NEWPORT CITY — When Chris Shaffer accepted a position to teach science at North Country Union High School three years ago, he found himself having to learn a whole new ballgame.
A plastics engineer major at UMass-Lowell, Shaffer would be teaching earth science. He was also being groomed to take over the cross country running program at the school as long-time coach Lisa Grout was stepping down.
His passion for running and his desire to understand his subject matter led Shaffer on a journey that wound up among the glaciers, fjords and lava tubes of Iceland this summer.
Shaffer was in Boston to compete in the Boston Marathon in April 2010 when he was struck by the magnitude of the volcanic activity in Iceland. Eyjafjallajökull, pronounced “AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl-uh,” is a glacial volcano that began erupting in 2009. Beginning on April 14, 2010, the erupting began in earnest, halting air travel throughout Europe for six days.
With the marathon set for April 19, many would-be competitors from Europe never made it to Boston.
“It was basically creating a footprint in my mind,” Shaffer recalled. “What causes volcanoes? Earthquakes?”
Shaffer learned that Iceland was situated on a plate boundary — a boundary that separates the North American and Eurasian plates. Because of this, Iceland is in a constant state of “geologic happenings,” Shaffer said.
“I’ve never taken an earth science course,” he said. “Now I’m tasked with teaching students a subject I’m not 100 percent familiar with.
“It was hard to get excited about something I hadn’t put my hands on.”
Through Fund For Teachers, Shaffer applied for a grant that would allow him to study the happenings in Iceland first hand. “You have to correlate how you are going to bring it back into the classroom,” Shaffer said. “It’s an opportunity for the individual to create their own structured learning.”
By early April, he knew he had been selected and by the end of June, he was on his way to Keflavik, a city just west of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital.
Shaffer and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Morgan, age 3, and Ryan, 5 months. He said he went alone as the timing wasn’t right for the family to make a vacation out of it.
Shaffer drove the 830-mile Ring Road, so named as it takes one around the country. As Iceland is barely south of the Arctic Circle, Shaffer had sunlight 24 hours a day.
“I never had to worry about trying to locate a place before dark,” he said. “I tried to keep my body on the correct time.”
Shaffer said he had no “real time limits.” He was on his own, without the need to meet others or make it to meetings. His days were filled with hiking and exploring.
Shaffer said he was struck by “how different the landscape was from place to place. It was drastically different every few kilometers — a lava field; then pasture land; then a fjord; rocky slopes; dormant volcanoes; pseudo volcanoes,” he said.
“I got to put my hands on this,” he said. “You get to be on a glacier and be around a lava tube. Being around a plate boundary — it’s not a clean cut. It’s like taking a sandwich and pulling it apart. This has definitely excited me for earth science. With geology, it’s hard to pass on the excitement and enthusiasm without having the experience. You can only get so far in the book. I actually took the stuff out of the books and put it in my hands.”
“From having lived in New England, it all seemed mythical almost,” he continued. “You don’t think of Iceland and say, ‘Let’s go vacation there.’ It definitely feels Arctic and remote, but it wasn’t that bad. Being there, you can start wrapping your head around what’s involved in the culture. Everyone is so friendly.”
Not only did Shaffer find time to keep up his running, he also competed in a local 5-kilometer race.
“It was kind of hokey,” he said. “But it was really neat to see how much other races are just like ours.”
Shaffer said one aspect of it he found amusing was how almost everyone participated in an orchestrated Zoomba-like warm-up, led by people on stages that rose 20 or more feet above the crowd.
After the race in which he finished 10th, Shaffer hung out with several of the other runners in a hot tub. He said almost every town in Iceland has a swimming pool, public hot tub, and water slides due to the country’s geothermal conditions.
“It was a neat way to experience that other interest of mine,” he said.