An Icelandic Odyssey: Sea Kayaking Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

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It’s my daughter who should’ve been the writer.

“Dad, look, there’s a chandelier of jellyfish down there!” she exclaimed.

We’re on day four of a six-day sea kayak trip through northwest Iceland’s Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, and the description is spot on; I look down and see a three-dimensional carpet of the slimy creatures, lion’s mane, whose orange tentacles drape into the depths. They might lack brains, blood and hearts, but they make up for it in tendrils that flow like Medusa.

Later, she says, “Hey, dad, remember that one place we had lunch…the spot without a waterfall?” That was the only way to narrow it down.

We’re in the country’s Westfjords region and the only thing possibly outnumbering the jellyfish are the waterfalls, which, like their tentacles, cascade down from lava-topped plateaus thousands of feet above. Earlier today there were simply too many to count; I lost track at 23. Put both hands together and the spaces between your fingers represent all the fjords here that there are to explore.

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The beginning

After catching a 40-minute flight from Reykjavik to the seaside village of Ísafjörður, we meet our group at the warehouse for Borea Adventures, including guides Anula and Piotr, transplants from Poland. This is the company’s most advanced paddling offering, and the clients are all sea kayakers at heart, coming from Germany, Denmark, Israel and the U.S.

Shortly later, we load the sea kayaks aboard Borea’s boat “Bjarmi” and motor across the fjord toward Hesteyri, an old homesite known as the “Doctor’s House.” Formerly owned by the only doctor in the region and now converted into Borea’s bunkhouse, it’s one of the only structures in the entire reserve, grandfathered in with a handful of others.

Borea is owned by Rúnar Karlsson and his wife, Nanný Guðmundsdóttir, both born and raised in Ísafjörður. A former Boy Scout, Rúnar is a classic Icelandic do-it-all-er,  an avid skier, paraglider, ice and rock climber and sea kayaker who leads mountaineering and avalanche courses for the Icelandic Rescue Team Association. While the majority of their trips are hiking- and backpacking-related, they host a fair number of sea kayaking trips as well, with up to 10 guides in peak season. With a four-star kayaking certification from the prestigious British Canoe Union, Rúnar, who has also led paddling expeditions to nearby Greenland, holds their sea kayaking trips especially close to his heart — especially those in his beloved Hornstrandir.

“Hornstrandir is just a world of its own,” says Runar, whose father was born here as well as Nanný’s grandmother. “There’s no other area in Iceland like it. Its untouched coastline, fjords, bays and cliffs are so linked to our ancestors’ history, who lived here isolated for centuries. The fjords have no signs of human presence, not even a fence post. It’s totally protected; nature rules the land.”

As if on cue, a humpback whale surfaces off the boat’s port side and a pair of dolphin arc along the horizon. Countless seal heads later, we see it — a lone white square standing out like a golf ball on a putting green. Towing three kayaks at a time, we shuttle to shore in a Zodiac to a dock matching the overcast, cobblestone sky. We carry our gear up and stash it on the cottage’s front porch, waiting for a group of hikers to leave after finishing lunch inside.

The mudroom hints of the abode’s ancestry. Next to oldschool scissors and suture kits, jars on a shelf carry labels like “Chloroform,” Formaldehyde,” Spiritus Forte,” “Lidocain,” and “Chloral Hydrate.” A sign on the wooden wall reads “Laeknishusid Hesteyri”, Doctor’s House. It’s as if we stepped back in time 100 years.

In the afternoon we test paddle our empty boats up the fjord — tomorrow we’ll load them with gear. Right away we know we’re in for a treat. Even the waterfalls get reflected off the fjord’s mirror-like water, falling twice as far. The reflection of a snowbank is so clear I feel like Eskimo rolling.

Back at the cottage, we feast on a dinner of lamb shank with cabbage, peas and potatoes with butter sauce. Outside our window, a brown Arctic fox scampers around sniffing out scraps. Over dinner, Anula and Piotr share stories of elves and troll folklore, sea kayaking Greenland and even polar bears; the last such ursus to float over here on an iceberg and land in Iceland was five years ago. But there have also been some false alarms. The Coast Guard recently responded to a pile of so-called polar bear poop on a nearby peninsula. It turned out to be from a swan. Another report turned out to be a Yeti-like sheep that had lost its flock and wintered solo, emerging with a massive, shaggy, white wool coat.

Over fresh rhubarb pie for dessert, the hut’s caretaker, Hrólfur Vagnsson, a professional musician, pulls out an accordion and sings a morose song about a thief caught stealing sheep for his family. Later, he grabs a lamgspil, a type of Icelandic violin, down from the wall and plays a song whose notes are as drawn-out as the  neighboring fjords.

