ICELAND 2021 HORNSTRANDIR EXPEDITION
A Voyage Along the Exposed Outside of the Westfjords
July 17-30, 2021
EXPEDITION - A journey or voyage undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration…
Toward the end of our journey…trip…expedition to the Westfjords of Iceland, the question was raised as to what makes a trip an expedition. Our group of thirteen spent parts of the rest of our…journey…wrestling with that question. What are the qualities of an expedition? Length? Degree of difficulty? A specific goal? Inability to bail when the going gets tough? We ultimately decided that our two weeks traveling along the isolated and very exposed northern coast of the Westfjords was indeed an expedition. It is my hope that this report will give the reader a sense of how and why we came to that conclusion. While I will attempt to write in a way that reflects the experience of all the participants, of necessity, since this report is mine, it will at times focus more on what it was like for me. This is so not only because I’m the one doing the writing, but because I found this expedition among the most challenging things I’ve ever done both physically and mentally. Indeed, if I wanted to go all woo woo, I could focus less on what we all did and more on my own internal journey. I’ll spare everyone that…but it will creep in.
Thirteen people - lead guides Guðni Páll Viktorsson and John Carmody, guide Anula Jochym, The Rock Gummi Breiddal (and if I’ve spelled Gummi’s name wrong it’s because I can’t read his handwriting!), leader in training Jonathan Oltz, and team members Michelle and Jeff Forseth, Barb Todd, Mark Sprinkle, Rebecca Hoye, Bernie Graham, Dan Carr and your faithful scribe - set out in a motor launch carrying our fleet of boats and million Ikea bags of gear from the town of Ísafjördur in northwest Iceland to Aðalvík, the first bay on the outside of the Westfjords. It had been a two year wait to take this first step. Covid had upset our 2020 plans, and we waited with some anxiety to see whether a year and a half into the global pandemic, Iceland would once again welcome travelers from the United States. Sometime in the spring, between the apparent success of vaccines to fight the virus and the rise of the Delta variant in July, Iceland changed its travel rules and allowed those fully vaccinated to enter without further testing or quarantine requirements.
For some of us, this was our second trip to the Westfjords. In 2018, Barb and I joined John, Guðni, Gummi and others for a week-long paddle in the inner, more protected fjords of the region. We had hoped then to turn the corner on the western end and “go outside,” but conditions didn’t allow it. The outside remained for us a wild and mysterious place. I very much wanted to return and see it. In 2019, John, Guðni, Mark, Becca and Bernie were among those who did “go outside” - for a weeklong paddle from Ísafjördur to Hornvík. Our hope was to double the 2019 time and distance, and complete a trip all the way to the end of the Westfjords, and in so doing to become the first group of paddlers ever to do so. That was the plan anyway. No telling if the Weather Gods would allow it
Wednesday-Friday July 14-16, 2021 Boston - Reykjavik - Ísafjörður
In Which Most of the Team Meets up at Various Airports, Prudence is Surprised by an Unexpected Presence, and the Gathered Team Travels to the Westfjords for Shopping and Getting Boats Sorted Out
You think you know who will be joining you on a trip because you’ve all been communicating in endless chains of emails for months about flights, schedules, gear, clothing, food - and so on and so on and so on. Finally it’s time and you’re ready to go.
You think you know who’ll be there until you enter the airport and realize you’ve forgotten to put on the required mask, and while scrabbling through your luggage on the floor trying to find it, hear a strange man invite you to sit next to him on a nearby bench. What the…? You look up and…WTF?!?…it’s Jonathan Oltz! Smoothly pulling off a John Carmody-Jonathan Oltz surprise six months in the making. I had had no idea he was coming! A delightful start to the trip! And so the Northeasterners (John, Jonathan, Dan Carr and I) flew overnight, and were greeted at the airport by the two Icelanders, Guðni and Gummi (both of whom had been on the 2018 trip) and one displaced Mainer (Barb) arriving from Salt Lake City via Denver. We had a short wait before the remaining team members, Minnesotans all, landed and spent it lounging on the floor at Keflavik.
We had a private bus waiting to drive us to Ísafjördur. Some thought they’d try and nap…
Another was covered with instructions for the ride…
The five hour drive was familiar. Spitting rain at the airport gave way to low clouds and peeking blue sky the farther we got from Keflavik.
We had time in Ísafjördur that afternoon and the next day for some shopping. Essential supplies…a box of wine and a number of thick, scratchy Icelandic sweaters, one of which kept me warm over the next two weeks. After a good night’s sleep, we gathered up at a local coffee shop to plan the last day before our departure. Hitting the grocery store when it opened at 10:00 am to get fresh fruit and vegetables as well as cheese, salami and bread before it all got sold out. Walking around a town that I never thought I’d see again. Welcome and familiar sights…
Red house and rock garden.
Lilacs just coming into bloom in mid-July as I had remembered from 2018.
The cutest boat you’ll ever see…
Then finally, our boats. John had arranged with P&H for a fleet of Scorpios to be shipped from the UK to Iceland for the team members to paddle. MV’s and two HV’s. John shipped over his own Cetus and brought one for Gummi, too. As a Rockpool team paddler, Guðni had a Taran to lend to Jonathan and a Bach Eto for himself, while Anula, a Polish paddler now settled in Iceland guiding both hiking and kayaking trips, had an extremely heavy Swiss made boat with which I was unfamiliar. I was impressed before I ever met her when I found out she’d done a solo circumnavigation of Sicily in 2020. She works now with Guðni and turned out to be a wonderful addition to the trip.
There had been much fretting about how all our food and gear would fit into the boats, and so we all did a test pack that afternoon.
When we were done - everything fit…more or less….. some of us went to watch an event we’d seen three years ago, apparently on the very same day: an open water swim race in very chilly water. We found the swimmers, closely monitored by safety kayakers.
We also found other people amusing themselves in other ways…
That night, tired as I was, I looked forward to a last good sleep in a real bed before moving into a tent the next night. No such luck! In the land of 24 hours of light, it’s just fine to have a road race that ends right outside one’s hotel room at about 11 pm. Loud rock music pulsed for over an hour before the winning runner crossed the finish to enthusiastic applause from the sparse crowd. Between finishers, the music resumed until there were a sufficient number of people coming in at the same time that the PA system was given over to encouraging words to the tired runners.
And so, the last song I heard blasting over the loudspeakers was Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”. It would stay with me for the rest of the trip! If you don’t know it, check it out… “Ain’t no doubt about it We were doubly blessed ‘Cause we were barely seventeen And we were barely dressed…” I did NOT sleep well that night.
Day One - Saturday July 17 - Ísafjörður to Látravík/Aðalvík
In Which We Are Transported to Our Starting Point and Encounter for the First Time - but Certainly Not the Last - Wind and Waves
There had been discussion prior to our trip as to whether we wanted to paddle the long (9+ mile) crossing followed by more miles to get to the place where our 2018 trip ended - or even more than that to get to where the 2019 trip started. With one exception, those of us who had already done the crossing didn’t feel the need to repeat the experience! This was particularly so for Barb and me, whose crossing had been in lively seas into a headwind the whole way. Eventually, everyone agreed that being transported by boat made more sense. First and foremost, it would give us an extra margin of time to complete the expedition if conditions forced us to take layover days. Second, it would remove the stress of packing-for-real our new-to-us boats and facing a very long first day on the water. No shakedown cruise for us!
And so, on a crystal clear morning in Ísafjörður,
we walked from our hotel to the dock area where the motor boat awaited us. When we arrived, kayak-loading was in full swing.
The blue boat on the bow is mine (for the trip)!
With everything going smoothly - so far - Jonathan and Guðni looked pretty chill.
It was sufficiently bumpy as we did the crossing that I wasn’t able to get any decent pictures. However, I can say that there were many expressions of relief that we weren’t in our kayaks. Wind and waves… Later, John confessed that even before he reached out to us to ask us whether we preferred to paddle or be transported to our starting point the decision had already been made by Guðni and him. The built-in extra time was too precious to pass up. And so in not much more than hour, we reached Aðalvík. The five composite boats were the first to be off-loaded.
