At the headwaters of Jökulsá á Fjöllum, a 200-km, class IV river in Iceland, James Smith sat in a packraft for the first time, rocked back and forth to test the outfitting, and said with a surprised grin, “This is not shit!” Rain dripped off his helmet as he pushed off the jagged basalt and slid into the gray-brown water. It was time to let gravity take over.
During the months prior to our Iceland traverse, James wasn’t shy about questioning Dan Rea-Dickens’ plan to use Alpacka packrafts rather than kayaks. Dan and James are paddling partners from Britain, world-class expedition kayakers that have paddled in Kenya, Uganda, Pakistan, India, Chile, Norway, France, Italy, and Switzerland. I met Dan in Meghalaya, India, in 2013, and he suggested packrafting Jökulsá á Fjöllum from source to sea. There is only one documented descent of the river from its headwaters, the first descent, in 1983, though it has surely been done since. The 1983 team transported several tons of gear including kayaks, rafts, and, incredibly, ultralight aircrafts to scout and portage the massive waterfalls (video).
Because Jökulsá á Fjöllum covers more than half the width of Iceland, Dan suggested we make a complete traverse of the island, skiing 80 km over Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, to access the river. The only problem was that Dan didn’t know how to ski. He’d only been on skis once, for an hour, on grass (James adds, “In one of the flattest regions of the UK, famous for cheese”). To his credit, Dan intended to go skiing on snow to get ready for this trip, but the resort was closed due to too much surface water. Too bad, it would have been appropriate training for Vatnajökull in July.
I sent Dan and James a detailed list of recommended skis, boots, and glacier gear. They didn’t get anything on the list, opting instead for cheap, old, heavy gear. They both brought boots they’d never worn. It was a recipe for shredded feet, but because of their burly kayak expeditions, I assumed they could grit through some discomfort. I’d rather have partners with senses of humor and mental grit than all the right gear. Their cute British accents helped.
We took a bus from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón, a glacial river lagoon in southeast Iceland. It is worth pointing out the efficiency of Iceland’s geographic names. Jökulsárlón, the glacial river lagoon, means, literally, “glacial river lagoon.” Vatnajökull means “lake glacier,” and Jökulsá á Fjöllum translates to “glacial river in the mountains.” We spent a lot of time joking about the language. James suggested that there are 50 words to describe fog, words for river fog, gray fog, white fog, fog with rain, fog with snow, fog for breakfast, and so on.
We couldn’t see much of the glacier due to the fog, which made me nervous because I drew our route based on Google Earth imagery rather than asking about established access points. If the ice was too cracked up, we would have to find another route. We followed the line on my GPS and were relieved to find only minor crevasses. James managed to cross a melt-water channel deep enough to soak his crotch just before stepping onto the ice, but Dan and I found shallower crossings.
Even though the crevasses weren’t very deep, we still had to inefficiently meander through them, and we didn’t reach snow for 3 days (a distance of 30 km, 20 miles). At the snow line we roped up and talked through crevasse rescue, which Dan and James grasped quickly because the rope techniques are similar to water rescue.
Things went a little faster once we reached the snow, but we still couldn’t see anything. We spent three days navigating by compass through various shades of gray. The snow was slow too, 20 cm of slush rather than a glideable surface. Basically, this entire section sucked and the only redeeming aspect was getting to see the resilience of the Brits. Dan and James managed to crack smiles and jokes as they literally limped along on their heavy gear, wet layers, and massive blisters. I was really impressed. I was hurting too. I drank some bad water somewhere and spent 3 days averaging more shits than miles. I started recovering the last day on the glacier; Dan kept smiling at me, saying how nice it was to see me eating again.
After skiing to an elevation of 1500 m, we had a short and steep descent to the river. It was pretty cool to have earned all the elevation we would lose in the water; I’ve never had such a purely up-then-down trip. James gave Dan a ski lesson on how to snowplow in complete whiteout and 20 cm of slush. Dan decided to walk. Even so, he was almost as fast as me skiing down with a broken ski. I broke a ski behind the heel-piece a few days earlier, and had the two halves strapped, then taped, together.
We dropped below the clouds and saw interior Iceland for the first time. The landscape was absolutely lunar, black rock and gray ice, jaw-dropping after five days in the fog. We transitioned to walking on rock and spent the night camped at a tourist lodge. We were expecting something less trafficked, but the hosts were friendly and traded Dan and James beer for details about our trip.
In the morning we were met by Viking Rafting owner Chris Doyle-Kelly, and guides/friends Viki Þór Jörgensson, and Michael, to swap our ski gear for river equipment. Dan worked for Viking a few years ago, and because of that friendship, Chris and Viki took care of all our logistics. Viki drove to Reykjavík to grab our river supplies and picked us up on the northern coast. He also cooked a lamb roast feast. It was the kind of hospitality and generosity you can’t really repay until the roles are reversed, so I’m looking forward to hosting these guys in Alaska.
It felt like we exhaled a synchronized sigh of relief when we slid into the water. Because the glacier was my domain, I felt the responsibility and pressure to get us through. Now I could relax, kind of. I was still nervous about the big water waiting down river. Dan and James took the lead, thrilled to be in the water because this is what they love.
