Icelandic highland park rangers are custodians of protected areas, national parks, and preserved areas. The highland park rangers inform travelers on how to behave when in fragile Icelandic nature and advise on how to stay safe in the unpredictable environment of the Icelandic highlands. The rangers also take care of infrastructures such as paths and roads and monitor illicit activity such as off-road driving. But what is it like to be an Icelandic highland ranger? Few people could answer it better than highland ranger and environmental activist Þorgerður María Þorbjarnardóttir. She works for the large Vatnajökull National park. The park contains such amazing places as Ásbyrgi, JökulsárgljjúfurJökulsárlón lagoon, Fjallsárlón lagoon, Breiðamerkursandur beach, Hljóðaklettar, and Dettifoss waterfall (just to name a few). Þorgerður is a highland park ranger this summer at the remote Kverkfjöll mountain range which is at the edge of the Vatnajökull glacier.

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Þorgerður María.
Þorgerður María.

Woman of many skills

Þorgerður is not only an Icelandic highland park ranger, but she is also the former chairperson of the Icelandic association of young environmentalists, she teaches Icelandic to immigrants, and she is a geologist. Next autumn, she will start studying Master of Philosophy in Conservation Leadership at Cambridge University. To me, Þorgerður proofs that the young people are indeed alright. I must also mention that Þorgerður is family; she is the niece of my wife, Hallveig Rúnarsdóttir.

This summer, Þorgerður is a highland park ranger in the remote Kverkföll mountain range. Kverkfjöll mountain range is just north of the massive Vatnajökull glacier and is a part of the Vatnajökull National Park. I had the pleasure of visiting her recently and visited the highland destinations of Kverkfjöll, Askja, Drekagil, and Herðubreiðarlindir.  More on that later.

At Kverkfjöll mountain range.
At Kverkfjöll mountain range. Photo by Þorgerður María.

Hey Þorgerður, thank you so much for taking the time for the interview. What made you interested in becoming a highland park ranger?

I traveled the country as a kid and got a glimpse of nature. I come from a family of rangers, and I am a third-generation ranger in this particular area. First my grandparents in 1973 and 74, then my aunt and now me.

When I studied geology at the university, I met many people who enjoyed the outdoors as much as me. They also had had some experience in mountaineering, mostly from their search and rescue training. I became fascinated with the idea of monitoring nature and combining that with education and travel safety. Now I am also training to become a part of the search and rescue team.

How does a day in the life of an Icelandic highland park ranger look like?

The days can vastly differ from where you stay. I start my day by giving a guided tour in front of the Kverkfjöll glacier and make sure people don’t go too close to the ice cave because we have frequent icefall from the glacier. I then have a list of projects to do, documenting the nature, plants, and animals I see, conditions on walking paths, roads, and rivers. Some days I stay on the road and greet each car with a smile and information about conditions onward and the Icelandic laws about off-road driving. I give people advice on how to avoid difficult situations in rivers or sand on the road. At the end of my day, I meet the people who stay overnight and offer recommendations on hikes or places to visit. After dinner, my working day is over, and I sometimes have a beer with the hut warden or some of the guests before I go to sleep in my tiny ranger house.

What skills are needed for those who want to become Icelandic highland park rangers?

The most important thing I need in my job is curiosity about nature and a passion for giving people the best possible experience visiting the park. I often have to be very patient with guests, and I repeat myself a lot. I need to give each visitor an experience that makes them love this place because when people have fond feelings for things or places, they take better care of them. We need to take better care of our planet and nature. Then I also need physical strength for some of the projects I must do, and I need to be alone a lot, so it is important to keep myself entertained.

The ranger hut at Mt. Kverkfjöll in the Icelandic highlands.
The ranger hut at Kverkfjöll.

What are your favorite places in the Icelandic highlands?

My favorite place in the highlands is the geothermal area up west from the Kverkfjöll mountains. It is quite an active high-temperature area at 1600 – 1700 m elevation above sea level. It is magnificent where the glacier meets the high temperature, and the steam vents are something else! I recommend going there, but I must warn you that the glacier is very cracked and has a lot of crevices. The long hill, Langafönn, has snow on top of crevasses and moulins, deadly traps if you don’t have equipment for and experience with crevasse rescue. If you do not have one of those things, I recommend hiring a glacial guide to take you up there.

You were the chairperson of the Icelandic association of young environmentalists. What can my readers do to help conserve the Icelandic highlands?

The shortest answer is: care. Take time to fall in love with the areas you go to. Stop frequently to listen to the spirit of the highlands. Don’t leave anything but footsteps, and don’t take anything but pictures. Then share the love around you, educate yourself about wilderness areas and climate change, and act according to science.

The sunset as seen from Kvverkfjöll.
The sunset seen from Kvverkfjöll. Photo by Þorgerður María.

You are about to study Master of Philosophy in Conservation Leadership at Cambridge University. Can you tell my readers what you hope to achieve in your studies?

I hope to understand better the relationship humanity has with nature and how to make people unite in nature conservation. Most people seem to care right now, but there is not a unified opinion on how much to conserve and what methods should be used. I both want to understand what needs to be done, and then I want to make it happen. Whatever it takes.

What advice would you give to people who are hiking in the Icelandic highlands for the first time?

Don’t be too enthusiastic about visiting as many places as possible. I would always choose a place or two to camp. Usually, I would look at the weather forecast and choose the places with the best weather because the weather plays a big role in the experience. Talk to rangers and wardens and get recommendations on things to do. If you are nervous about driving, call the ranger and ask for information about road conditions. When you arrive, take your time and get to know the place. Take a lot of food with you and treat yourself. Also, bear in mind that there are no shops, restaurants, or gas stations in the highlands, so come prepared.