A first group - Dan, Jeff, Gummi and I - hopped aboard a Zodiac and towed the boats to shore. Dan looked ready for whatever the day might bring.
As it turned out, deploying the boats and towing them in a Zodiac was the easiest part of the operation. there was enough surf at the landing that several of the boats flipped over, filling with sandy water. But all five were eventually wrestled and stashed ashore, by which time the next Zodiac of passengers was arriving. Jeff waded in to help with the landing.
While we stood ashore, a shuttle of Ikea gear bags and towed Scorpios commenced, until the final three boats were ready to come ashore.
We formed a bucket brigade up the very cobbly beach until all our Ikea bags were safely stashed.
Finally, a moment to breathe and take in the day. Other than the wind, which blew with some strong conviction, we couldn’t have chosen a more lovely day to begin the trip. The sun shone, and clouds dropped down over the mountains.
The ground was carpeted with purple and yellow wildflowers.
Before we dispersed to find tent-sites to our liking and set up camp, most of us gathered and sat in a circle in the tall grass. We had arrived. Let the journey begin!
I set up my new tent in an area slightly sheltered from the wind. This Hilleberg Allak 2 was to be a source of high hilarity and substantial anxiety in the days to come…
In the land of 24 hour daylight, one can set out at pretty much any time for a nice walk. Dan had expressed interest in a 20 km roundtrip hike to an abandoned American Air Defense Radar Station on Straumness Mountain, but came to his senses and joined the rest of us for a much more leisurely walk. We passed a lovely cabin nestled under the cliffs and surrounded by wildflowers.
There was some rusted machinery, and this bicycle…
A large sign in Icelandic and English provided history of the military station, which was operational from 1956 to 1960. As one always drawn to stickers and patches, I think it would have been worth it to endure the cold, wind and isolation just to earn this totally cool US Air Force 934th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron patch!
We walked as far as we could until the path we were following gave out in the grass and flowers. A word on walking in this area. How long has it been since any of us walked through tall grass without thinking twice about it? Ticks ticks ticks. In Iceland…no ticks! As long as you didn’t get soaked in a boggy bit, the walking was all just fine.
And so we returned to camp, where with the wind continuing to blow, John assigned an evening exercise for the team. On the north-facing part of the Westfjords, which comprise the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, there are four high headlands that must be rounded. These substantial sticky-outy bits can generate big and confused conditions, complicated by winds that can howl down the 1000+ foot cliffs. The first of these is Straumnes, which would be our first major challenge. Our assignment: make a go/no go decision for rounding the headland tomorrow. Southwest winds were predicted in the range of 8-16 kts, falling for four hours starting in mid-morning. We were given tidal information as well, and knew that rounding the headland would optimally be done at slack-tide, which would be noonish. This assignment was the first indication that this trip - expedition - would be different from all others I’d been on. From the start, John and Guðni turned over much decision-making about go/no-go, stopping places, camping places and so on to the team. I can’t say that at the outset I was prepared for this. I was sufficiently anxious about what I’d heard about potential conditions rounding headlands that it was hard to think of much else.
We prepared supper. I stuck with Good to Go dehydrated meals (made in Maine!), and was impressed by Michelle and Bec, who had dehydrated their own fresh food and made delicious much more interesting dinners. Water is everywhere in this part of Iceland. One never needs to carry it, beyond what one wants for the day. And it is completely clean and safe to drink without any treatment. This campsite even had a hose connected to a running stream, which both water retrieval and dishwashing very easy, as Bec demonstrates here.
I took a final walk around after supper, gazing at the sea, where waves seemed to have picked up…
And so, off for an uneasy night’s sleep.
Day Two - Sunday July 18 - Látravík
In Which Guðni Becomes Another Year Older and the Wind Has Something to Say About Our Plans for the Day
We awoke to even more wind. It was Guðni’s birthday.
And I forgot to mention… This campsite featured one of the many safety stations along the coast.
Equipped with table, bed surfaces and bedding and a radio, they provide a safety net for stranded travelers. Also a nice place for preparing meals out of the wind (lthough I'm not sure why everyone was looking so grim here...)
Including Guðni’s traditional (I knew it from the 2018 trip!) birthday pancakes, served with jam, maple syrup and Icelandic Cool-Whip.
John and Mark discussed the day
while looking out at the sea, where lines of waves marched toward shore, bigger and more numerous than the night before.
I had not slept well over anxiety about the day to come. Others had not slept well because they’d chosen tent sites too exposed to the wind. The decision was soon made that we would not be paddling today. I felt a mixture of relief and ongoing apprehension. On the one hand, no surf launching and no prospect of those big-confused seas at the headland. On the other… the rounding would still be there to tackle the next day…
And so, another day of rest or walking. The four ladies posed for a photo. (While all of you were sweating at home in July, we were happy in puffy jackets and hats!)
John and Guðni in more contemplative mood. Possibly Guðni was thinking about how old he was getting…
Because there would be no paddling today, most of us set out on another walk that would allow a view to the conditions on the other side of the headland.
This is what we saw. Pictures don’t do justice to the scale of the land, nor does this photo show the conditions - waves breaking on ledges and so on - that we would have faced had we launched today.
While Gummi continued onward and upward with Dan and Bernie, the rest of us turned around and stopped for lunch. Here’s Barb.
And some pretty pink flowers next to me.
Mark, an avid birder, led a small group to a freshwater pond, where among others, we saw Arctic skuas, wimbrels and swans.
Back at camp, Jonathan messed about with his boat.
And because it was his birthday, it wasn’t enough for Guðni to make us a pancake breakfast…he also prepared a delicious barbecue supper - roasted lamb and potatoes.
Best. Potatoes. Ever. on the grill.
Lamb and potatoes…
Followed by dishwashing
and then off to bed, wondering what the next day would bring. Forecast was for diminishing winds, but as we’d lost a day before even starting, our first day on the water when we were finally able to do it, would be double the distance. Twenty miles to look forward to… And we really had to get going!
Day Three - Monday July 19 - Látravík - Hlöðuvík
In Which We Finally Launch and a Day to Survive Becomes a Day to Savor
So the wind was forecast to drop but when I awoke at 6:00 am it was still howling. And thus begins a trip report that will at times reflects the blur of places and feelings and experiences that I remember as our expedition proceeded. In writing this up, I faced a choice of whether to acknowledge and describe my not infrequent anxiety or just say “we went here, we went there, some days were harder thanothers, some winds stronger, some waves bigger.” I have chosen the former because it is the more truthful account. One often has an image of how a trip will proceed, based on previous experiences and wishes. I certainly did. In 2018, our trip “inside” was a leisurely paddle. We hugged shorelines, watched birds and other wildlife (even thanks to sharp-eyed Barb spotted a sea eagle nest with a mom and young ‘un on a rock close to the water), and took photographs of the passing scenery near and far, and of each other. The waters were calm and there were plenty of places to hide from whatever wind there was. I had thought this trip would be a version of the same thing… It was not. Starting with the responsibilities that were placed on our team that I described above and continuing with requirements placed on us to make miles so as to complete the expedition and meet the bus that would pick us up at a certain spot on a certain date at the end, this was no leisurely stroll in the park. There was also the exposed nature of our route, traversing one of the most isolated coasts in Iceland with nothing between us and Greenland but a cold and often intimidating sea. And the weather/wind that could be created by the tall cliffs, the fjords between them down which winds could rush, and finally a large inland glacier - Drangajökull - that would contribute its own weather a few days on. There would be long stretches with no opportunities for taking pictures as I kept a firm grip on the paddle. Times of confused seas and strong winds blended one into another. I suspect - read: know - that I was often more anxious on the water than my compatriots. For me, this expedition turned out to be as much mental as physical, and it wasn’t until the end that I really had a chance to reflect on my experience. In the meantime, survival sometime seemed to be my mode of paddling - and I’ll say out the outset that I remain deeply grateful to those who were my guardian angels on the trip. You know who you are. And from the outset, I was very impressed by the skill of the team as a whole.
So…where was I? Waking up to continued strong winds. By the time we were preparing to launch around 9:00 am, things had calmed down…somewhat. I was still worried about the surf launch as a way to start a journey in a very heavy loaded boat, but knew that all there was was to…just do it!
