Part 2: The Ring Road, Rafting the East Glacier River

…continued from Part 1: Jetlag in Reykjavik, Diving the Silfra Fissure

“For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.” -Carl Sagan

Day 3: The Ring Road

I think every traveler should drive the Ring Road at least once in their lifetime. As the main highway in Iceland, it circles around almost the entire country, offering some of the most diverse and interesting landscapes you will find anywhere. I had considered the idea of a cycling tour around it, which lots of people were doing, but decided instead to drive its 828 miles in a vehicle.

Lots of people travel to Iceland, rent cars, and go on roadtrips around the country each summer. I didn’t want to stay at expensive hotels and didn’t feel like bringing my camping gear. Instead, I rented a camper van and spent six days driving, exploring, and sleeping. Equipped with a pullout bed, kitchen, stove, table, chair, wifi, and pretty cartoon decals, it had everything I needed to live for the next week.

I loaded my backpacks and suitcase into the van and drove out of the rental agency in the late morning on the beginning of a weeklong roadtrip around the island. But first, I made a stop down the road at the Blue Lagoon, a popular geothermal spa close to the airport.

I’m not much of a spa person, in case you haven’t guessed. But even I could appreciate that lagoon for its natural beauty and decadence. It felt surreal to float in the hot blue water, surrounded by piles of lava rocks. I almost wanted to put some of that exfoliating shit on my face. I didn’t do it, but it also has a fine dining restaurant, island bar, saunas, and massages, if you’re into that sort of thing. Thanks to the island’s geology, there are lots of hot pools like this one in Iceland, though this one definitely gets the most attention.

I got out, dried off in the sun, and drove northward through the city, planning to get to the north country by sundown. The highway in Reykjavik had a lot of roundabouts which were tricky at first to manage on a stickshift. I had just recently learned to drive in manual specifically for this trip. The rental company didn’t have any automatic cars, which I didn’t notice when I made the reservation earlier that summer. So it was either learn on my dad’s farm truck or I don’t get to drive in Iceland. A stressful, yet productive goal.

The road narrowed into two lanes and I left the city behind, going north along the coast on an uncharacteristically sunny late afternoon. I mounted my camera to the windshield to film a timelapse video of the drive. The shutter went back and forth hypnotically for hours as I captured many mountains and towns in the late day.

I turned east, ascending into the hill country, a region quilted in farmlands. I passed countless horse ranches and sheep farms that were almost never fenced in. Sheep wandered freely, sometimes onto the road.

As the evening darkened I drove up another big hill when my camera suddenly stopped. At a glance, the screen revealed “Error 20: A malfunction with the mechanical mechanism has been detected.” What the hell is this? I restarted the camera and turned the shutter interval back on. After a few minutes, it stopped again. I concluded later that night after Googling quite a few message boards that the shutter hardware was starting to wear out and it needed to be serviced. Well, shit. This wasn’t an option on this trip, nor was replacing it in Akureyri for $800. So it meant that I could only get drivelapse shots of the first day. Which was a shame, because this wasn’t even the best part of the road. But luckily, I could still point and shoot, so it was functional enough to be useful.

I arrived at the town of Varmahlíð and turned south on 752. I pulled into the gravel parking lot at Viking Rafting and parked behind the main building, and went inside to ask if I could camp in my van. Eight river guides and support kayakers were sitting on couches and watching an extreme kayaking documentary. I liked them already. After watching a video of two guys dropping treacherously through a slot canyon in California I went back to the van, cooked dinner, and slept. The light faded and the temperature dropped.

Day 4: The East Glacier River

Iceland would have lots of perfectly great, runnable rivers if so many of them weren’t punctuated by dangerous waterfalls. Although they’re great to look at, they’re not so great to attempt in a raft. An exception is the East Glacier River, an awesome Class IV canyon in the north country, where the waterfalls that once existed have been washed out by the continuous pounding of water. It was a river trip full of big hits, fast gradients, sheer lava rock walls, crashing hydraulics, and lots of noise and swearing – exactly the kind of river trip I was looking for.

I was one of three people who signed up to raft on the East Glacier that day, the other two being a newlywed couple from Canada. They had the right idea. If you’re going to honeymoon, you do it right. Do what I do. Go to Iceland, rent a car, bomb a river. We geared up in the main building and left in the shuttle bus for the river launch, 45 minutes on a dirt road from the headquarters. We arrived and sat next to the river while the guide gave us a 30 minute orientation on river safety. He emphasized that we needed to smile and have fun if we fall out to avoid panic – something I in my shortsightedness could have done better. More on that in a minute.

