I’m heading north, I’m heading home
I close my eyes and count to ten,
Ha, Ha, Yeah, I’m still alive!
Perfect, perfect tunnel vision,
Razor sharp and racing, racing.
These moments, immortal
No one touches this.
– New Model Army
We stood at the source of the Markarfljót River.
It was time to follow this river south, south to the sea.
The sea, the end of the river’s journey, would also be the end of ours.
Rivers’ sources are always beguiling. All the unknown land that lies ahead, the building of momentum, and all the other obvious metaphorical parallels with journeys in general.
But the beginning of this river was even more intriguing than usual.
I looked into a bucket-sized hole between two boulders. Boiling water was churning noisily. It gushed out of the hole and I was engulfed in damp clouds of steam. This tantalising glimpse into the fiery volcanic underworld was the very source of the river that would lead us to the sea, that would frighten me very badly, highlight the conflict between hubris and humility, and force me to address the question of “what really is the point of my expeditions?”
Chris and I followed the steaming stream down a small ravine alongside a grubby swathe of last year’s ice. Plumes of sulphurous steam flowed from the earth. There were small pools of dazzling blue and hot mud puddles that farted comically.
The stream plunged down a large waterfall and headed off on a meandering route, recruiting the force of many other tiny streams as it went. We headed due south and intercepted the river again as it thundered, big and bustling by now, through the Markarfljót canyon.
The canyon is impressive. We look over the rim. The murky glacial water seems silent as it is 170 metres below us. But it is racing and frantic down there. The canyon walls are sheer. Vertical. Jagged and multi-coloured with bands of red, green, brown and grey. The canyon is gloomy. It’s too steep for the afternoon sun to penetrate down there. The bottom is littered with gigantic boulders.
White birds sweep through the air far below us. They add to the sense of separation I feel up here from the river down there. The river looks angry. Can we paddle it? I imagine how tiny we would feel down there in our little boats. Is the water too rough for our packrafts? Are there any sudden waterfalls along the way? If so, what can we do about it? Is there any way out of this canyon once we commit to it? We have many questions but few answers.
We spent a whole day scouting the canyon, hiking along it and peering down to the river below. The simplest option would be to not attempt to paddle the canyon. To trek past it and then enter the river once it settles down a bit. But if we were taking the easy option then we would not be paddling any of Iceland: we would just have walked across the whole country. So I wanted to paddle the canyon.
Because it would be exciting, challenging, thrilling, difficult, and therefore rewarding.
But it is harder to justify attempting something dangerous when there is a safe alternative. I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t make an attempt to paddle the canyon. I also knew that I would really regret it if we died!
We were both quiet, sitting above the canyon wrapped in our own thoughts. We talked occasionally, evaluating the pros and cons. I said that I wanted to give the canyon a go. Chris wanted to know how I had reached my decision. It was hard to articulate and impossible to quantify, but I felt strongly that I had reached a measured decision rather than a reckless impulse. The essence of it was:
“there is an x% chance of something going wrong. If that happens then I am y% confident of being able to deal with it. Which leaves only a z% chance of something really bad happening. And ‘z’ is sufficiently small to be worth risking against the reward of success. xn + yn = zn. Is there really a solution…?”
I think that this is the sort of process most risk-takers process before making a difficult decision. But normal people probably just articulate their decision by shouting,
“f*ck it – let’s do it!”
So we did it. Or we tried to. Unfortunately there was no way to get down into the canyon to launch. The only place we could climb down to river level was in an offshoot canyon. The tributary river in this gorge rushed from the glacier behind us to join the Markarfljót. But the river was noisy, churning and powerful. It was much worse than the main river that we had been agonising over. But we had no alternative. And it was only a short stretch until it joined the main river. And we really wanted to paddle the beautiful canyon. And we had spent so long scouting. And we had climbed all the way down into the canyon now. And it looked bloody exciting. And is it not a good thing to do a thing that scares you sometimes? We decided to launch. I would go first. Chris would film me. Then he would follow along and I would wait for him to catch up at the entrance to the main canyon.
I pushed out into the current. I was nervous. The waves in the river ahead collided noisily with the sheer canyon wall as they swept round a bend. I was excited and I was alert. The flow was so fast. I paddled hard to channel the adrenalin that was coursing through me.
I grinned and whooped as I hurtled past Chris. By then I was completely committed to whatever would be. Nothing, absolutely nothing in my life mattered now except these moments. Nihilism, reductionism, and my little blue boat. This was the biggest water I had ever paddled alone.
Then Whack! The waves thumped me and swamped across the boat. I was scared. I felt very calm and focussed. The water was cold. But that’s alright because I like the way it hurts. I ticked off each wave as I guided the packraft through them.
“Good. Well done. One more. Here we go. Concentrate.”
I lifted my paddle above my head, our signal that all was OK. The packraft was doing brilliantly. It felt stable and manoeuvrable. The largest waves bent the boat in half, but it recovered well each time.
