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Paddling Iceland’s longest river

In pleasant peace and security how suddenly the soul in a man begins to die – Robinson Jeffers

When paddling a river it is wise to know what lies in wait. However it is not always possible to scout ahead. We were about to begin paddling Iceland’s longest river, the Þjórsá. Information on the river’s condition was scarce. Few, if any people, had paddled up here, and certainly not in a packraft. We had a map, the best I could find anywhere. It was from the 1930s. We knew of at least three large waterfalls but there could be more. We knew that the river sprawled its way across massive wetlands in a complicated web of shallow channels and dead ends (see aerial photo, above). So we knew some of what lay ahead. But the detail we were going to have to discover for ourselves.

We were both excited as we inflated our packrafts on the river bank. We had followed the river from the Hofsjokull glacier where it began life as a narrow, ugly little stream. Now it was wide enough to paddle. It was time for the next phase of the expedition.

Launching the packrafts

You get wet paddling whitewater in a packraft. Very wet. But we were travelling too light to carry drysuits. So we donned an extra wooly jumper beneath our GoLite waterproofs. We also wore neoprene gloves and booties and a hat. We placed our backpacks inside large drybags and lashed them to the bow of the raft. The bright red and blue boats were a jaunty splash of colour on the grey glacial water.

With whoops of relief that today we did not have to hike with 40kg packs on our backs we took to the water. We cheered with excitement as the boats slipped out into the current and suddenly, effortlessly, we were moving faster than at any other time on the expedition. This was more like it!

Within two minutes our cheers were stifled. We had begun on a broad, flat stretch of river on a broad, flat plain. It could not have been more innocuous. So how the hell did we suddenly find ourselves plunging into a canyon and Grade 3 whitewater?! Big waves of ugly, grey meltwater reared in front of us. Things happen fast on a river. We hurtled into, over, through the waves and then smashed off a drop-off. It was thrilling and I am sure I was shouting very loudly. It was very wet and very cold. It was fantastic fun. And it hit me hard how bloody far we were from the nearest human should anything go wrong.

Jerk

As soon as we were able we tucked into an eddy to catch our breath and ask each other what the hell had just hit us. Chris’ eyes were like soup plates. “Munchers!” he said, over and over. ‘Munchers’ were his name for the waves we had somehow made it through. For the rest of the trip we spoke of munchers a lot, partly hoping not to encounter any more, partly looking forward to the prospect.
We emptied our swamped boats and pondered the situation. We had been paddling for just minutes. But already we were soaked to the skin and had scared ourselves silly. I was kicking myself that I had not had time to take any photos or video of the rapids. Neither of us intended to repeat the experience for the camera.

Packrafting Iceland

The prospect of giving up so soon was bleak. Besides, neither of us was keen to carry the cursed packs any further than was necessary. So we paddled on. As Murphy’s Law dictates nothing else interesting happened for the rest of the day. We paddled narrow channels, having to get out occasionally to drag the boats when the water was too shallow. But usually we just swooshed on through, for packrafts float happily in only a foot of water.

The river ran parallel to the glacier. We paddled along in the lee of a huge, hulking wall of ice. To our right the flat stone plain ran empty all the way to the horizon of two stark conical mountains and another ice cap. Clouds rolled across the sky, shifting the patterns of light across the land. Two swans, the first birds we had seen in days, flew past, white against the grey cloud. It was a desolate, yet beautiful landscape, and a wonderful privilege to be floating through it.
But by day’s end we were freezing cold. We draped our wet clothes over the tent to dry in the forlorn hope that it would not rain in the night. I boiled water for our food and, as we waited for the food to rehydrate, we lay in our sleeping bags with the bags of food between our feet like hot water bottles. By now we were becoming extremely hungry and finished each meal seemingly as hungry as we began it.

Freezing cold after a day on a glacial whitewater river

What had prompted us to stop for the night was that we were lost. Getting lost on a river takes some doing when all that is required is to paddle downstream. But the river’s flow had slowed and the river widened so that it now resembled a lake more than a river. We could not see where any outflow to the lake may be. So we stopped for to explore on foot.

