White Water

Fun on the Fnjoská

The Fnjoská is a beautiful river that is born in the long valley of the Bleiksmýrardalur. Its water is crystal clear and as it flows towards the sea though the Fnjoskaladur valley there is a section of wide, meandering curves between fields. It is then slowly surrounded by snow-capped mountains and as it reaches the ocean, just south of Grenivík, it becomes narrower and picks up speed. There is a perfect section of rapids, just before the bridge coming from Akureyri. It was on the Fnjoská that we fell in love with Icelandic pack rafting!

The rapids of the Fnjoská with peaks painted white by the storm

With the first storm having painted the peaks white, the weather became much more predictably Icelandic. By this I mean completely unstable, changing from rain to sun in a couple of minutes, and back to wind and sleet in an hour. With this type of climate pattern it is possible to go out almost every day by picking your timetable very carefully, happy in the knowledge that things can often only get better. By checking the weather forecast assiduously, and only taking into account the forecast for the next two days, we planned accordingly. There were always three factors to take into account: the cold, the precipitation and the wind. Often it would be a case of choosing one of the three and trying to avoid it, our least favourite being strong wind. Packrafts are quite light, and we had already discovered on the Skjálfandafljót the perils of packing lots of gear in very strong gusts. Not being able to put anything down is rather inconvenient when setting up inflatable rafts. Concerning precipitation, snow was always better than rain, if possible once we were already on the river, as we were hidden beneath the spray skirts and most likely already wet. The worst time was, of course, when packing as we would get very cold without moving.

So it was by rushing lunch and not stopping an instant that we managed to be in position, on the banks of the Fnjoská, as the sun lit up the September afternoon.  We had just hiked up about ten kilometres with the rafts in our rucksacks and proceeded to set them up. The water was calm and having lighter bags we were confident with the paddling. Setting off into the clear water we could see the rocks beneath slide by. A section of small waves hailed our departure, and having passed them the river remained relatively calm. We started to get a better feeling of the boats and enjoyed the view of the peaks around us. It was a great afternoon on the water, and we decided to see further down the next day. I’d spotted some rapids on the map, so we decided to check them out. It was already night time when we arrived, but the full-moon lit up the valley. By its light I could just make out some static waves from the bridge that crossed high above. A small canyon continued towards the sea from our position. We cooked our meal and fell asleep.

Fnjoská by night, we can hear the rapids below

Next day it was very windy so we decided to wait until early afternoon to try. Greg did the first run, starting just at the foot of a small waterfall and hitting three small successions of rapids, before going through the static waves and down the canyon. He paddled through the waves, plunging left and right, the raft bouncing on the swell. Climbing out further down he hiked up the river bank and decided to go for another run.

A battle agains the churning water, Greg pulls the bow out of the waves

Then it was my turn. As I hit the first drop the spray flew up, splashing me in the face and jolting me awake. The next one came soon after and I was able to drop down a couple of feet into the white water beneath. The raft took everything in its stride. It was exhilarating to be on the water, the waves crashing all around, but feeling safe in the small canyon. It was the perfect practice ground and I also went for a second try. It had started to rain, but I was already wet so decided to hit the rapids harder. The first one I missed my line and the front plunged into the soft foamy water at the bottom of the step. The water behind came crashing down and filled the spray skirt. But the raft just popped back up and on we went. Sitting in a pool of very cold water I finished the descent. It was truly epic!

The foamy water is pushed down as the canyon deepens, it’s the time to relax and enjoy the ride

Later on, having dried off a bit and after a well-earned bowl of mashed potato in the car we talked about what we should do next. After this section on the rapids we had gained quite a lot of confidence in both ourselves and the rafts and decided to hike up the valley and do the entire lower section, from where we had left off the day before. There would be just one small carry that we had scouted beforehand and we would try and not get too wet from the beginning!

It rained all night and part of the morning, so we once again postponed our departure until the worst had blown over. We packed the bags once more and started to hike, past the rapids and up the valley along a dirt road. The clouds parted briefly and the sun shone once again. With the days getting noticeably shorter we had to hurry if we wanted to get back before dark!  As the sun started to sink close to the high mountains to our west, we took off our hiking boots and put on our life vest. The first few kilometres were flat and we paddled to keep warm as the sun’s warmth disappeared. As the river turned a bend to the west, it picked up some speed and we found ourselves going through multiple sections of rough water. The banks had got steeper and it was hard to judge how much further we had to go before getting out. We had one false alert, and after climbing up to gain a better view we put the spray skirt back on for the last short section of choppy waves.  Stopping, this time sure we could go no further, we hiked for a couple of minutes along the left bank. A fixed rope was in place and we used it to access the river again. From here we would go through the rapids. There was only one question: the small waterfall we had judged too big the day before was still downstream. I paddled past the intake and stopped to check it out. Greg, coming second decided to hit it at full speed. By this time it was almost dark and we were soaked, so what could go wrong? He took a perfect line and rode down several small steps before gently splashing onto the river. Easy! I joined him there and we descended our favourite section together. Past the bridge, we arrived at the main road. Climbing out of the canyon it was pitch black and we were drenched. Pulling off our clothes, we had precious little to put back on, but were ecstatic with the afternoons rafting. This was fun on the Fnjoská!