On further reflection…and analysis of this photo…perhaps I wasn’t the only one with a few nerves… How happy does this group look?
And then it was time to carry boats down to the beach. (Note: I do not say “we” here. With two artificial knees, including one that needs to be replaced this fall, and at constant risk of slipping and further damaging my wonky left prosthesis, I was exempt from boat carrying - and deeply grateful to those who did all the work.)
Bec and Michelle looking more cheerful - well, Bec was anyway - about impending launch than the group above.
And so we were off. The surf launch I’d so worried about was a piece of cake. But we still had four nautical miles til we reached the Straumness headland, which was plenty of time for further worrying for me!
I’ll also note that I had made the mistake of affixing a deck back to my kayak. Big mistake. More on that later. This first day, for the first but not last time, I paddled near the edge of my comfort zone. There were biggish swells and waves hitting us sideways. One larger wave came toward me and broke against me. I channeled previous John Carmody lessons and shouted loudly to myself, “KEEP PADDLING!” and so I did and remained solidly upright. Finally, we were almost at the headland.
And around! Jeff gives a cheerful wave.
We pulled up to a “beach” covered with large, slippery green-slime-covered boulders. Leaning on several people, I made it about two boulders up and there I remained for the rest of the snack break.
We had one more headland - Kögur - another four nautical miles distant, which meant more rough seas under lowering clouds.
Jonathan was working on figuring out his borrowed Taran, finding that stopping and remaining stable was a bit of a challenge.
But finally we were around…and the day’s struggles disappeared. A long run southeast to our next stopping point, sheltered from wind and sea. For the first time, a coastline to savor. Pictures to take.
High cliffs, waterfalls, great hunks torn from the rockface.
Easy slots to run.
Gummi in his new Cetus pausing and looking.
The rockface itself a jagged marvel.
And so we continued on, the sun lighting the slanting side of an otherwise daunting cliff.
We were lucky throughout our expedition that the clouds were rarely low enough to obscure the tops of cliffs and mountains. The 2019 group, who were doing this part of the route for the second time, were actually able to see it all for the first time.
In the final approach to Hlöðuvík, Guðni paused to give Michelle a fishing lesson
while the rest of us continued on to land to set up camp.
This campsite was a really lovely one - a grassy stretch running above a cobbly beach, with a kind of a space pod lifesaving station that ended up being a lifesaver for one of our group (more later on that).
And were it not for the dead whale washed from the shore into the water source by a strong storm the year before, it would have been a very easy place from which to fetch water as well! We relaxed on the grass until Guðni was ready to cook the fish he and Barb? Michelle? had caught.
Cooking on the beach.
The clouds swirled, the wind picked up and after a very long day (18 nm, 20 statute miles), it was nice to relax in the endless light.
Day Four - Tuesday July 20 - Hlöðuvík - Hornvík
In Which the Wind Once Again Foils Our Plans and We Falsely Anticipate a Land-Bound Day and Discover That There Is Little Difference Between a Freestanding Tent and a Balloon
We awoke to wind...and a rainbow...
and the sight of Anula emerging from the lifesaving station. Overnight, the wind never let up. Indeed, there was one gust we all remembered that roared unexpectedly from a different direction. It turned out that this one mighty gust blew out Anula’s tent - the pole coming free and putting a large hole through the side of the tent. Is this a time to mention that she was the only one in our entire group that didn’t have a Hilleberg tent? She was forced to decamp to the station for the rest of the night. Meanwhile, as the wind blew and the clouds danced across the sky and atop the mountains ringing us, the rest of Hilleberg City had slept more or less peacefully - although Anula's gust did awaken many of us!
We moved to the station for a session with the chart and to make plans for the day.
Ultimately, given the forecast, the plan was to remain where we were. Another layover day. Concerning in that on the fourth day of the expeditions we had only been able to paddle once, although we had made up a day by doubling our mileage yesterday.
No need for emergency calls, but we wondered whether this worked.
Have I mentioned how civilized the campsites in the nature reserve were? Elf house outhouses (secured with piles of rocks given potential windy consequences if they weren’t…)
So…another day for on-land hijinks. Jeff and Anula…
And for quiet moments…
Until it was time to fetch water (far upstream of the easily visible dead whale! - I’ll spare you the picture…)…
And then a walk up the beach to an adjoining valley, where Mark hoped to see more birds.
I made it only part of the way before a strong wind kicked up, blowing sand horizontally along the beach. I decided to turn back. My back to the wind, I was able to enjoy watching little birds (a tern? what?) on the rocks.
And the rushing river where upstream the dead whale lay.
When I got back, barefoot boys were having a quiet discussion.
Later, Barb, Michelle and I decided to follow the path upstream to see the sights.
Flowers in the rocks.
And along the trail.
I’ll spare you a photo of a nude man bathing along the way (hikers used these campsites, too). When we stopped, I took the opportunity to make a little man on the rocks, thinking of Donna Sylvester as we have made many little rock men in our time together...
When we strolled back, we were all asked to gather up. The executive team had made an executive decision. The wind had dropped and was supposed to stay down. We would pack up camp and launch at 8 pm for a 9 mile paddle around the next headland. It was likely that we would once again be stranded the following day (the wind! the bloody wind!) and while our present camp was a more pleasant place to spend another day, we needed to put in miles, even it meant a very early morning arrival at Hornvík. Mark was thrilled about the plan as the headland was one he remembered from 2019 as covered with birds, with rafts of birds of birds on the water. He would be able to see all the way to the top, and with calm seas, he’d be able to get closer to look.
An anxious couple of hours packing and being unable to eat much of a supper… And then a little after 8:00 pm we were ready to go.
By which time the wind was picking up a bit again. Bec was quite cheerful - as usual.
We paused behind a rock stack, then continued on.
The seas got rougher than I had expected, and I struggled with wind pushing against the deck bag and a balky skeg that made it hard to make fine adjustments. I had to use two hands to move the skeg, which meant I was losing ground every time I made an adjustment. I fell back from the group a bit, but was grateful that Gummi, and then Guðni stayed close by. When we finally made the first turn
following seas built up behind us.
and Guðni stayed near
until we finally were heading southeast toward Hornvík and in more protected seas.
Above and ahead of us were flying saucer clouds
created by cold air coming off the glacier to our south.
There were fewer birds than Mark had been hoping for, but there were still plenty.
Time went on... This was what it looked like at around 11 pm.
And here we are landing at 11:30…
It was well after midnight when we finally and silently got tents set up. Hornvík is a very popular campsite for hikers and also has a permanent station for one of the companies that Anula guides for. (Fortunate for her, because a re-supply boat was to bring her a replacement tent - a Hilleberg! - the next day, which she was to use for the rest of the expedition.) Most of us tiptoed around setting up tents in a small area to one side of where the sleeping campers had their tents. I had gotten set on a more isolated spot on the other side. For some reason, Barb decided that I just had to move to an area closer to the others. I pushed back…no, I’m good here…but for some stupid reason ended up caving and agreeing to move. BIG MISTAKE that could have been disastrous. She and I carried my pitched free standing tent to the newly chosen area, and put it down. At which point Barb turned back to her own unpacking. Pretty much encephalopathic with fatigue… I also turned from my tent to tell her that her work was not yet done… when a gust of wind came and…
Oh how I wish I had had camera right in hand. My red tent was instantly airborne, ten, then twenty feet off the ground. Shouts and men - Guðni, Gummi - running as the tent balloon headed for the sea - next stop….Greenland! At this point, Barb, overcome by the hilarity of it all, literally fell over laughing…because, really, what other option was there? By some twist of fate, or gust of favoring wind after a day of unfavorable wind, the tent swooped toward the ground where Mark, coming up from the beach to see the astonishing sight of an airborne tent, reached up and snagged it! And so the day was saved! Tent, sleeping bag and sleeping bag that it had taken for the sky ride, were all fine. I returned to my original site, secured the tent to the ground before turning away from it again…and went to bed…
The day’s lesson definitely learned. While there is no photo, the image of that red tent high above the ground sailing toward the sea will remain with me forever.