What we found was that since our 1937 map was made our river had been dammed! That was a surprise, and an annoying one at that. For there was no significant water flowing out of the man-made lake. So we were forced to pack up the boats and start walking once again. We walked downstream for a whole day before sufficient other glacial streams combined together to make the river deep enough to paddle once more.

Hiking to the river

Rainbow, river, glacier

I remember one campsite in particular. I remember it not merely because the sun came out and I stood and basked for ages. Not merely because the moment the rain and wind stopped plagues of flies rose from the earth to cloud our eyes and nose and mouth. I remember it because it was a beautiful, silent, empty evening with a view unchanged for millennia. And because at that moment almost everyone else in the world was glued to their televisions watching the World Cup final. The wide river slid by. I hope that every four years for the rest of my life I will think back and remember that evening.

As an avid football fan it had been a bit of a gamble to plan an expedition for the second half of the World Cup. But England’s pathetic performance meant that they were already out of the tournament before I even began. Football fans measure their lives by seasons rather than years. I remember where I was in 1991-92. I remember where I was in the summers of ’86, ’90, ’94, ’98, ’02, and 2006. And I will remember Iceland 2010 for as long as everybody else will remember Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal.

Crossing Iceland - the river stages begin

Food

The first sunshine in a long time

Flies torment

The next phase of the river was perfect. The glacier framed spectacular views. We tackled bigger and bigger rapids and our confidence grew as we learned to read the river better. We wove slowly through a wetland region home to millions of migrating geese. And we were kept alert by knowing that, sooner or later, round this corner or some corner soon, we were going to encounter a bloody big waterfall that would kill us if we didn’t get ashore fast enough. And all of this we had to ourselves.

Camping at foot of a glacier

Packrafting the River Þjórsá

Tent and packraft

A ferocious hailstorm lashed over us and I took shelter on the shore underneath my boat until it passed as suddenly as it arrived. Sheepish sunlight seeped through the black storm clouds onto a landscape suddenly white like winter. On one occasion we had run out of water to drink. The land was barren, the river too silty to drink. So we were amazed to find a tiny island in the middle of the river that was bubbling with a fresh water spring. The small surprises and good fortunes often become the most lasting memories.

Spring in  the River Þjórsá

Being provoked to think was one of my incentives for choosing this journey rather than just doing another version of some trip I have already done before. In an ideal expedition your brain and your principles should be as challenged as your body. The packrafting aspect of this expedition was giving me lots to think about:

  • balancing risk-taking with pragmatic caution
  • is fear of the unknown a valid fear?
  • is it acceptable to be not 100% in control of a situation even if you are x% confident of being in control of what to do if things go wrong?
  • where is the fine line between bravery and recklessness?

Scouting for Waterfalls

Packrafting Iceland

Thankfully one of our regular scouting forays revealed the series of waterfalls to us in good time. I was not even slightly tempted to try to paddle them and was more than happy to portage our stuff round. We felt so fortunate to have waterfalls as spectacular as these completely to ourselves. Iceland has so many incredible waterfalls that these were virtually nameless and unknown.

Packrafting the River Þjórsá

Portaging round waterfalls

Packrafting the River Þjórsá

The waterfalls had gouged out a steep green canyon so we ended up camping high above the river on a steep hillside overlooking a thundering waterfall.

Camping above a waterfall

Packrafting Iceland

That night I felt a sense of deep contentment such as I have not really felt in the last couple of years. I lay on springy green moss outside the tent and looked down at the rainbows of mist drifting from the waterfall. The trip was turning out to be all I could have hoped for. Beautiful, deserted, challenging, daunting, and with very amusing company. I’m a lucky man. One day like this a year’d see me right.

Camping above a waterfall

Packrafting Iceland

Packrafting the River Þjórsá

Packrafting Iceland

Iceland campsite

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This expedition was generously supported by:


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Comments

  1. The questions you posed to yourself on this section were really interesting. I wonder what your answers are?
    And what might be the answers of other people reading this blog who love the stories but don’t do trips as insane as this ourselves?

    Answers on a postcard peeps!

    Reply
  2. Jan Gibson Posted

    Hey Al!
    LOVING the photos here!
    Beautiful
    xx

    Reply
  3. Lucy Davidson Posted

    I agree – amazing photos, and beautiful writing.