Carrying around the falls, the clouds rolls in and the light fades, but the are still rapids to run.

A Glacial Descent

Heading west, our next objective was the western glacial river or Vestari Jókulsá . It is a popular river for rafting in the summer months. We spoke to some guides and they were very helpful, describing the different sections. The season was over and they were packing up: we had the place to ourselves!

Unlike the Fnjoská, this river as its name indicates is a glacial melt river and therefore contains more silt due to the glacier run-off. It has a beautiful section of canyon, with steep walls on both sides and multiple sets of wave trains on either side. It is classed as type II-III white water. We were ready to go!

Concerning our equipment, this trip had been a logistical nightmare, due to the fact that we planned to combine two completely different sports and decided to carry everything from day one with all our food. This meant that we had cut everything down to the most basic list, and left anything but the most essential of items. By this I mean no spare gear or change of clothes whatsoever. I think we had got it down to a pretty good compromise and minimised the weight, thanks to very light kit and previous experiences. But having changed plans completely we now found ourselves rather sparsely equipped for white water activities. Our original track had tried to find the safest course of water; we were now going down some rough sections in a rain jacket and woollen hats. I had, having lost my neoprene gloves, even upgraded to washing up gloves over some fleece ones. The water was rather cold, but we could not but help smiling, this was it, the essence of packrafting! We were ready to test a new river and take on the canyon.

We put in just above a small bridge and set off. Like every time the first wave surprised me with its short sharp sting. The wind was being funnelled upriver, so every time the bow would hit a wave, the spray would be whisked back into our faces. I think we were grinning like mad over the first, slightly wider section. Once again we were completely alone, paddling frantically between the rough patches.

And then, suddenly, I looked up and saw two shapes on the water. I realised one was Greg and the other was the raft. He was swimming and had somehow managed to hold on to both paddle and boat. A small churning wave had caught him sideways and knocked him into the freezing water. Thinking I might have to help I concentrated and turning slightly hit the wave straight and went through. By the time I was able to catch up he had managed to get to the side and was trying to get some of the water out. A smile told me all was ok. Even so I was happy not to have taken the swim myself! The only way forward was down, through the canyon. Having got the spray skirt back on we set off, ridding wave train after wave train. The walls closed in, making us feel small, the canyon twisting and turning. Unfortunately we could not really stop to appreciate the small waterfalls, pouring down the side, or the perfect beaches that we passed, as Greg needed to keep paddling and stay active. It was a magical place to be and a great river to raft.

After about an hour later the gorge started to open up a bit and we joined another river, the East Glacial branch. It is much longer and is now firmly on our wish-list, although having a couple of type IV sections is perhaps better with a dry-suit. We continued down the larger river before taking out on the left hand side. Greg ran off to the car, parked a couple of kilometres away to get out of his soaking clothes. Thankfully there wasn’t much wind and I managed to fold everything up through chattering teeth. Hiking up, Greg was coming down to meet me and we loaded all our gear up. Warming up in our down jackets, it was nothing that some chocolate could not cure!

The White River

Our next descent was to be the Hvítá or white river. This watercourse is also of glacial origin and it is the silt that gives it its milky appearance and name. It’s most well-known feature is the Gullfoss waterfall that crashes down a triple step, and has become one of the must-see features on the tourist map of Iceland. It is at this waterfall that the river drops down into a narrow gorge with imposing sides cutting through the landscape. Further down, a beautiful canyon called Brúarhlöð awaits. It is made from hyaloclastite, formed when lava is quenched suddenly by water or ice as it exits the surface. Here it has also been moulded by the river and produced a beautiful standing column. We of course decided to raft around it as soon as we saw it!

Formation flying

But before that we had to make our way inland to enter the river. Finding the place to put in this time turned out to be harder and the only indication we had found online said the path was very bad. We never did find the path, and had to climb down a pile of moss covered rocks. We were very happy indeed to be carrying pack rafts rather that kayaks, which would have been almost impossible to get down. We had a snack, watching the plume of spray rising up from Gullfoss, just over a kilometre upstream. We then pulled on our wet neoprene boots and got ready for the first set of waves. I was the first in and was soon paddling the wave train, the water dripping off my nose. But even the first shock hadn’t made me quite ready for the next set of rapids. Hearing a churning noise we slowed down, but having seen the base of the small descent and having reassured ourselves it was not a waterfall I set off. Picking up speed I was quite close to the wall and could not paddle away. At the base of the slide a large static wave was curling backwards, a rearing white ridge of water. This is it I thought, it’s time for a swim! Not looking forward to being pushed under by the substantial amount of water that was crashing around me I tried to hit the ridge dead on and not slide sideways. Somehow I flew up it and bounced off the top. Stabilising before the next, smaller wave, I realised I was still upright. Turning back, I saw Greg had decided he definitely preferred to stay in his raft too. We were both pumped full of adrenaline, and yelling at each other over the noise of the water. Did you see that?!

