From Iceland — River Rafting Up North: Battling The Beast Of The East

River Rafting Up North: Battling The Beast Of The East

River Rafting Up North: Battling The Beast Of The East

Photo by
Art Bicnick

Published July 18, 2017

As we drive through the magnificent and stunning landscapes of North Iceland, I am determined to enjoy the scenery. But I’m finding it impossible to focus on the mountains and fjords. My nerves have gotten the better of me, as the assignment I was given just the day before involves me putting my limbs on the line by going rafting.

Not familiar with the concept, I take up my phone and with shaking fingers type in Viking Rafting–the company whose Whitewater Action trip I’ll be going on the next day. I start scrolling. Difficulty level: 4:5. Fuck. Duration: 6 hours?! Double fuck. It’s a bit like when you’re stalking the internet looking for dirt on your partner–you know you shouldn’t, because it will probably just end up with you writing a dramatic and unrealistic scenario in your head. But for some reason you do it anyway.

I pick up on key words like “action-packed”, “adrenaline” and “huge waves”. I ask myself: “what’s the most action related thing I’ve done?”, and I can’t come up with anything more extreme than beer chugging competitions I’ve had at shady bars right before closing hours. To be fair those can be quite intense, but I doubt that it will help me conquer Austari-Jökulsá (the East Glacial River)–possibly the best rafting river in Europe, and referred to as the “Beast of the East”.

To calm my nerves for tomorrow’s battle, we head to Viking Rafting’s base camp, where all the guides usually spend their free time drinking beers and playing pool. There we meet the guide Ryan Toll, a smiling character from New Zealand, who has spent the last 7 years chasing rivers around the world. I confess that I’m close to having a nervous breakdown, but Ryan just waves it away and says, “Ah, you’ll be alright, you look quite fit!” I awkwardly laugh all the while thinking of the fact that I haven’t worked out since January. But Ryan is so light-hearted and positive that the breakdown start to subside. “Is there something I should do to prepare myself for tomorrow?”, I ask before going to bed. “Practise holding your breath”, Ryan answers and blinks.

D-day turns into quite a day

Dry suit: Check. Safety helmet: Check. Life vest: Check. Paddle: Check. Cool: Long gone.

After a thorough introduction to safety, equipment and strategy it’s time to take up arms. Our guide Steve takes the helm, a knowledgeable American man in possession of great leadership skills, who manages to provide assurance and tons of fun, but also a high degree of professionalism. With previous guiding experience in the Alaskan wilderness, the dude seems like the right one for the job. He alongside his support cast of safety kayakers promise to catch us if we fall (or at least steer us in the right direction).

As we start making our way down the river, I understand that I’m emerged in a scenery that can only be experienced from the water. The noble canyons are truly breathtaking with their shapes and colours that contrast with the lively river. I forget to paddle, because the power of nature feel so present and the wow factor takes over. All of a sudden I’m too busy being amazed to be nervous.

It goes surprisingly smoothly, and the first one to fall into the river is actually our guide Steve. Maybe it’s our overtly confident expressions that during our lunch break make him shout “this looks like a gang that hasn’t had enough action!”

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Catch ya on the flip side

Time to play last man standing, which ends up with me being the first one to get swallowed by the Beast of the East, after I threw myself into a rapid… thereby also causing the whole raft to flip over. Oops?

“You journalist, always trying to make your own news!” Steve jokes when we reach the eddy. “I’ve no idea what I was doing!” I reply, hysterically laughing, confused by what just happened. “Yeah you were surfing. And you made a big mistake and then the raft flipped over. And we were all like ‘Johanna, why did you make the raft flip?’ We were all stable and then you flip the raft over.” Steve answers and pauses, only to break into a smile. “Which is why you can definitely come again, because I love flipping!”

It gets quite clear that we’re supposed to fall out of the raft, and that our guide team literally thirsts for it. So we do, again and again. And it’s incredibly fun! In a terrified delight kinda way, that for sure gets my heart pumping.

Remember to smile! It’s impossible to panic when you smile!

I end up beneath the boat, and for a moment I think that there’s no way that I’ll find my way out. I think that at least I’ll provide the Grapevine with one good scoop during my internship… but just in a matter of seconds, I’m breaking through the surface, and hear Steve scream in the distance: “Is she smiling? Yes she is! Wooo!” You see, the team from Viking Rafting has one motto and one motto only–Always smile! How come? Well, it’s simply impossible to panic when you are smiling.

And that’s pretty much how it goes for the rest of the trip. In fact, the whole experience provided by Viking Rafting is incredibly positive. All guides come across as a passionate group of friends and adventure seeking professionals, who love every single minute of what they do and just want to share that love.

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Beers and cheers

As I throw back the mandatory post-rafting beer, one of my life saviours from the river and co-owner of Viking Rafting, Anup Gurung, tells me more about the tight community they’ve created at the base. Anup knew he wanted to get into the river rafting industry already at the age of 12, when, despite restrictions from his parents, he sneaked down to the river in Nepal to spy on the international river rafting teams. Everything about the group of gadders fascinated him–how they dressed, talked so easily about scary stuff and everyone being from different countries but still friends. It was like a completely different world, which Anup then joined, recreated, and that I got to be a part of for a day.

The atmosphere is relaxed and genuine, and humour fills the air. The sounds of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Snow’, played on guitar by the guide Rajip Tripathi, mixed with the clanging of bottles makes me want to hang around there for the rest of the day.

But other duties calls. One thing is certain though–these guys might be all about going downstream, but they are far from mainstream. I truly enjoyed my first river rafting experience, even though I’m everything but an adrenaline junkie, or a good swimmer. If you’re gonna throw yourself out on an adventure like this and try to conquer the Beast of the East, you want these fellas to have your back.


Name: Ryan Toll
Age: 27
Home Town: South Island, New Zealand
Quote: “Here you can make a cup of hot cocoa from a hot spring, that’s pretty neat man.”
Favourite part of the job: Living like a family, new people everyday and never knowing what will happen next.
Fun guide moment: There’s been some who’ve put their life jackets on as pants, and dragged them up as diapers.

Name: Steven ‘Steve’ Merrow
Age: 29
Home Town: Vermont, USA
Quote: “This is the only real job I’ve ever had!”
Favourite part of the job: The challenge every day, the powerful river and being a part of the best thing people do in Iceland.
Fun guide moment: One time a tiny Danish girl went into a rapid and was under the water for ages. Then she popped up, with the biggest smile on her face like it was the best day ever. Amazing!

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