Day Five - Wednesday July 21 - Hornvík
In Which Our Plans are Once Again Foiled and We Walk to a Waterfall, Fretting About Days Lost to the @#$%! Wind
Another day on land. While the campsite at Hornvík was the least pleasing of those we’d stayed at thus far, it did have one excellent feature: a family of Arctic foxes, mama and cubs - cavorting in a field of dried logs pushed ashore long ago after a long trip from Russia in mighty storms. These fearless foxes, who are protected from hunting in the nature reserve, are not afraid of humans, and played not far from us as we sat on our own log and watched.
It was a leisurely start to what would be a leisurely day. Mark in his mansion…
Barb, Michelle and I went for a walk toward a distant waterfall.
I stopped here while they continued on.
Then turned back. Another cheerful cottage.
The day continued windy…and sunny…as we all were working on our Icelandic sunburns.
Until it was time for Hilleberg Tent City to go to sleep once more.
Tomorrow’s plan was to round The Horn (as in Hornstrandir). The 2019 group had accomplished this - part way - but turned back and had been picked up by boat in Hornvík. From here on, the expedition would be new to everyone but Guðni, who circumnavigated the whole country some years ago.
Day Six - Thursday July 22 - Hornvík - Hornbjarg Lighthouse
In Which We Round the Horn, I Discover That Wind Can Be As Hard as a Wall, We All Take Unplanned Showers, the Wind Takes Over Trip Planning Yet Again and The Red Tent Has Another Adventure
And so, packing and launching once again.
Conditions were mild as we paddled up toward the Horn.
And finally there we were, approaching it…
I anticipated that as had been the case before, rounding the Horn would provide gentle conditions on the other side. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but all of a sudden I was attempting to paddle into a wall of wind that was as solid as a rock. I struggled with little success to keep moving forward, and then saw Guðni gliding easily toward me, tow rope carabiner in hand, and without a word, smoothly clipping onto my deck line. Within moments, the two of us were leaping forward. What a strong paddler he is! Mark later commented that when he saw me flying by, remarked to himself, Whoa look at that Prudence go!….until he realized I was on an assisted tow. That night, John told me that he had wanted me to preserve my balky shoulder from a long struggle into 30+ kt winds and that he had never seen anyone initiate a tow in such conditions as proficiently as Guðni had.
While one never wants to be towed, it was the right move under the right conditions, and paddling along with Guðni’s assist, I actually enjoyed the ride..and took a picture or two.
We unhooked about a mile down, just as we were approaching one of the most wonderful features of the trip: a rare waterfall falling directly from a cliff into the sea.
Oh my! The pounding water created its own weather and wind under it and Guðni said to just keep paddling through it when its wind kicked up. On the other side, I turned back to capture images of others going through. This is my favorite picture.
and in the distance you can see John and Jeff sans helmets, getting a good cleaning soak.
We all went through more than once, whooping and hollering while the chilly water falling from on high pounded down onto us.
Here’s Bernie - pretty clean!
And shortly thereafter, a lighthouse that Guðni said we just had to visit. This image gives no sense of scale - how high up the lighthouse was.
We pulled ashore and stashed the boats while Bec posed for a (very clean) photo.
We climbed up the long set of narrow stairs to the top. Here’s Anula climbing up
And greeting us at the top, an Arctic fox…
We had a nice lunch and were preparing to head back down - indeed some already had - when Guðni and John called us all back. We met in the lighthouse for yet another sober talk about upcoming changes in forecast conditions.
We had planned to continue on, but the wind…the wind…once again had something to say about it. The lighthouse keeper was good enough to offer us camping space with a beautiful view.
I inexpertly set up my tent, Note the effect that wind is having as it hits one of the broader panels of the tent. I still had a lot to learn about my Allak… (Thankfully, Dan had much to teach me the next day…)
I was feeling pretty good, though, and Barb snapped this picture of me in my new toasty warm Icelandic sweater.
All that was left before a nice night’s sleep…not!…was securing the boats.
And so I crawled into my tent for Red Tent Adventure Number Two. The wind was very strong and made high pitched howls as it blew under the extra rain fly on top of the tent. Soon, it was of sufficient force that the entire side of the tent, pole and all, was pushing against my face as I lay in bed. I contemplated the situation for a time, then came to the conclusion that as strong as the Hilleberg was, it might be at risk of blowing up as Anula’s tent had. So I crawled out and found both stakes and tension lines pulled from the ground on the windward side. It was clear I needed to get the tent down. You may have noticed that in previous picture that it was pitched rather close to the edge of a high cliff. I should have woken someone and asked for help, but started pulling the poles out before unclipping the tent, just to get it closer to the ground. If the tent went walkabout here, it would be gone gone gone. And so I wrestled with the wildly blowing red mass, holding it down with my body. But then…to the rescue!…I saw the lighthouse keeper, who had seen the drama unfolding from his kitchen window, running in stocking feet across the grass toward me. He held the tent down while I got the poles out, then rushed with it into a small old barn where in the dark we’d eaten dinner that night. Turned out Guðni, Gummi and Anula were still up having a wee nip of a brown liquid in the barn and they came rushing out to help me move all of my gear away from the cliff edge and toward a safer spot slightly sheltered from the wind. I noticed a couple that had arrived after we did taking down their tent to move to a more secure location as well.
No pictures of all this drama, but an image of my tent sailing off the edge of the tall cliff surely headed all the way to Greenland has stayed with me.
Did I sleep well that night? I'll let you guess...
Day Seven, Friday July 23 - Hornbjarg Lighthouse - Reykjarfjörður
In Which it is a New Day Without Drama Involving Me or My Tent and The Team Miscommunicates and Learns a Lesson, Dinner is Caught and and Dan Has a Come to Jesus Moment in a Pool of Delightfully - and Possibly Spiritually - Warm Water
The team had been working well up to now, making such decisions as we were able to do - although finding plans changed when new weather reports came in. Today was one where poor communication from the start had us split into two widely separated groups for a good part of the day, each pod believing that what they were doing was what had been agreed upon. We had considered two options to get from one small headland to another. Some of us were partial to making a straight shot from one to the next, a shorter crossing farther out to sea that would provide little sightseeing along the way. Others proposed a longer route closer to shore. We ultimately decided - we thought - on splitting the difference. Dipping south toward the coastline but cutting the distance by not following it all the way along. Good plan. Poor execution as it turned out.
After an inadequate breakfast on my part, we loaded our gear onto a generator-powered hoist that the lighthouse keeper kindly fired up for us to use, to spare us carrying multiple heavy bags down the treacherously narrow steps.
When we were all safely down and just about ready to launch, the lighthouse keeper took a series of group pictures, suggesting at the end that silly ones were the best. And so, our silly group shot…
Guðni was more serious up for a pre-launch portrait, and then we were all off.
Mark had particularly wanted to see this waterfall, and we all agreed that that made sense, so as a group, we approached.
The seas were pretty calm, and we meandered through bird-infested rock stacks.
We were still all together as we approached Straumnes.
Then things went downhill. Almost immediately one group was heading straight out to sea, and the other, following Guðni, who unknown to us took the route he had because he wanted to fish, were closer to shore. Jeff seemed to approve.
We stopped to watch Guðni fish. Using just a hand land and a hook without bait, he pulled up cod after cod. Cod in my neck of the woods costs over $20 a pound, and here was Guðni catching a fish almost immediately after he dropped his line in the water.
Gummi surveyed in his stoic way. A man of few words, when he does speak, you listen for sure.
Rain started spitting down and while the other pod farther out to sea seemed to be staying close together, ours was spreading apart.
At some point, John dashed off to check in with the outer pod. We thought he’d return to us, but he never did, instead continuing on by himself. It turned out that he lost sight of us in the vast landscape. The scale of things in Iceland is hard to describe. Big and small, close and far, don’t do justice to one’s perception of distance.
In any event, we all managed to meet up again about four miles from our finishing point for the day. 18 statute miles from when we started, we landed in the rain.
Jeff was pretty enamored with the cod he’d caught!