First impressions can tell you a lot. The Hvítá was a wet ride

Rolling speed

We continued on, slightly apprehensively having realised the sheer power of the river, but the wave trains were perfect and we bounced and paddled over them, enjoying every second.  The canyon started to open up too, and the sun, having disappeared behind the clouds, came out and shone down on us. But the Hvítá hadn’t quite finished with us yet. Having battled our way through multiple sets of small waves, a tiny sideways-on waterfall lay hidden behind. I slid off and was caught on the side and flew back. I managed to push off my paddle and right myself, but not before the river had found its way into my jacket and soaked my right-hand side. Once again we shouted above the waves, but they soon calmed down and entered the Brúarhlöð canyon. Here we glided between the black, rounded rocks, and slid past the solitary column standing guard. We continued down between the high walls, covered in moss and small flowers, still confronted by some choppy water but no more important rapids. With the evening approaching we searched for a place to exit and after packing up, we climbed up into the fields above. Hiking at speed to keep warm, the sun sank beneath the clouds and lit everything up with an orange glow. As the light faded we could see the Gullfoss canyon off in the distance from where we had come, and the snowy peaks and glaciers further inland from where the river originated.

The Brúarhlöð canyon on the Hvítá river is product of Icelands volcanic past and powerfull rivers

Not a spectator sport

Next day we decided to complete the lower section of the Hvítá, starting from the Brúarhlöð canyon. It had frozen during the night and there was ice by the river’s edge. Our gear was also slightly hard, and we had to stamp to warm up the frozen boots. After the nice enclosed section at the beginning the river opened out and became flatter, meandering into multiple branches. It was a calmer outing compared to the previous day, although it snowed for the second half of the morning. We were very cold by the time we had got out and had to march fast along the road to warm up. We had only just started to get dry when it rained again, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. We were addicted to white river pack rafting!

Looking fabulous

Remember to pack you raft!

The rafts used for this trip are quite an amazing piece of design. They are made of an inflatable nylon chamber with a reinforced base. To blow them up an inflation bag is used, meaning that no pump is needed. The seats and backrests are securely attached by straps and any bags can be added to the front. Once the boat is ready all that needs to be done is assemble the paddle and launch!

I had first found out about packrafting some years back, having seen some pictures of a previous expedition. Since then I knew I wanted to try and had been looking for the appropriate excuse. In the meantime multiple trips in a folding kayak on the North Sea and Mediterranean had given me a taste of what can be done with lightweight equipment and I was hooked. River travel was the next objective. My first experience on a packraft was during the preparations for this trip, on a river near home in the Alps. After a first hesitant run, I suddenly realised how exciting it was and threw myself into the current for the second go. That was just a small taste, and over the course of our Icelandic descents we were able to discover these lightweight crafts properly and better understand their advantages. Being able to carry what is basically a white water kayak in your backpack is always going to be cool. It also comes with multiple benefits. It gave us the freedom to choose different itineraries and adapt to the terrain. There are two main reasons that make this possible.

Preparing the gear before our the descent: inflating the rafts and bagging everything up

The first may be obvious, but by being able to hike with the rafts, steep or complicated locations which are impossible for a rigid boat, can be accessed easily. For example, to reach the Hvítá river downstream from Gullfoss, we had to climb down a long unstable slope of moss-covered scree. The same can be said about getting out: being able to climb out of steep canyons is a definite safety feature. Even in non-critical situations it is nice to know you can cut the descent short in case of a problem. Having often been surrounded by tall walls in our case it was a question of finding somewhere climbable! And of course, by being able to walk long distances means you can go far afield and access the start of the descent with no external help. With few people on the roads even hitch hiking was not easy, and we ended walking all our rivers between start and finish.

The second characteristic of packrafts is their ability to be used in different types of conditions during river travel. On one hand, by being flat and buoyant, even the shallowest of streams can be paddled. This is indeed an advantage when the river widens out or sandbanks cut across, reducing the need to carry over such distances. On the other hand, their short profile means they turn and manoeuvre very easily. One strong pull on the paddle can spin the raft right around. This combined to their modular flexibility and high sides make them stable and safe even in rough water. When carrying important supplies during long trips it is a reassuring thought. A spray skirt even keeps you relatively dry during these passages. The benefit of being able to take on both shallow rivers and white water in the same day cannot be understated. For example, on the Fnjoská we experienced both the wider section where we had to carefully manoeuvre the superficial water and the final rapids in the same day. We paddled non-stop!

For this trip we used two Kokopelli rafts, the Nirvana and the Rogue. They have a similar build and are equipped with spray-skirts and comfortable inflatable seats. The Rogue has a thinner base material, which makes it easier to roll up into a small pack and is lighter. It also has one inflation chamber instead of two like the Nirvana. For this reason, for longer expeditions it would be our raft of choice as both handle very well and the reduced volume makes it easier to pack. We were very pleased with their integrity and even with rough terrain our repair kits never left the bottom of our bags. Both their construction and design vindicate their use for long trips and unsupported travel. By having tested them in cold and unforgiving water we feel much more comfortable and confident than at the beginning and can’t wait to prepare the next adventure.

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