Our first channel soon split into shallow braids and standing water, too shallow to float. We climbed on the Dr. Seussian blobs of basalt for a view and determined that we needed to hike west to the next tributary. We deflated the boats and leaned into a nasty headwind. The weight of our boats plus gear was the same as the weight of an empty kayak, reinforcing how useful packrafts are for expeditions.
The next tributary was also short-lived. This time the issue was a fresh (2014-2015) lava flow that redirected the river. We climbed onto the aa flow (big blocks rather than the smooth and ropy pahoehoe lava flows) to within 50 m of steam plumes rising from the rock. There were jeep tracks overrun by the lava. We got back in the river and floated past the end of the steaming rock, then packed our boats to hike west to the next, main, channel.
The main channel was pushed up against a hill, so it was a single channel, deep, fast, and due to the unusually cold summer, surprisingly clear. We knew we were home free. Even with the horizontal rain and battling a headwind, we were elated to be in the main channel.
During the next days, the river changed character several times between braids, single channel, and canyon. Each canyon had a nasty entrance, a waterfall with a sharp basalt rim, which we portaged, followed by really nice class IV standing-wave rapids. Dan had me run the hardest lines of these rapids to get me ready for the bigger stuff waiting below.
Unbelievably, the weather got worse; the rain turned to snow. We spotted a structure on the bank, hoping wildly that it was one of the fabled ’emergency shelters’ that Dan kept mentioning. It turned out to be a locked weather station. It turned out to be a not-very-well locked weather station. We popped the lock, moved the batteries and nitrogen tank and settled in for a gloriously dry evening. I was able to stretch out full length, Dan and James, on either side of me, had to curl on their sides. The blanket of snow was actually quite beautiful in the morning, but we were bitter about having been snowed on in July.
The section I was most nervous about was Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, long class IV rapids below a chain of massive waterfalls. There was no risk of accidentally running the waterfalls; they were each marked with a plume of mist visible from a kilometer away. We decided to portage all four falls in one go (a 10-km portage), rather than run the water between. This was a tough call, the water between looked incredible, but we weren’t confident about being able to get in and out of the canyon at each fall. The falls are huge: 11, 45, 27, and 7 meters tall. The 45 m (150 ft), Dettifoss, is Europe’s ‘most-powerful’ waterfall. We probably saw it at half the typical flow, and it was still mind-blowing.
We hiked past midnight to camp on the river edge below Rettarfoss, the final waterfall in the series. Our first rapid was a pushy rock-ramp culminating with a 2-3 meter pyramid of standing water. I walked it after watching Dan and James both make it look hard. Welcome to the canyon.
Dan and James coached me through the big water, and I followed right on their tails to make sure I was on the right line. I was grateful that the water was lower than typical, but even so, I was still outside of my comfort zone, just far enough to learn a lot. Trip Kinney gave me a lesson in Anchorage, which was basically, ‘Hey diddle diddle, straight down the middle.’ James told me the Scottish version is ‘Dinny fiddle, straight down the middle.’ Countless times I thought to myself, ‘Seriously? Why are they leading me into the meat of this?’ But the meat wasn’t that bad; I learned to bury my paddle, using it as an anchor to pull through the wave train. I really liked peaking out on the crests of the waves. I flipped once but was able to roll out of it. My only regret is that I didn’t put any effort into getting pictures or video clips. I was on edge, breathing hard, working hard, and just relieved to get through each series of rapids. And of course, it was still raining. I’d slept with my camera for two nights to get it dry enough for the buttons to work.
The canyon walls were incredible, basalt spires and cliffs, radiating columnar joints. The combination of great water and even better scenery was world-class. The banks grew greener and the canyon walls started to widen. As the rapids became less intimidating, I regretted having been on edge for all the big stuff. I already wanted to run it again, this time with more confidence. Dan and James really enjoyed it too. This was day five on the water, and it would have been a great climax to finish with. But we weren’t at the ocean yet.
We finished with a painfully slow 18 km of class I water to reach the coast and Greenland Sea. The river split into two channels, and we had to take the smaller channel because it ended closer to a road. With a headwind, in the fog and rain, we tucked our chins and powered through 3 or 4 hours of continuous paddling. If you stopped paddling you stopped moving forward. Bleak. At the beach we shivered, took a photo, and started dreaming about the warm car ride to Akureyri. Done. Viki plucked us off the road, into a restaurant, and then to his empty daughters’ bunkbeds for the best night’s sleep of the trip.
I love a trip that leaves you wanting more. Our traverse reminded me how much of my motivation for adventuring is based in wanting to learn. Dan, James, and I took turns being out of our comfort zone, which seems to be synonymous with being in a learning zone. They got to learn about glacier travel and camping on snow. Then our roles were reversed and I got to learn about river expeditions and running big water. I’m still buzzing from how much I learned; I love knowing that I’m a better paddler. I’ll pass on the rain and fog, but I’m ready to flirt again with the edge of my comfort zone.
