Floating Among The Jewels: Kayaking The Sparkling Waters Of Sólheimajökull

Floating Among The Jewels: Kayaking The Sparkling Waters Of Sólheimajökull

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photos by
Art Bicnick

For those looking to enjoy the stunning wilderness in Iceland without the sweat of hikes or climbs, there’s no better choice than floating around a glacial lake in a kayak. Add to that some towering, sparkling icebergs, and you’ve got yourself an unforgettable day. At least, that’s what I found on my recent southern excursion to Sólheimajökull’s glacier lagoon.

Effervescent pearls

On one of those rare toasty Icelandic summer days—hey, we don’t get many of them—I headed east with one mission: to kayak around one of the most beautiful parts of Iceland, the Sóheimajökull glacier lake. There’s wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the sky, and the usual chilly breeze was notably absent. Our guide, Elsa, assured the group that we were truly lucky as we pulled on our wetsuits and other waterproof apparel.

After a short jaunt over to the lagoon and a paddling demonstration, we tottered onto our kayaks and slid out into the icy water. Immediately, I was stunned by a smattering of shining clumps of glacial ice. These were but tiny bits of the glacier, but the effervescent pearls wowed us, and we crowded around them with our hands outstretched—desperate to prod the ice without tumbling out of our boats.

Kayaking Iceland’s glacier lagoon

At this point, we gathered in a circle around Elsa for a primer on the lagoon. She explained how the lake didn’t even exist a few years ago. But, as the Sólheimajökull glacier has melted—which it is doing at an alarming rate—the meltwater lagoon was born and continues to grow each year.

“As chunks of glacial ice meandered around my feet, the magic of Sólheimajökull hit me in full force.”

Elsa also explained what we were floating above. The lagoon is more than 60 metres deep, she said—meaning that if the landmark Hallgrímskirkja church was built on the bottom, we’d only see the very top of the steeple above the surface of the water.

This fact made the glacial vista around us even more impressive. With icebergs emerging out of the water up to ten metres high next to our kayaks, it was spooky to imagine just how deep under the surface they extended. Knowledge about the lagoon’s expanse also made us keep our cameras extra close, and not just for the photo ops—were we to drop them, they’d be gone into the icy water forever.

As we continued paddling around the lagoon, the icebergs got bigger and bigger. While many were starkly white, most were covered with layers of black sand. This, we learned, was tephra from the Katla volcanic eruption in 1918. The volcano is one of the most active in Iceland, usually erupting every 100 years or so. It’s on track to do so soon—any moment, actually—a fact that Elsa joked about, telling us that she might get a radio call telling us to kayak very quickly back to shore.

A relaxing enterprise

Kayaking in Iceland, I found, requires the perfect amount of athletic exertion. The arm movements keep your blood flowing, but it’s chill enough that you can spend your energy taking in the gorgeous scenery, rather than fretting about whether you’ll be able to paddle back.

Elsa did, however, keep us on our toes—at one point, she stopped in front of an enormous iceberg to teach us some tricks. First, we practised standing up on our kayaks. She assured us they were sturdy, but it was still an adrenaline rush to balance on an unstable piece of plastic over 60 metres of ice cold water. While some opted out, two of us took on the challenge and held our paddles over our heads like Olympic trophies as we stood up and found our balance. She was right, though—kayaks are certainly more sturdy than they look.

Elsa then jumped down and sat on the nose of the boat, so close to the edge that the other side of the kayak began to raise. We tried this out as well, and though I found the prospect of face planting into the glacier lagoon terrifying, I dangled my legs off the bow and into the water just like she did. And as chunks of glacial ice floated around my feet, the magic of Sólheimajökull hit me in full force.

Soaking in the sparkles

It was then time to soak in our surroundings, as the tour was nearly finished. Brilliant and shining bright like a diamond (as Rihanna would say), the encompassing ice boulders glistened like blinding, twinkling jewels, and we struggled to take it all in before heading back to shore. Most of the icebergs have been in this frozen state for almost unimaginable periods of time—since long before your grandparents were born. So as the Sólheimajökull glacier continues to melt, another wonder is born in Iceland, that of an icy lagoon just begging to be kayaked along and reflected on.

Get Your Kayak On!
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