We saved discussion of how we’d had all messed up til the next day. In the meantime, we had a hearty supper - topped off with more cod cooked in butter with lemon than we were able to eat.
The sun poked out enough that we had hopes that clothes would dry. Dream on.
And then, the reward after a long hard - albeit messed up - day: a trip to the HOT POOL located close to the campground. We’d all been told to bring bathing suits because of the pools. I had had an image of small natural features filled with sulfurous hot water coming from the bowels of the earth. Nope. An actual swimming pool filled with hot water beside a clean changing room and shower area. All we had to do was brave the diving Arctic terns who took exception to our walking through their nesting grounds on the way there… And then, into the water, where Dan had his Come to Jesus moment as he dipped into the hot water. Hallelujah!
We all did, he just expressed it best as the rest of couldn’t stop laughing at the expression of each successive team member sliding into the water. Hard to resist pool portraits, so here goes…
Jeff - looking as though he has used up all his day’s energy.
Guðni and John.
Guðni and me.
Michelle, Jeff and Barb.
Gummi and Bernie.
And Jeff, apparently revived, playing with a pool noodle.
I don't know how I missed getting a picture of Mark!
We showered, shampooed, walked back through the dive-bombing terns and - clean and exhausted - had a very good night’s sleep.
Day 8 - Saturday July 24 - Reykjarfjörður - north entrance of Bjarnarfjörður
In Which We Get Our Act as a Team Together Again and Discover That at Times it Makes Sense to do Less Even if It’s Possible to Do More
We started the day with a discussion of how we’d managed to miscommunicate so badly and get separated. John pointed out that on an expedition, such events can threaten to drive a wedge between team members. None of us wanted that, and we vowed to listen and do better. For the rest of the trip, there was no repeat.
First, we had to get all of our gear from the campsite, which was some distance from the water, back to the launch. Guðni borrowed a four wheeler from a farmer and we loaded everything onto a trailer and got back to the launch in good order.
A group gathered to see us off - children and adults.
One little boy was particularly intrigued by our boats, and Jeff got him set up to paddle with us.
And then, we were off.
At first, it was an easy paddle.
We stopped for a longish lunch in hopes that sun and wind might dry some clothes while Guðni cooked up a hot lunch for Gummi on a nifty little stove.
It was cold waiting for clothes to dry, especially because they wouldn’t, and so we pushed off. What followed was a slow and difficult slog into a very strong wind. We later found that we’d only managed to cover a little more than a mile in over an hour. We stopped on a log clogged beach where John instructed us to make a decision whether we should continue on, and if so for how far.
The team gathered up and considered what lay ahead. A half mile crossing of a fjord with the wind still blowing hard and continuing on for some indeterminate distance to some houses we could see on a far shore. At this point, we were very aware of how many days and parts of days we’d already lost to the wind. The farther point seemed unreachable, but putting in a few extra miles as it was only 6:00 pm seemed doable. So with the plan to cross the fjord, we returned to present our thoughts to John and Guðni. They listened politely, then pointed out the amount of time it had just taken us to go a very short distance, that the wind was still blowing hard, that the expenditure of energy in those conditions to achieve very few more miles - if that - made little sense. Forecast was again for winds to drop the next day. And so…we stayed.
I think we were all tired and it was nice to spread out and enjoy the beautiful site. Getting over the logs was a bit of a challenge, but we moved some to make a somewhat stable path through them to the grassy area beyond. Bec seemed happy enough with the situation.
I took a walk up the hill behind my tent and enjoyed blue, yellow and pink wildflowers.
And below, the latest iteration of Hilleberg Tent City.
The endless light provided ample time for John to replace the skeg on Mark’s boat
with enough time left over just to relax.
I took this picture in the middle of the night.
Day Nine - Sunday July 25 - Bjarnarfjörður - Seljanes Lighthouse
In Which We Are Actually Able to Sightsee Along a Route to a Lovely Campsite Where We Were Greeted by Whales and a Rainbow
Jeff was in charge of bocce and bowling and rolled together this group of fishing floats..
And then we were off on wonderfully glassy seas, a nice break from wind and waves. It stayed pretty calm for the whole day.
We reflected on the decision to stay where we were last night rather than put a few more miles in the bank. The fjord crossing that would have required a considerable expenditure of time and energy the day before took no time or effort now.
In the distance, the jagged teeth peninsula whose name I can't remember.
It was a very pleasant paddle to start the day, albeit a bit chilly.
We stopped below one of the teeth for lunch. Jeff and Michelle.
Jonathan was in a contemplative frame of mind as he rested and looked out to sea.
And once again a launch.
We paddled on
pausing occasionally to peruse a chart.
My day began to get more difficult. For the first time, chronic issues I have with my right shoulder began to flare up. There were many miles to go, including a long (five mile) crossing past three protuberances with our destination seeming to be impossibly far away. As we went on, my shoulder got worse and worse. I slowed as others pulled ahead.
But finally, the crossing was done, we saw a few whales off in the distance ,the sun was coming out and we could easily see our destination, another farm where Guðni hoped to get permission from the owners to camp for the night. Every difficult day should end with a greeting like this.
Gummi climbed up the rocks at the back of camp
while the rest of us pitched our tents.
It was a long (about about 16 statute miles) day under increasingly difficult conditions with physical pain to boot, but the good news is that when I stopped the pain did as well and I got a good night’s sleep.
Day Ten - Monday July 26 - Seljanes Lighthouse - Nordurfjörður Near Krossneslaug Hot Springs
In Which We Got a Very Late Start, Paddled Easily Lively Seas at a Slow Pace for Not Very Long and Not Very Far, Saw a Movie Star I’d Never Heard Of and Ended up Early…and Within Walking Distance of Another Hot Pool
Interesting day on a number of levels. News of the outside world (other than the daily weather report) intruded. Covid had been pretty much under control in Iceland when we arrived 11 days ago. But now we were hearing stories of infected Icelanders, likely from contact with international travelers. We had hoped to stop in a small town and resupply (salami, cheese, bread) but all thought it made sense to keep our big crowd out. Either we would send Guðni alone, or we would do without extra food.
Before we left, we chatted with the owner of the farm and his very pregnant wife. It turned out he had been a junior college basketball player in Iowa for a number of years, hoping for a professional career, before he returned home. He and his wife live in Reykjavik most of the year, but spend summers on two family farms in the Westfjords, where they harvest eider duck down. They climb down cliffs to remove the down from nests, replacing it with hay. Most gets sold to the Japanese. I wanted to ask how much a pound would cost, but that seemed rude, and so didn’t.
Conditions were mild and enjoyable.
We stayed close to the coastline (one of the rare days!)
and came upon what appeared to a film crew in a Zodiac on shore. A larger boat bobbed in the water offshore. As we passed, I snapped a picture.
Apparently the person at the stern wasn’t terribly friendly, calling out to Guðni to keep on moving and asking whether we would be crossing back in the other direction. It turned out that the second person aboard was Jason Momoa, a “movie star” of whom I’d never heard. Anula, however, was positively swooning, wanting to go back for a better look. Apparently he was in Game of Thrones, which I never watched.
On we went, paddling in a relaxed fashion on gently moving swells. It would be hard to think of more pleasurable conditions in which to get from point A to point B. Turned out everyone felt tired and that we were actually going very slowly. We passed another hot pool that looked to be newly constructed. Longing looks…But we kept going,
eventually turning a corner into Norðurfjörður
and pulling ashore to consider out next move,
It was here that Guðni announced that we’d been moving very slowly (likely why I liked it so much!) and had a decision to make. Rest for several hours where we were while he and Gummi went to re-supply and then continue on for many more miles since we had made not made much progress that morning. Or…continue on without resupplying. Or…make camp nearby and be prepared to stay an extra night with more bad weather on the way.
We ultimately chose to stay close to where we were. No one thought they’d get any rest waiting on a beach in the cold for several hours. We paddled farther into the fjord
and found a campsite in a sheep meadow between a seal colony below and a dirt road above leading back to the hot pool.
We set up camp while the Icelandars went to the store - and as it turned out stopped for a hamburger at a local restaurant! But they returned with goodies for all: a tall can of beer for everyone and a Prince Polo XXL candy bar for all as well.