We spent the rest of our time at Viking Rafting, running East Glacier river with the rafting guides and Barka, a sweet 7 m waterfall followed by an even cooler double drop, each 3-4 m, with Viki. The guides loved seeing the packrafts and where impressed with what they could do.
The Alpackalypse geometry is excellent; this is what we’ve been waiting for. The smaller diameter tubes and narrower, smaller, boat make it nimble. The boat edges like a kayak, which was really nice for getting in and out of eddies. Dan and James were impressed with the comfort and control. The high-pressure fabric lets you get the boat much more rigid, which makes a huge difference when punching through waves. Having cargo in the tubes was a big help too; I would have flipped several times if it weren’t for the extra weight. Oh, and when you do flip, the Alpackalypse is much easier to roll than the standard model.
We were less impressed with the Alpackalypse outfitting, and the consensus was that the simple double seat, thighstraps, and kayak backband in my standard boat was preferable. The Alpackalypse outfitting feels over-engineered, introducing a lot of potential failure points. The knee cups worked, but I was never confident that I would stay in them, even with 3 attachment points and 4 adjustment buckles. Dan and James weren’t sold either, but the knee cups fit Sarah (5’6″) really well, so maybe it is a size issue.
The seat and backrest were very comfortable and very adjustable, but I’d be nervous about a hole or leaking air valve on a long trip (James had a leaking valve that we weren’t able to repair in the field). Dan and James really liked the rigid foot plate, but I’d probably skip it to save weight and bulk. On the other hand, I’d be happy to carry extra weight for a more durable skirt. The Alpackalypse skirt stayed on better than on the standard models, but still popped in big rapids, ripped (James again), and was hard to get off the combing. This is sounding more negative than I’d like. The boat was awesome, and the existing outfitting will probably work well for most paddlers, especially on shorter trips (and maybe for smaller paddlers?).
Holy shit! Awesome, Luc! Incredible adventure with typical Icelandic weather (bad, getting worse) and a fitting anti-climatic ending!
I drew the same line on a map in 2012 after skiing across Vatnajökull for the first time and being into my second year of packrafting. After finding some information about the river I came to conclusion that we would likely either die or portage all the way. Neither sounded fun so I scratched the plan. After reading your story, I now know it was the right decision (the idea was to go “unsupported” i.e. raft with the skis and glacier kit and the limtied experience of two years of packrafting…) Maybe some day, with the right company that helps me becoming the better paddler I have to be to make it through.
Btw, there would’ve been a superb hut at the middle of the glacier not too far from your route: geothermally heated hut with a geothermally heated sauna. 😉
I want to hope that you are joking about that hut. We could have passed 100m from it!
The rapids would be easy to portage, and the road is never too far away. But to enjoy the best part, the canyon, you would need to be comfortable in class iv rapids. If the river had been at its normal (higher) level, it might have been outside of my skill level.
We initially planned to drag the boats, but needing helmets, rescue vests, real drysuits, etc., for the river, the extra weight would have been a deal-breaker, and I wouldn’t run that kind of water with skis and ice gear strapped to the boat. But I’m getting old… I’ll gladly take a resupply when it is easy, and leave the self-supported trips for the wilderness.
Sorry to break your heart Luc, but the hut is there, on top of the Grimmsfjall volcano: http://korpijaakko.kuvat.fi/kuvat/Vatnajokull-toukokuu-2015/ Luckily you skied quite far away so no need to regret. 😉
Yes, I’m not class IV yet, barely class III (if big water) and I seem to be declining because of not doing the big water stuff. Need to change that.
And if resupply is available and not too expensive, why to hell not to take it? Can’t really blame you.
I grew up watching that Nat Geo film about the 1983 first descent. It really blew me away. Did you guys see the ice cave they rappelled into? Or is that totally melted out 32 years later?
There is a cave, but nothing like what they rappelled into. I think there were some fatalities from the cave collapsing a few years ago, but I couldn’t find any information online.
Awesome Luc. With your permission, we are going to post your trip in our web PlanetaPackraft. It´s a route that we had in our minds and hearts but the few time to travel made us to forgot it. We enjoyed another possibilty and it was great. Congratulations at all! Congratulations to your mates too.
I like the honesty in the narration of the vid. I don’t go into trips hoping to be scared, but the trips I’ve been most gripped on were usually the most educational/rewarding.
Hope we get to paddle some big water next year.
Luc awesome trip..!! We rafted the Jökulsá á Fjöllum in 1987 ina 12 feet pilot self bailer raft self supported. We abseiled after Detifoss and run the rapids between the big falls. That was the start off my wildwater career. Great article!!! Cheers
Awesome! I wish we had floated the sections between the big falls… it wasn’t obvious how easily we could portage them.
well it was quite difficult and it took us some time to scout very well…. and also we were rappelling down I think it was from Dettifoss. Long time ago..!
Afterwards I worked around the world guiding rafts and kayaks for many years… founded a rafting company in Peru. Where I still live. I stopped kayaking and rafting for many years because of a bad back and started paragliding but 1 week ago I bought a packraft and looking forward to tackle some class IV runs. In Peru there are hundreds of possible runs…! CU on the river