Heavy, cold water was all around and all over me. My rucksac and all my gear were strapped tightly onto the bow. On top of that my GoPro camera was facing forward catching footage for our film. [Except that I later realised I had put a dead battery into the camera so actually failed to record any of it. Still a source of anguish!]
I felt on the edge. I was treading a fine line here. I felt alive. I felt that I wanted to stay alive. Keep going. Keep living.
But then ahead of me in the river I saw a bus-sized boulder, right in the middle of the current. In an instant I watched the whole flow of the river crashing against it and funneling down each side of it. There was no chance for me to get to the side of it. Smash. I crashed straight into the boulder and slid up, up, slowly but fast, vertical it seemed, and only then did gravity act and dumped me over and backwards and upside down into the water.
I am underwater, in churning, silty, freezing water. I am surprised that I feel very calm and very alert. I think clearly, “this is now a serious situation”. The only person in the world who can help me is upstream. He can only reach me by paddling the way I have come. He cannot come the way I have come without capsizing as I have done. I am under an Icelandic river, clinging to the paddle in my left hand and hoping that I will be spat up to the surface soon. I am on my own. Truly on my own.
I surfaced and gulped a breath. I grabbed my raft, shoving an arm through a loop of rope and hanging on tight. Under I went again, swirled round and round. Then up. Then down. It was time to get out of here. I remember being impressed at the river’s speed. I managed to half swim, half push myself off rocks until I was near to the river bank. I hurled myself at an eddy and got hold of a rock. I chucked my snapped paddle onto the bank and braced myself against the weight of the raft and pack that were still in the full flow of the river. With all my weight and strength and will I couldn’t drag them in. I was starting to lose my grip on the boat. Should I save myself and lose the boat and all my gear? No. I jumped back into the whitewater with the raft and hurtled downstream again until I managed to heave the raft and pack out of the river onto the bank. Wowee. Safe. Wow.
I paused for just a moment to realise that I was safe and how lucky I had been. And then I was sprinting up the rocky river bank as fast as I could, slopping bedraggled and coughing wildly, clutching my safety throw rope. Waving my arms and blowing my whistle and hoping like crazy I could catch Chris’ attention above the noise of the river before he reached this stretch. I blew that damned whistle so hard and I waved my arms and thankfully caught his attention in time.
We no longer had any dilemmas about paddling the canyon. We packed up our rafts and climbed back out of the steep canyon to hike round it.
Despite having a very close shave, and probably acting in a way that experienced kayakers might find naive, stupid, and dangerous, I still believe that we were right to attempt that stretch of water. But I also believe that we made the right decision when we gave up.
Further downstream the river opened up in the lee of the volcano Eyafjallajökull. The ground was covered in fine grey ash from the spring eruptions. The volcano’s glacier was black with ash. Steam billowed from the volcano. And whenever the wind rose the sky would cloud over with ash, the sun reduced to a feeble orb through the thick, dark atmosphere.
We climbed a peak to gain a better view of the river ahead of us. The Markarfljót flows across a broad plain in a mesh of streams, each one shifting constantly. When glacial floods scour the land the whole course of the river changes. So there is no way to map a river like this. You just have to paddle by instinct, trying to steer towards the deeper channels. Make a mistake and you pay the tedious price of getting grounded again and again and having to drag the raft through the shallows until you reach deep water once again.
At times Chris and I lost sight of each other in this stage. The river was so wide and it was very hard to steer to ensure that you both went down the same narrow channel. The black and ugly flanks of Eyafjallajökull’s glacier rose on one side of us. On the other bank, several hundred metres away, we began to see occasional small, red-roofed farms in green pastures. White waterfalls cascaded down the flanks of bright green fells. We were returning to the world, returning to civilisation. The sky in front of us was open, wide, and enormous. A sea sky. We were almost there.
It was a frustrating final day, trying to find clear passage through the web of shallow streams. Pick your path and take your chance. Chris capsized then yelled at me for finding it quite amusing and being unable to hide my grin. We paddled under the bridge of Iceland’s ring road, the one paved road that runs right round the country. A few cars passed along the road. It seemed so busy. I was being returned with regret to the real world, decompressing, saying goodbye to the wild and the wild times, and also looking forward to the real world. Looking forward, above all, to food! We were both very hungry by now. Over the last week I had grown dizzy and weak. It was time for burgers and beer.
But first of all it was time to paddle to the sea. To the end. We floated across a featureless flat world. Seabirds swooped and dive-bombed us, aggressively defending their nests. The sun, for once, shone warmly. To an audience of lounging seals and circling seabirds, we paddled out into the brown waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the end of the expedition.
Crossing Iceland was one of the best journeys I have ever done. I travelled with a tough, talented and amusing friend [Thanks, Chris, for putting up with me!]. Iceland is a stunning country just 3 hours’ flight from London. It was a fairly cheap expedition as well (especially thanks to the half price, out of date food!). And the plan was simple in concept but tough in execution. It was exactly how an expedition should be.
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