

From that moment on I realized that I was going to have to figure out how to tell the time here by the sun. I do not carry a watch, I do not have a clock, instead I learn to read time wherever I am in the world by sun position and shadows. I am a traveler, I am not going to be late for work. Time only needs to be but a rough estimate for me — I show up early to prevent being late. I would rather wait around a little for a bus or train or ask someone the time than be handcuffed to a wristwatch, checking it compulsively all day long as though I was running out of time. So I have no urge to know what time it is, but I at least wanted to know what time of day it is: morning or night.

Daylight is only a rough indicator of time of day in Iceland, as it is about just as bright from 2:30 AM until 11PM — made even more indiscernible since it is often cloudy here.

Sky in Iceland at around 1 AM.

So I set out to plot out the path of the sun as it moves through the sky in summertime Iceland. The country sits between 64 and 66 degrees north latitude, and, from this position on the globe, the sun appears to move in an ellipse around the sky, not dipping far below the northern horizon. Through the day in summer time Iceland, the sun appears to start out in the north and then “rises” to the east going above the horizon more and more as the day proceeds. At mid-day the sun appears in the south, hovering in the middle of the sky. At dusk, the sun seems to move back down to the west, finally settling in the north, skirting the horizon as it appears to move back to the east.

[traveldeals]

It is truly amazing to watch the sun going in what appears to be the opposite direction, moving from west to east through the night: it is awesome.

Sleep patterns in the midnight sun

For me, a traveler, the midnight sun started out as a novelty. I could go out at any time, there was never really any reason to go to sleep, the temperature was often just as warm at night as it was during the day. The midnight sun was, to put it eloquently, a fun “something different” that adds a little spice to travel. But my internal clock got screwy: I would wake up at 3AM one day and not until 3PM the next. I would stay up for 20 hours straight and then sleep forever — an event that was exacerbated by the fact that I was camping out each night, unable to escape the sun even if I’d wanted to. The lack of night cover sent my life patterns in a downward spiral. A week into it and I began not feeling so sharp, the novelty of the midnight sun turned into an annoyance.

Reykjavik around 3:30 AM just before the summer solstice.

But soon enough, as with most omi-present annoyances in life, I got use to the excess of daylight. Two and a half weeks into these Iceland travels, 24 hours of daylight every day has become normal, my sleep regulated itself, and I’ve found myself on the same cycle as many Icelanders: stay up until around midnight then sleep until around eight or nine. Though I must claim that it is still amazing to crawl out of my tent at 3 AM, find the birds singing, and the sun light skimming the horizon, reflecting brilliantly on the myriad faces of mountains and sea.

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Filed under: Culture and Society, Europe, Geography, Iceland, Western Europe

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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