Dan set up his camera on a timer for a group shot with Polo XXL! My favorite group shot for sure.
And while some of us (me!) couldn’t think of anything I’d less rather do than drink beer outside in the cold rain, but there were clearly those who disagreed! I donated my can to whoever most wanted it.
Day Eleven - Tuesday July 27 - Nordurfjörður near Krossneslaug Hot Springs
In Which We Lose Another Day to Bad - Horrendous! - Weather and Make Up for it With Hours in a Hot Pool
I awoke at 2 am to a promising sight...
At 6 am, it looked even better with bright blue sky behind a wall of clouds.
No one got up early, and by then the promise of the day had given way to its reality. Cold and rain with wind from the north. We weren’t going anywhere.
John stopped by my tent early to alert me to the reality that we would have long days with big miles in the days to come given the time we’d lost to the weather. I commenced to fret - again - about how my shoulder would hold up.
Guðni went down to the shore to get a good cell signal for a weather update and came close to the closest of the seals in the local colony.
He didn’t seem either impressed or bothered by either of us.
Only thing that made sense was to gather up our bathing suits and walk the mile back along the dirt road to the Hot Pool facility we’d seen before we turned the corner. It was a steep climb up to he road...
Oh my, what a beautiful location. A jewel of a pool right above the angry gray sea.
Looking down, John commented that those were “proper conditions” below, and that one would have to pay close attention to paddle in it. My heart sank.
But lifted the longer we spent in the pool. It rained and the wind blew and as it turned out, we stayed submerged, periodically seeking out the pipes from which the hot water was piped, for over two hours! Happy campers!
On the way back, the effect of two hours in hot water, very little to eat for breakfast, no water consumed for hours all hit me and I was barely able to stagger the mile back to camp along the rocky coastline.
When I got back to my tent, I threw myself on the ground for a time, soaking in the rain, before I crawled inside for what turned out to be the rest of the day and night. I foraged for food in my tent (apple, cheese, candy bars, energy bar) as I was unwilling to get out into the rain again to get more from my distant boat - or, heaven forbid, organize cooking a hot meal. It poured buckets that night. At 8:00, Guðni went tent to tent to inform us that the weather forecast was promising and that we should be prepared to be on the water at 9 am - an early start for us. Everyone stayed dry in their Hillebergs. I can’t remember whether I slept or not, but I know that it was a night of perfectly torrential rain.
Day Twelve - Wednesday, July 28 - Near Krossneslaug Hot Springs - Kaldbaksvík
In Which We Make Miles Being Pushed Along by North Winds and Following Seas and End Up At a Wonderful Campsite, Where I Was Lulled Into Believing the Worst Was Behind Us
Can one say a day dawned if it never really got dark? The rain had stopped, but the sheep camp was cold, gloomy and damp under gloomy skies. We knew we had a long day ahead. The wind had shifted and was coming from the north, which meant we’d have it at our backs all day. Mark in particular expressed pleasure at the prospect of having the the wind do the work for us. John’s words to me about the miles we needed to make, my ongoing concerns that shoulder woes might interfere with my ability to paddle, the miles we needed to make up, and the prospect of the dread (for me) following seas…all had me feeling apprehensive as the day started.
With the wind from the north, it was now noticeably colder than it had been before, and I dressed accordingly. Five (!) layers on top under my drysuit - two light and one medium-weight Smartwool, fleece, and a very lightweight Reed Chillcheater windbreaker. Also two Smartwool long underwear bottoms. (Later, when I showed Guðni, he expressed astonishment as even in winter he keeps it to only two layers! These Icelanders are tough!) I didn’t regret the wardrobe choice.
And so we departed. A tail wind pushed us across to the point opposite.
The seas were lively but manageable.
I wish I had pictures of the rest of the day on the water but, alas, have none. It was all two-hands-on-the-paddle for the 17+ statute miles that followed. This is one of the days that was a blur of sea and wind and anxiety. Actually, it started out fine. As Mark had expressed, it was a relief to be pushed along by the wind. My shoulder appreciated it. But as the day progressed, the fun following seas got markedly bigger, steeper and less fun. I know we stopped for lunch but I don’t remember when or where. The hours of keeping the boat going straight as the bow headed down waves wore on. It all felt manageable - if uncomfortable - until the last bit when a combination of increased wind speed and gusts tumbling off the mountains next to us created more confused seas. Not only were we being pushed along by the waves behind us, but pushed off course by waves coming at us from the side. John and Guðni both shouted out encouragement as I rode it out.
And then, miracle of miracles, we turned a westward corner and were instantly in a protected area. It is hard to describe the relief I felt as we passed a picturesque little farm nestled on a flat plain next to the shallow flowing river that was bringing us toward our camp site - where Guðni had gotten permission from the owner/friend for us to stay the night. The sky was clearing; nothing cheers like blue sky at the end of a long and difficult day. I took some pictures as we paddled in but later found that the lens was soaked and every picture was a blurry mess.
We landed, unloaded and set up camp. I have never been so happy to do those chores, as tired as I was.
With the sun somewhat out, there was also a chance to dry damp clothes and sleeping bag!
The water source was some distance away, and Michelle, Bernie, Bec and Mark gathered up our water bladders and went off to fill them up.
That night, to celebrate completion of a difficult day, Guðni surprised us all with a pancake supper - which he made Anula make! She did an excellent job for a first-timer!
We were all tired and in pensive frames of mind after supper, reflecting on the question of what makes a journey an expedition rather than just a…trip.
John also told the team that everyone had done really well and asked whether anyone had previously paddled for a long day in the conditions we’d just experienced. The answer was a universal NO.
It was a beautiful calm evening.
I slept well that night, confident (hah!) the worst was behind us and that we were going to accomplish our goal.
Day Thirteen - Thursday July 29 - Kaldbaksvík - Sandvík
In Which My Relief is VERY Short-Lived and We All Experience that the Worst (or was it Ultimately the Best?) Saved for Last
If I had known what the appropriately numbered thirteenth day would hold, I would not have slept at all! But it was a calm, overcast start to the day. No hint of what was to come…
The packing and loading were now an efficient routine and without moving terribly fast we were all ready to go by 10:00 or so.
It does make a difference when you know there are 24 hours of light, although we had all noticed that in the two weeks we’d traveled, the middle of the night was substantially darker than it had been when we started.
One effect of being close to the end of a long expedition - seven person boat carries!
We paddled out the river past the farm.
Turned south and caught the north wind blowing us south.
Before we left, we had discussed how to approach crossing Bjarnarfjörður, which at the closest starting and ending points would be about 2.5 nautical miles. But little is as it seems in this vast landscape of mountains and valleys and fjords. Guðni indicated that wind coming down the wide fjord would likely create significantly more rough and confused conditions closer in to the coastline. He proposed a five mile crossing route that would have us much farther offshore- where the waves would be more organized but still…big. We stopped for a break before starting the crossing. In my next life perhaps I’ll learn to keep my worries to myself, but this is my present life and I did vocalize both my dread about what lay ahead…
And thus began the indisputably most challenging part of the whole expedition. It is documented only in my mind. No photos at all. Our goal was to cross to small headland that seemed impossibly far away, hazy blue in the distance. As anxious as I was about what lay ahead, there was no choice but to just do it. We set out for five miles of paddling in big, steep, following seas. I went into a strange kind of mental cocoon…silently repeating the mantra Just keep paddling…just keep paddling. There were brief stretches - five or six strokes - where just paddling worked, but then a big trough would appear at the boat’s bow, meaning a big wave was to follow, and the kayak’s stern rose up behind me and I back-paddled to keep the boat from surfing down the wave. Or a several stroke stretch of just keep paddling would be interrupted by the tell-tale roar (which is it what it seemed) of a wave breaking behind me. My visual focus for the entire crossing was on the few paddlers in my general vicinity. I watched them, reassuring presences - especially when those reassuring presences were John or Guðni or my guardian angel Gummi - nearby. I never looked back regardless of how loud the breaking waves behind me sounded or deep the troughs in front. I didn’t look far ahead either - never focused on our destination, which would have only remained discouragingly far away, hazy and blue. My world was the few waves in front of me and the several people nearby. Close but not too close. The last thing one wanted was to surf into or be surfed into by a another boat. Paddle, paddle, back paddle, splashy put-on-the-brakes and let that wave pass under, paddle, paddle, brake, backsplash. On and on it went.
