Iceland’s rivers aren’t only perfect for fishing or picturesque to watch. Many times a month, a small group of adventurous whitewater kayakers paddle down the most ruthless ones and crisscross the country with the goal set to find new creeks and waterfalls to run down. Grapevine tracked some of them down and learned that a river is so much more than a river.
“This is probably the smallest sports match in Iceland,” says Garðar as he carries his kayak to his car, parked outside the countryside boathouse Drumbó Basecamp. Drumbó, located on the banks of Hvítá glacier river, is the meeting-place for rafters and kayakers, only minutes away from the Tungufljót river, where the annual Tungufljót-race in whitewater kayaking was about to take place. The group gathered outside furthermore explained that the event was more about friends having fun than a formal competition and I got the feeling the paddlers packing their gear were surprised to see a journalist taking interest in their hobby. When hearing that a group of adrenaline junkies were about race down one of Iceland’s rougher rivers in a small plastic boat Grapevine just had to watch.
Hard-Core River Action
When we got to Tungufljót, I understood Garðar’s comment. The group dressed in the wetsuits was small, only 10 competitors, (nine guys and one girl). This was a laid-back get-together of clearly long-time friends. Many of them even work together and spend their working hours rafting, snorkelling, caving and hiking and their free time playing around the extremes Iceland’s nature can offer.
I was told that the turn-up was actually not that bad as the ten competitors racing this time make up about half of the active whitewater kayakers in Iceland. Although the group gathered was tiny the competitive spirit was raised high and to watch them paddle down the stream and ruthlessly push each other with the oar was just awesome. After an exciting race, Jón Heiðar stood up as the ultimate winner. After the mach was over, soaking wet, exhausted but mostly high on the adrenaline rush, the group drove off.
“We meet there to do something fun together”, says Jón Heiðar when I catch up with him in his more relaxed office on Laugavegur. He’s one of the legends in the sport. One of the more experienced paddlers he and his buddies aren’t afraid to drop down dangerously high waterfalls and paddle huge waves and rough rapids. (Just look at the photos. They are crazy!)
“I started kayaking in 1998. At that time, there were about five guys active in the sport. Nothing was really happening as whitewater kayaking was still new in Iceland,” he explains. “Around the year 2000, a couple of Americans visited the country and opened a totally new world to us”, he continues. The sport got a big boost, new kayakers flocked to the rivers and heaps of river action events organised..He tells me that around 2004 the sport experienced a decline and hasn’t really seen any real renewal since, so it’s left to the group of the hard-core ones to keep the sport alive.
Paradise Island For Paddlers
Kayaking is not a sport you jump into and become an export in no time. It takes time, stamina and a lot of swimming in the ice-cold water to get a grip on it. But for those willing to put in some effort, Iceland’s nature is a true heaven. You only need to imagine the country’s landscape for a second to see the endless possibilities.
“Iceland has an enormous amount of waterfalls and of course plenty of rivers. If all conditions are in top, which they always are in May and June, Iceland is a paradise for kayakers,” Jón Heiðar says but adds that the season can last much longer, from around Easter and just about as long in the winter the kayakers can stand the cold.
For the past ten years, Jón Heiðar and his friends have toured the country, searching for new rivers and chances to run the first descent. “There still is heaps left to explore,” he says and continues: “A big part of the fun is the actual trip and the search for the undiscovered. To take a road-trip for two weeks in good company, hike up a mountain and suddenly find a crazy waterfall is the biggest thrill. We found one of the most powerful rivers in Iceland by incidence for example. On Holtavörðuheiði of all places.”
Jón Heiðar and his fellow kayakers have also used their spare time escaping Iceland to tackle rivers in foreign countries, mostly in Nepal. “Kayaking is a brilliant sport if you want to see the world. You get to experience countries and cultures in a totally different way. When we are in Nepal for example, we go to places the normal traveller will probably never visit. You paddle maybe a 100 km path through tiny villages off the beaten track where tourists have maybe never been before.”
He was once a struggling beginner who had to “eat a lot of shit” so to say and looking back he recalls many critical moments. “The most dangerous thing about being new to the sport is that often you don’t know any better and there is little instructions to be found. A couple of years back, a friend of ours was dropping down a waterfall and ended behind it. He disappeared for like fifteen minutes. Everyone thought he was dead. He was stuck in a cave behind the waterfall and as he tried to get out the stream kept pushing him back. Suddenly he washed up on the right side, lucky to be alive. This happened because we didn’t know any better.”
Whitewater kayaking is sport anyone can enjoy and everyone can find a river of taste. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to push your limit. Jón Heiðar says he would love to see more kayakers come in to the sport. His advice to newcomers is to contact Kayakklúbburinn but they host practices for beginner and can rent out all the gear. As there obviously is no lack of water and the country’s endless creeks will continue to make it a playground for kayakers ther’s nothing stopping. So quit reading, borrow some gear and discover your paddling potential. For more info see: www.kayakklubburinn.com and www.adventures.is.