We put on our drysuits, walked the raft to the river, and eddied out into the current. The trip was supported by a kayaking photographer and two rescue kayakers who went out ahead of us in the bigger areas with throw bags and lots of river rescue training. I met support staff from Nepal, Uganda, New Zealand and Alaska – all living and working at the river outfitter for the summer season. Though we were all from different walks of life, there is one thing that always brings we river rats together: We love to run wild rivers.

The entrance rapids were fast and easy as the current rushed through the canyon on a high gradient. We floated past numerous sheer walls in a river 20 feet wide, sometimes less. The first big rapid of the day, Alarm Clock, threw a huge splash my face like a bucket of cold glacier water. We went around sheer bends of rock as the current tumbled its way through numerous Class III wave trains.

Commitment Rapid was next, and was a huge Class IV pourover that flipped the raft and threw all of us out. I felt the current pull my paddle out of my hand, and another rafter caught it as it washed out into the left eddy. Soon we were back in the boat for more. Game on.

After 20 minutes, we eddied out and the guide explained the strategy for Green Room, a technical Class IV triple drop. It turned out to be a monster. We didn’t even get the first drop correctly. The boat flipped again and I was back in the water, flying down the rapid. The current sent me over the second drop. One of the kayakers in the right eddy yelled something at me. I couldn’t hear him. The swell took me over the third drop and into a huge wall of foam.

I expected to wash out of the hole after a few seconds. That didn’t happen. SHIT! IT’S RECIRCULATING!!! I continued to tumble underwater in what felt like an office sized washing machine. Was I stuck in a recirculating hole? What the hell was going on? It felt like an eternity. FUCK!!! I’M NOT COMING UP!!! I need to get out of this now! On other whitewater trips they told me that if I ball up then maybe it will send me back out of the–

I’m out! I can breathe!!! The rescue kayakers were right there, almost like they expected to see me. “Swim to the eddy! Swim to the eddy!” I went for it, but was too tired. They had me grab on the handle on the back of a kayak and ferried me out of the current. The guy snatched something orange out of the water. It was my camera. It fell off somewhere in the middle of all of that shit. He let me go at the eddy and I swam for a rock on the edge. I clung to it as the water pulled at my feet and scrambled ashore – too out of breath to stand, but more alive than I’ve felt in years. Fucking shit, that was crazy.

Turns out I was perfectly fine. That rapid is called the Green Room because if you go far enough into the undertow like I did, you will find yourself surrounded in ambient green light. But without fail, it will eventually spit you out at the surface. I didn’t try it, but the Lower New River has the same feature called the Elevator Shaft. Boaters jump in, get pulled down, and come back up twenty feet away. The casual way the guides joked with me and the other girl who it happened to later was reassuring. I wasn’t really in any danger.

We eddied out to the left to take a break. I heated up my core temperature with hot chocolate and waffles with whipped cream, berry preserves, chocolate syrup, courtesy of a local farmer at the top of the canyon. For years, he has been feeding rafters at this spot. He used to climb down by foot, but at some point rigged a pulley system to lower the food to hungry, cold boaters. Every day. For years. That’s what he has been doing. I can’t even begin to describe how good of karma that is.

Later, we approached a big wave hole and our guide asked us if we wanted to surf it. Usually this causes boaters to fall out, which is often what the outfitters are going after. Because let’s face it, as scary as they get, the river wipeouts do make for the best pictures. I looked at the calm water right after it and thought why not. I already got pummeled upstream anyway, what difference does it make? Sure enough, we got tossed out and easily made for the right eddy.

Jump rock was next, a big 30ft cliff jump near the end of the canyon. I wasn’t intimidated by anything at this point.

The river slowed down and the walls widened, eventually sloping into hills and farmlands with higher mountains far off into the distance. It was calm, easy, scenic, and a great way to end a wild river trip. We packed up and went back to the headquarters where I got a CD burn of the camera boater’s pictures. The Floatie Back Door on my GoPro is the only reason why it wasn’t lost on the riverbed.

I had a few hours of good daylight left. I drove east. I went over a mountain pass, drove past the town of Akureyri, and camped next to Mývatn Lake, one ridge away from the vast lava plains of the northeast. The red sunset brought peace to an otherwise wild second day on the road. So much has happened. But I was just getting started.

This story continues in the fjord country.

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