Until I heard Guðni shout to Anula, who was out in front, to turn slightly right and aim for a small valley - or was it a field? - on the destination headland. For the first time in the entire crossing I looked far enough ahead to see where we were now aiming and was immensely gratified to see that it was actually….closer! A glimmer of hope. But don’t get ahead of yourself…just keep paddling. Later, John asked whether people were anticipating what they might do in the event of a capsize - of themself or someone else. Yes, people were thinking about that. As for me, I was doing my best not to think about capsizing because such thoughts seemed dangerous potentially self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t think about capsizing! I thought as the big following seas kept breaking, picking me up, trying to hurl me down the face. Backpaddle, brake…brace…. but, yes!, we are get closer…much closer! Don’t get ahead of yourself! Don’t lose focus. Keep paddling.
And, miraculously, the five mile crossing was over and with the land jogging slightly westward as we continued south, we also were finally in the lee of the land and the ordeal had ended. I felt very close to weeping with happiness and relief - and pride of accomplishment! It wasn’t until later in the day that Guðni let use know that he had told a bit of a white lie. The crossing had not been five miles, it was actually six and a half! I gather he had thought five seemed a more doable number than six and a half. Yes indeed. I am grateful to him for the fib!
We stopped for a snack break and still flooded with relief I ate little. Michelle spotted a very old whale bone, covered with moss.
Guðni went on line to get the phone number of the farmer whose land we’d soon be paddling by to get permission to camp. What a civilized country where one can do this! We got back in our boats for the final short stretch of a mile or so. It was such a relief to…just paddle…without thinking about it.
Arctic terns flew above us.
After a while, we saw that the farmer had driven out along the shoreline so as to see us as we paddled in. He then drove to the harbor to greet us when we pulled in.
We pulled into his small, man-made harbor.
He and his son greeted us as we got out of our boats. They said they'd never seen kayakers in the area, and where very surprised to hear where our expedition had started.
Boats along the beach…
Our campsite was in a field of tall grass a short walk away. After we got everything set up, Barb and I finally posed for the picture we’d been meaning to take since I bought my handmade sweater at the same store in Ísafjörður where she’d bought hers three years before! (And if you happen to notice the black electrical tape on my hand that’s for blisters! Most of us had multiple black taped fingers. Barb had worn gloves - while I had ponies - and was blister free.
The expedition still had one day to go, but it was clear our goal of getting to Holmavík would be met. Tomorrow would give us a chance to paddle to a nearby island that we were told housed a substantial puffin colony and then on to the finish.
For the first night since we’d started, it was completely quiet - but for the incessant squawking of the many Arctic terms, who finally settled down sometime late at night. I had thought I’d sleep well but didn’t. It was hard to stop thinking about the day - the intensity of the experience, the feeling of satisfaction and pride at having stayed upright for the whole crossing!
Day Fourteen - Friday July 30 - Sandvík to Holmavík via Grimsey Island
In Which Our Expedition Ends - Nut Not Before Our Minds Are Blown at Grimsey Island
The team was up by eight, and without discussing it, gathered in a row at the edge of our field and gazed out at Grimsey Island, a mile offshore.
John soon wandered over, commented that we looked as though we were waiting for a bus, borrowed my camera, and took a group shot of the team - our first of just us. Left to right: me, Jeff, Bernie, Barb, Michelle, Bec, Dan and Mark.
John sat down next to me. I showed him this morning’s very apropos teabag message. It was he who suggested I take this picture. I couldn’t say how I felt that morning any better than this teabag put it…
I had a brief conversation with him about dealing with anxiety in anticipation of difficult paddling like yesterday's. He suggested deep breathing (I've tried it, doesn't work!) and said something that he's mentioned before - that women have a tendency to underestimate their abilities, while men may do the opposite. Obviously this doesn't pertain to all women or all men. He said that he'd chosen the people for the expedition knowing that everyone was capable of handling the conditions that we would face. I'll take all those words to heart as I breathe out blessings to all who made the experience so positive.
While I had spent the night reflecting on the accomplishment of the day, John had also been thinking - about what strokes would be most helpful in yesterday’s big conditions. He demonstrated what he’d come up with - and even proposed a name for it. Unfortunately, I will leave it to others to describe what he said. My mind was still a happy blur of relief and pride at what we’d accomplished.
John also talked about the crossing itself - the sea state, the size and steepness of the waves, decisions that he and Guðni made about making slight course corrections and so on. My two takeaways from this were that the biggest waves were around six feet - twice our height as we sat in our boats - and that one temporary course correction had been made after he observed two people (not me!) come close to capsizing on the same wave.
The leisurely morning continued with a tour by our farmer-host of an excavation of a very old settlement he and university students were digging on his property. It turned out that he was a university student himself studying archaeology.
And then it was time - for the last time - to launch loaded boats for our last day’s paddle. Our farmer-host, his son and granddaughter were all there to see us off.
Anula took a quick rest before we set out.
The next portion - almost the last portion - of our journey was pure magic. We could not have planned a better finish to an expedition - the hardest and most challenging day followed by the most wonderful. We all wanted to take the “scenic route” to Holmavík - detouring to Grimsey Island. As we got nearer, we saw puffins in the water. I was thrilled and started snapping pictures…
not realizing that we’d soon see that the entire island covered with them! Every bird in this picture is a puffin! Oh how wish I'd had a better camera!
And this one clumsily taking off.
And more on land…
And above us in the sky…
and more floating on the sea around us.
These pictures do not do the experience justice, as pictures rarely do. We all sat quietly in our boats, or moving silently forward looking up, looking over, as tens and tens and tens and tens of thousands of these wonderful birds surrounded us.
But then it was time to push on to the finish. Gummi and a passing fishing boat.
Heading back to the mainland in a bit of a fog…
And then, he fog lifted and the sky cleared to bright blue. We passed this sheep pergola…
and stopped for lunch.
Then paddled on to Holmavík…
Arrival under a bright blue sky!
Michelle all smiles!
Our fleet of Scorpios and other P&H boats back on land for good.
And with our entire group on land as well, we had officially and successfully completed our kayak expedition from Aðalvík to Holmavík. And in so doing, became the first group ever to paddle this entire coastline! How cool is that!
The restaurant where we’d thought we’d have a celebratory dinner was closed because one worker had tested positive for…yes…Covid! But we were able to secure outdoor reservations at the restaurant at The Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery! Here we all are - real food and beer!
And I’ll never pass up an opportunity to take a picture of a local kitty…
Supper over and a chill setting in, we walked the mile back to our campsite, admiring the view as we went.
The Expedition is Over - Saturday July 31
Here’s where we spent our last night. How weird was that after two weeks camping in the wild?
The real world was back in other ways as well…
Bec sat in front of her tent, taking her time with packing as she let gear dry while the rest of us commenced packing.
Guðni signed my deck bag. (Gummi and Anula did too.) Note the faded signatures from the 2018 trip. (BTW, I ditched the deck bag after several days of wrestling with its effect on boat handling. I will never use one in conditions again!)
And I got Bec to model the sweater she bought at the store in Ísafjörður. It’s a beauty! I found it first and tried it on but it was a hair too small. It fit Bec perfectly and as much as I still covet it, I know it’s found its way to the right person!
Speaking of signing things…Guðni asked us all to sign the inside door of his kayak trailer storage container.
And all that was left was boarding our bus (why didn’t I ever get a picture of it?) and riding the five hours to our hotels near Keflavik Airport. Gummi rode with us, and we dropped him off on the outskirts of Reykjavik to get a ride home from his wife. Goodbye Gummi!
(I hope to see him again in Boston in 2022. Both he and his daughter are marathoners and have qualified for Boston! They have a place to stay for sure if Covid allows travel here by then.)