    I think fear of the unknown is a stupid fear (though I have it as well). What you do is try to manage it, and channel it to feel better about yourself after you’ve conkered it. That’s definitely the lesson I take from your blog every week i think.

    Reply
  4. Bradley Hughes Posted

    Dude – frickin’ awesome expedition! You rock!

    Reply
  5. Lyn Turner Posted

    Whilst the comments suggest that people enjoy reading your adventures (and I agree that you write very well), I cannot agree with everything. It seems to me that you are dangerous and reckless. This is all very well until something goes wrong. I can only urge you to be more cautious in future (although I am sure you will dismiss this as the ramblings of an old woman).
    Regards,
    Lyn
    (Portland, Oregon)

    Reply
    • Hi Lyn,
      Thanks for your concern:-)
      Don’t worry – I have no desire to die. And I actually think that I am more cautious than many full-time “adventurers” and definitely more cautious than the upper-echelon of people who I would describe as the best at what they/we do.
      Al

      Reply
  6. Neil Cowburn Posted

    The risk-averse often use Murphy’s Law as a backbone to the argument for avoiding risk, but risk has little to do with probability. It’s about understanding, respect, and due care & attention.

    I’m a practitioner of a sport called bouldering. This is essentially climbing without ropes. On the face of it, that seems like a ludicrous proposition as the level of risk is appears to be extremely high. However, when you examine it more closely, it appears relatively safe compared to traditional (trad) climbing.

    Bouldering is usually done at a low height above the ground (typically, 4-5 metres maximum), so the risk of injury or death from a ground fall is greatly reduced. Each piece of equipment used by a traditional climber is a potential point of failure, but not in bouldering. There are no ropes, knots, harnesses, cams, nuts, carabiners, etc. It’s just the climber and a rock. The risk is even greater when there is a lack of knowledge of how the equipment will respond in a fall. By reducing and eliminating risk factors, boulderers are able to make body movements that would be considered extremely risky (or downright insane) in trad climbing.

    My point is this: just because something appears risky and/or reckless at first glance, it does not mean it is . It may just mean you don’t have a broad understanding of the situation.

    Reply
  7. Awesome post Al – sounds like it was a great trip. I need to have a go in a Packraft, looks like they’re a lot of fun!

    Reply
  8. You are definitely raising the bar for quality expeditions, quality writing and photography, and prolific blogging. Keep it up!

    Reply
  9. I am certainly enjoying reading the latest posts each week about the Iceland Adventure. Having read Alastair’s round the world cycle books I knew that the blogs would be both adventurous and thought provoking in equal amounts questioning the reasons why, while documenting the adventure in tandem.

    To me there’s no false bravado, or talk of endurance targets, peaks to be bagged or any other macho reasons behind the expeditions other than an old fashioned quest for answers via travel and exploration. Sometimes that involves risk as sometimes the answers are not obvious and handed to us on a plate.

    Sometimes the ‘comments’ being posted are nearly as amusing and thought provoking as the blog itself).

    Keep up the good work Alastair your blogs brighten up the day and provoke thoughtful banter which can only be a good thing in this day and age.

    Reply
  10. I like reckless! Keep it up as it takes you to wild and remote areas. Love the photos and whole post. Superb.

    Reply
  11. Great post. My husband and I have done many trips of this sort (packraft trekking in remote cold places – usually Alaska). And I just got back from a month of remote trekking in the arctic – with my 1.5 year old son, while 5 months pregnant. Many have called what we do impossible or crazy, but I feel that we’re not particularly risk takers. I think people often overestimate risks from things that are charismatically scary (like bears) and things they aren’t familiar with (wilderness hazards). Everyday things like poor diet and driving cars are much more likely to kill you. I think there’s also a big difference between a risk of death (which is worth careful avoidance) and a risk of discomfort. Most adventurers are pretty well accepting of a risk of discomfort, and understand that most of that cold, wet, hungry, and unsure that is part of an adventure is not very close to death at all.

    Reply
  12. David James Posted

    Alastair-

    Would it be possible for you to publish the gear list of your Iceland expedition? I am very interested to see some of the things you brought as I plan on doing an extended hike there next year.

    Cheers

    Reply

 
 

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