My girlfriend didn’t understand why I had a minor freak out when she left my camera bag unguarded while we were taking a photo in front of a waterfall in Iceland. She didn’t realize there was an engagement ring hidden inside.
For several months, my brother, a jewelry maker, collaborated with me secretly on creating a custom ring made with my grandmother’s diamond. Lisa was my girlfriend at the beginning of our trip to Iceland, but hopefully she’d be my fiancee by the end of it.
There are a million waterfalls in Iceland, but everyone proposes in front of waterfalls. There’s the Blue Lagoon, of course. But that seemed too touristy. I briefly settled on the idea of proposing under the northern lights, but literally a week before we left we watched a couple on The Amazing Race do just that.
We had booked a tour with Guide To Iceland to venture inside the Vatnajokull glacier. Every summer, as the glaciers melt, water runs through the ice, carving out little caves. The ice is hundreds of years old, and the sunlight shines through the cave ceilings and refracts into spectacular shades of blue. One of the reasons we chose to travel to Iceland in November was so we could experience one of these cave tours: there are no tours before November or after March because the warmer weather makes the caves unstable and prone to collapse.
By the halfway mark of the trip, we had seen black sand beaches and geysers and thermal springs and dwarf rocks and more waterfalls than you could shake an “atgeir” at. I wondered if I had already blown several perfect proposal locations as we pulled into the Skyrhusid Guest House in the “town” of Hali.
Hali is basically two or three guest houses, a museum/restaurant (shaped like a shelf of books), and a few private homes. We asked where the nearest grocery story was: 40km away. We asked where the nearest gas station was: 50km away. The menu at the museum/restaurant was, like everything in Iceland, expensive, so we just ate Cup Noodles in our room and went to bed early.
In the morning we met our guides and they fitted us with helmets and straps and carabiners for our hike, and off we went with five other tourists and three guides in a big van converted for off-roading. It was about a half hour drive over seriously rugged terrain. Even for Iceland. As we bounced in all directions while driving over rocks and craters, I was silently repeating my proposal speech in my head, over and over. There were two Dutch guys on the tour, they later told me they had wondered why I looked so nervous on the drive.
From where the van eventually parked it was another half hour or so of hiking along the glacier. We saw the remains of other collapsed ice caves and markings on the adjacent mountains that showed how far the glaciers had receded over the years. We walked along narrow paths, clipping our carabiners to pre-set ropes, and crossed a small wooden bridge that had been placed for hikers like us for the season. Once over the bridge, we put on our crampons and made our way down several final big rocks to enter the ice cave.
Every ice cave is different. Each one is newly formed and newly explored each year. Any photo you’ve ever seen of an ice cave is a photo of a cave that doesn’t exist anymore. You have no idea what your cave is going to look like until you actually arrive, and once you leave, you’ll never see it again.
Our cave began with a huge, cathedral-like ceiling composed of several different shades of blue. A river ran through the base of it, and at the far end there was an opening in the ceiling on the right side of the river, with a completely frozen waterfall jutting out from the wall. On the other side of the river was another tall, wide display of multi-shaded blue ice.
One of the members of our tour group was an older British gentleman traveling with his middle-aged son. The guides took me, Lisa, and the Dutch guys into the cave first and left us there alone as they went back up to assist the Brits. So there we were, just the four of us and the soft sound of the trickling river.
This was the moment.
I set up my camera on a tripod and told Lisa I would do a timed shot so we could both be in it. But she’d have to stand perfectly still since it was dark in the cave and I needed a long exposure. After a few test shots I hit the remote control and got down on one knee. To her credit, she stayed still.
I recited my speech pretty well, considering the emotional weight of the moment. The essence was that I know she gets annoyed sometimes when I take so much time setting up photos when we travel, but I do it because we’re so lucky to share so many perfect moments together, and I want to capture every one. We both teared up, she said yes, and I put the ring on her finger. We kissed, and the two Dutch guys applauded.
When our tour guides returned to the cave, word spread quickly and we were congratulated by the others in the group. Later that night when we checked back into our guest house, word had even gotten back to the owner, and she congratulated us as well. We celebrated with an overpriced dinner at the museum café and the next day we continued along the Ring Road for another full week of adventure.
The cave we were in has melted and collapsed by now. As much as we might like to return to the setting of such a happy moment, it’s nice to think that our proposal was truly unique: Even if others may get engaged in ice caves, they’ll never get engaged in that exact one. It remains intact only in our memories. And in all those pesky pictures.