It is not part of an expedition report to describe our cushy accommodations that night at the Keflavik Marriott! But I will say the whole team (eight of us plus Jonathan) had a delicious supper. I’d been dreaming of a hamburger for the last third of the expedition, and I was able to satisfy the urge that night. It was worth the wait.
So all that remained on the Sunday morning (August 1) of the day of our flight was to get a Covid test to allow us to return to the US. Not that we were anxious to leave…
Covid negative…Time to go home…
SOME POST-EXPEDITION THOUGHTS
This was a very special trip. Expedition. Given the number of international trips I’ve taken (Mexico, Wales, Scotland, Greenland, Croatia, Norway, New Zealand and Iceland #1 - as well as trips in Alaska and California) I’m often asked which was my favorite. Or I’ve had folks refer to them as “trips of a lifetime.” I generally avoid answering, not because I object to the question, but because it’s so hard to say. Clearly there were some trips that I preferred to others - generally due more to the people and guide on the trip than anything about the location. With a few exceptions, they were all great. But I can say that this really was the trip of a lifetime (although I hope to have many more!). The combination of the people, absolutely spectacular scenery, conditions, challenge and learning were all without equal. Being part of a kayaking team that was the first to traverse the entire outside of the Westfjords feels pretty special as well. As anxious and fearful as I was at times, in retrospect, I look back at the most difficult days and times and know they were actually the best. Pushing beyond one’s comfort zone always provides learning, and this experience certainly did.
I feel very privileged to have been included on this expedition. The team of lead guides, guides and guide in training as well as very skilled team members were all a joy to paddle with. I’d like to say something about each one of them.
Guðni - The most skilled local guide I’ve ever had the privilege of paddling with over many international trips. His knowledge of and comfort in this wild and challenging environment provided reassurance to all of us. I haven’t mentioned until now that on this trip, he was actually being assessed for the BCU Advanced Sea Kayak Leader (five star) award. This seemed a foregone conclusion to all of us, and indeed he was given the award the week after our expedition ended. If his tow of me helped him to check off one box on the personal skills list, I’m happy to have made that very tiny contribution to his success! It was wonderful to see how he’s grown as a guide since I first met him in 2018…and he was pretty darn good then too!
John - Brought this whole group together. He is the hub of a wheel that stretches across the country and indeed continents. Virtually everyone I’ve met and gotten to know paddling has been because of him. I think most of us on the expedition share this view. I needn’t say how much I’ve appreciated his patient coaching over the years; he knows how I feel. Thank you! I also liked his new addition to my paddling vocabulary: “proper conditions” as in…wild and very very challenging. On the scale of descriptors, proper conditions are way past sporty ones!
Gummi - “The Rock” as Guðni calls him. He is! Gummi’s competence and quiet presence (as well as laughter when he is the frequent foil of Guðni’s jokes) were wonderful additions to the trip. When he was nearby in gnarly conditions, I always felt better.
Anula - Wow! A wonderful, funny, warm super-competent paddler that we’ll all be excited to see at the Rendezvous - if the US lets her in!
Jonathan - Gotta appreciate someone who can keep a secret for seven months while asking “innocent” questions about my trip preparations. A good friend whom I’m happy to see growing as a paddler, a coach and a leader himself. And he was nice enough to carry my rubber boots in his giant boat for the whole trip!
Dan - “The Tent Whisperer.” He finally got me sorted out with my new tent. He had specific advice about consistent orientation of the tent to best handle the wind (ask him or me if you have a Staika or Allak and haven’t figured that out yet) and also about best use of the tiedowns. Thanks for that - and all the gear carrying.
Jeff - When spirits are low, Jeff can lift ‘em up. Give him sugar and watch him go! A joy to finally do a trip with him!
Michelle - Always always always helpful, lending a hand, a back, whatever for this unsteady soul to get from beach to boat, from boat to land, up and down cobbly beaches and so on. Can’t say enough thank you’s. And awesome paddler, too!
Bernie - A quiet consistent motor on this trip. Amazing to watch him gracefully and seemingly without effort move along into straight into a howling wind.
Bec - I’ve almost forgiven her for being small enough to wear the Icelandic sweater I really really coveted! Confident, skilled paddler who never stopped smiling. Another person I’ve wanted to do a trip with. Good book recommendations from her, too!
Mark - First taught me to roll way back in the day at Charles River C&K. (Not his fault I’ve forgotten how about a million times in the years since). One great thing about the paddling community is meeting up again with folks you first met long ago in a different place. It’s a gratifyingly small world. Always patient answering everyone’s endless bird questions - and generous lending his super (expensive!) binocs, too!
Barb - Thank heavens we dragged her from Utah to join the expedition. We exchanged numerous pre-trip texts, the gist of which was it was just “too much” to plan for this trip. But in the end, we did it! So happy to have her as a friend and to have shared the experience of the Westfjords Outside after doing the Inside three years ago.
My only regret about the expedition is that David Mercer was unable to join us. David was on board from the beginning but had to bail at the end because of work commitments. We all missed him and wish we had been able to share the adventure with him.
And one more thanks...to Joe Berkovitz, who was one the 2018 trip and because he likes messing about with the charts, made the detailed charts that we all used on the expedition.
I’ll be happy to paddle again with any or all of you!
A few more words on a few more things:
GEAR: If you’re planning to paddle the outside of the Westfjords, be prepared for conditions. A flimsy three season tent won’t do. Anula’s proved this. There is a reason that everyone on the trip had a Hilleberg tent. Yup, they’re mighty expensive, but you get what you pay for. And as long as you can keep it tethered to the ground, it will keep you secure and dry. Sleeping bag - I had a 15 degree bag and a light liner. I sleep warm so that was fine. I know some folks wear hats and socks at night. I don’t. I was also glad to have brought hiking poles, which I kept tethered to the deck of my kayak for ready access. Leave the deck bag at home if you’re “going outside.” Nice to have the extra space for gear but it really messes up the handling of the boat.
CLOTHING: If you have a tendency to get cold, this area of Iceland gets…cold, even in the summer. (Although we had windy sunburn days as well.) Be prepared on both land and sea. I was happy to have bought in Iceland and brought with me on the expedition a heavy (scratchy!) sweater. Bring a buff if you’re going to bring a wool sweater! I ended up using Smartwool long underwear exclusively - both lightweight and medium weight tops and bottoms. I also had a fairly lightweight fleece top. Could have used a heavier one. I should also have brought my warmest paddling layer and don’t know why I left it home. Some people had Kokotat onesies to wear under drysuit or bibs/anorak combo. That would have been nice. Rain gear - pants and top a must. Plus a storm cag. I brought two sets of pogies, a lighter weight and medium weight pair. I ended up using the medium weight pair almost exclusively. Maybe a few days when the wind wasn’t blowing that I dared to have bare hands, but pogies were, for me at any rate, an absolute must. I had several hats. A very lightweight one and two heavier. I wore a Sharkskin brand hat on the water - it sheds rain on top and the fleece part dried quickly and was warm even when wet. I had a Mountain Hardware fleece hat for land. Many others had wool hats but I find them too scratchy. I didn’t bring land gloves or mittens and didn’t need them. Wish I had had warm mitts for lunch breaks while paddling.
FOOD: If you’re not going to dehydrate your own food, I’ve found Good to Go brand single meals the most tolerable over an extended period of any of the prepared dinners I’ve tried. I wish I’d bought more salami and cheese and crackers. They keep well and are really tasty for breakfast or lunch - or if you get marooned in your tent by a rainstorm and happen to have them nearby when you don’t want to venture out to get other food. Apples, carrots and other other hard fruits and vegetables. You can stash ‘em anywhere - apples tuck into lots of little spaces and it’s sure nice to have fresh food. I wish I’d brought tortillas and squeezable containers of peanut butter. Candy and energy bars are good. I liked the mini-sized Kind bars I got at Costco. Still haven’t figured out breakfast. I don’t like oatmeal. Good to Go granola was tasty but one serving was way more than I could eat. Several of us shared two boxes of wine. I brought an MSR dromedary just for wine because the box bags seem to end up leaking. Bring a thermos. I made hot lemonade - sometimes with ginger-lemon tea - every day to bring on the water. Sugar and warmth were both good.
And finally, an important website: