Extremes of light and darkness


Iceland: Enchanted by bright summer nights, the people of this island nation at the edge of the Arctic Circle enjoy a brief season of energetic work and giddy play.


AKUREYRI, Iceland - It is nearly midnight at the Akureyri Golf Club - the northernmost 18-hole course on the planet - but you'd never know it from the activity.

Small throngs of diehard golfers, from a group of six alcohol-fueled Reykjavik businessmen to electrical contractor Jim Boudreau from Worcester, Mass., are intently whacking little white orbs deep into the nighttime sky.

Local wildlife is acting a bit strangely, too. Birds that should be sleeping scratch in the dirt, and shaggy-maned Icelandic horses gallop in nearby fields.

In the heavens, a golden sun is beginning to dip coquettishly behind snow-capped mountains. But there it stops, stuck on the horizon like a fat egg yolk, bathing all Iceland in a golden midnight light.

These are the longest days of the year and, in Iceland, the time when people change from dour recluses into some of the world's giddiest sun worshippers.

Starting in May and lasting well into August, Iceland enjoys virtually 24-hour daylight and experiences a transformation of its national soul.

At 2 a.m. on a recent Thursday in Akureyri, a seafaring city less than 50 miles below the Arctic Circle, the sun was as bright as it is in most U.S. cities at 7 p.m. Things brightened even more shortly before 3 a.m., when a sun that never fully set officially rose.

Even on cloudy and rainy summer nights - which are numerous in Iceland - the midnight sun provides this Ohio-sized island with a dusky light bright enough for outdoor reading. (A blanket would be advised, though, since June temperatures average about 50 degrees.)

Summer here is the sweet reward for enduring an Icelandic winter.

In December, daytime lasts from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and by 2, the sky is deep twilight. Icelanders go to bed early and get up late.

Not surprisingly, many Icelanders suffer from the winter depression popularly known as SAD (seasonal affective disorder), though mental health experts such as psychiatrist Jon G. Stefansson of Reykjavik's University Hospital have found that Icelanders over the centuries have sufficiently adapted to their winters that the modern incidence of SAD is no worse than in the United States.

In the summer, Icelanders come down with a different kind of SAD - one that might be called "seasonal affective delirium." In Stefansson's experience, it is a feeling of being "more smiley and upbeat and ready to do something."

During the summer nights of light, the main streets in the capital city, Reykjavik, are filled with thousands of young revelers quaffing brennivin (fire wine), inspired by a new law that allows bars to stay open all night on weekends. They romp on what passes for a local beach - a patch of frigid North Atlantic seaside heated by effluent from city water heater tanks.

"Often they are sometimes a bit drunk, I must say," complains deputy editor Magnus Finnsson of Iceland's biggest paper, Morgunbladid.

Younger Icelanders - the 12-and-under set - can be found riding bikes and playing on sports fields hours past the 10 p.m. summer curfew for children.

Leaving a heated outdoor pool at 10 p.m., 13-year-old Gunnar Gunnarsson was ready for a night on the courts.

"School is finished the end of May," the boy pointed out. Wisely, Iceland school officials call it quits weeks before most schools let out in Europe.

In the countryside, the 24-hour sunlight is both blessing and curse. Farmers who wait eagerly for the first sign of lengthening days in February know that summer means 14-hour workdays. Crops must be frantically grown and animals raised in a short summer season punctuated by chilly gales and occasional snow.

Still, says Matthildur Hjalmarsdottir, "I'm just happier."

Filled with summer's exceptional energy, she and her husband, Gunnar, often do not go to bed until midnight. Even then, the sun shines down on their picturesque farm on the shores of a deep blue western fjord visited by wild swans.

Iceland's foreign visitors are either thrilled or discomfited by the nonstop daylight.

Golfer Boudreau and his wife, Paula, a teacher, journeyed from Boston to Reykjavik so he could enjoy the experience of playing midnight golf during the Arctic Open tournament held at the Akureyri Club each year.

"It's like 7:30 in Massachusetts right now," marveled Boudreau, on a practice round at 11:40 p.m.

But at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Reykjavik, Dave Youngquist, a North Dakotan, tapes aluminum foil over his windows to block out the light. "I just couldn't take it anymore," he said.

Despite its round-the-clock summer light, Iceland is always a challenging place to live.

Miles and miles of treeless ground covered by lumpish lakes of solidified lava attest to its volcanic past - and present. Earth tremors are routine. In one recent week, southern Iceland experienced two major earthquakes - one 6.5 and the other 6.6 on the Richter scale. Neither did much damage.

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