Barry McNamara  |  Published June 28, 2023

A Chilly Reception

Mother Nature was running behind schedule for Monmouth group during May visit to Iceland.

IN SEARCH OF THE SUN: The Monmouth College group poses on the Sólfar, or Sun Voyager, sculpture i... IN SEARCH OF THE SUN: The Monmouth College group poses on the Sólfar, or Sun Voyager, sculpture in Reykjavik.MONMOUTH, Ill. – Right around the time that Monmouth’s Class of 2023 was making decisions on where to go to college, biology professor James Godde was putting together a tentative itinerary for a College-sponsored study-trip to Iceland.

Soon after, the pandemic happened, and the trip was put on hold. It remained that way until May 16-29, when Godde led 11 students – including six who had graduated May 14 – to the Nordic island nation.

“Better late than never,” said Godde of the trip, which for roughly half the students was the culmination of a 200-level biology course on the wilderness. “We focused on the many different natural areas of the country. We talked in class about how barren Iceland was in most places, and that was not incorrect. ’Barren’ was pretty straight on.”

Spring was running late

“Better cold than never” was an alternative way to look at the trip, as Iceland’s climate, which has typically started to warm up by late May, was behind schedule.

“We only had two sunny days, but we made it work,” said Godde. “The rest of the time it was clouds, probably rain, sometimes snow, and always wind. Before we left, I told the students they’d need to dress in layers. They listened. Nobody froze,” despite a typical day being in the low 40s with winds gusting from 15 to 40 miles per hour. “We kept hearing from people, ‘This is not normal. It’s supposed to be a little better than this.’ But we caught it when it wasn’t.”

“We only had two sunny days, but we made it work. The rest of the time it was clouds, probably rain, sometimes snow, and always wind. Before we left, I told the students they’d need to dress in layers. They listened. Nobody froze.” James Godde

Godde has led students abroad in every calendar year since 2006, often to warm-weather destinations in Central and South America. In January, he’ll lead his next student trip, visiting the Dominican Republic.

“I think I’m ready for warm and sunny again for a while,” he said.

‘Puffins aren’t stupid’

“We did get to see some biological things,” said Godde. “We saw some puffins,” which are seabirds that feed primarily by diving in the water. “But puffins aren’t stupid. Because it was so cold, most of them stayed huddled in their nests.”

The Monmouth contingent also saw several different types of species at Glacier Bay, including a group of seals, as they took a 30-minute walk to set foot on a glacier. The walk was much shorter than what was described in Across the Moon, one of the texts Godde’s students read. The book recounts the journey of a young man who walked across the entire country of Iceland with his brother.

THAT'S MORE LIKE IT: While waiting for a ferry to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the group soaked... THAT'S MORE LIKE IT: While waiting for a ferry to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the group soaked up the sun in the Westfjords, the most remote part of Iceland.Another highlight of the trip was a visit to a dormant volcano, which Godde and several students traversed.

“We hiked up a volcano in a snowstorm,” said Godde. “That was the only time it was dumping snow on us. That was crazy.”

Over the course of their 14-day trip, the group visited 14 named waterfalls, including Dettifoss in northeast Iceland, which is reputed to be the second most powerful waterfall in Europe after the Rhine Falls.

“We were in the middle of a sandstorm that day,” said Godde. “It was blowing so hard we could barely see anything. The majority of the students stayed in the van, but the ones who went with me were caked with grit in our hair, our mouths and our eyes. That was the craziest weather we had.”

Another stop was the Westman Islands, which involved taking a ferry on very choppy water, with perhaps predictable results for many in the Monmouth group.

“It stayed very light until 11 p.m. and was light again around 3 a.m. I never saw darkness while I was there. Even at 1 a.m., it was somewhat light out.” James Godde

The trip concluded with two nights in the capital city of Reykjavik, where the group saw the Hallgrímskirkja Church – the second-tallest building in Iceland – and took a walking tour of the town, which has a population of around 140,000.

Not seen, unfortunately, was the northern lights, which are much more prominent in the winter.

“It stayed very light until 11 p.m. and was light again around 3 a.m.,” said Godde. “I never saw darkness while I was there. Even at 1 a.m., it was somewhat light out. Most of our accommodations had big, heavy shades to block out the light at night. With those shades down, it was OK to sleep.”

Godde was persuaded to shift his annual travel sights northward – and, for the first time on a student trip, to Europe – by alumni Stan ’63 and Karen Barrett Chism ’65.

“The Chisms visited there, and they said, ‘You have to get students to Iceland,” said Godde. “The middle of the summer is probably the best time to go, but there’s not a Scots term then. At least it was better than going during a January term.”

Or, in other words, better May than January.

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