Waterfall Wonderland

The next morning, after a Euro-breakfast of toast, hardboiled eggs, ham, cheese and various jams, we paddle 18 kilometers, across the fjords of Hesteyrarfjörður and Veiðileysufjörður and later along the sharp coast. We spy several puffins and learn that people do, in fact, eat them down south, prompting jokes about Puffin McNuggets, Puffs and Kentucky Fried Puffin. But they’re too cute to even mull such thoughts.

I pass seven waterfalls in just 100 strokes, all ribboning down from the ice cap high above. It’s one of the country’s many glaciers, including Vatna, Europe’s largest at 3,000 square miles and 3,000 feet deep. Here, they’ve all receded enough that only the ice cap remains. Rounding a point, the wind picks up, swallowing the calm seas. We group up before our next crossing.

Soon we see our next hut, about 13 waterfalls away.

A harbor seal escorts us into shore, where we pull our kayaks onto a cobblestone beach. On the top of a small hill bordered by a creek in a tight ravine is our home, called Kviar, nestled in the Kvíadalur valley. Like Hesteyri, it’s one of the only cottages in the entire preserve. Built in 1921, the farmhouse has been owned by the same family since 1948. It’s small like Hesteyri, but with bunks to sleep 12 and a Danish-made diesel oven for heat. Elsewhere, geothermal power could’ve heated the home, as it does 85 percent of all Icelandic houses. A group of hikers is already there, waiting for a boat pick-up. I take a quick stroll up the creek behind the cottage, each step a Hoka shoe of spongy moss.

Dinner is lamb shank stew, with fresh rhubarb jam. Later, we hop in a wood-fired sauna, dropping various oils into the water bucket which we dab on, creating aromas of eucalyptus and then lavender. Tiny, stone troll figurines watch from the windowsill. Soon, we’re running down the path and cannonballing into the midnight ocean.

On the next day’s paddle, like a peacock its tail feathers it takes a while for the first waterfall to show. But when it does, others quickly do the same, their plumage cascading from high above. Heading against a strong wind coming off the ice cap and up into Lónafjörður fjord, we decide to break into two groups — fitting in a country harboring the world’s oldest democracy. While one party returns back to the cottage, we press on to the end of the fjord.

icelandSoon a lush, green oasis appears, bordered by ribbons of white. A white feather from a gull arcs over the water like a rainbow, its reflection completing a fluffy circle. Beneath yet another cascade at the small bay of Sópandi is a seal colony, whose members periscope up out of the kelp with curious glances.

Arms and shoulders now familiar with our routine, on day four we paddle an hour across Leirufjörður fjord — meaning silty for its glacial river — spying the Drangajökull glacier to our left. We head to a far peninsula in quartering winds, aiming our bows at a sliver of snow high on the mountain. Like a doorman, a harbor seal welcomes us on the other side. Turning to parallel the coast, we see three Arctic foxes, two brown and one white, tumbling and wrestling down the hillside. Downwind swells carry us along, even as we pass through a giant, double arch. We pay shortly later with an upwind paddle to camp in Grunnavík bay off the fjord. More seals usher us into camp.

Sans iodine, we fill our bottles from a creek near camp, next to dandelions bobbleheading in the breeze. Our beer from a brewery in Ísafjörður touts its water as being “percolated through 14 million years of lava rock.” Above us rises this natural filter, in the form of giant, flat-topped mountains still basking in alpenglow at 11:30 p.m. Tuna burritos have never tasted so good.

We head down the coast another 15 miles the next day, my eyes taking in eight waterfalls at once without even moving my pupils. It’s only one two-hundredth of the country’s 3,000 miles of coastline, but it feels like more.

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Inside the cook tent for an 11 pm dinner…

Camp is in a flat grassy area filled with a Stone Henge of giant, white swan feathers and golf ball-looking, puffy white flowers. Four waterfalls high above disappear into the ground before emerging as four more and then three, finally cascading into the ocean. Another, the towering Möngufoss waterfall, a crown jewel of the reserve, thunders just down the coast.

The waterfalls owe themselves to both the glaciers that feed them as well as the impervious lava cliffs that force them into freefall. In the past 500 years, a third of the planet’s lava flow has come from Iceland’s 200 volcanoes. Its best-known, Hekla, erupted four times in the 20th century, most recently in 1991. Eyjafjallajökull blew in March 2010 for the first time since 1821 and again in April 2020, disrupting international air traffic.

A land of raw, earthen power

We’re in a land of raw, earthen power. We eat a pasta dinner at 11 p.m., but none of us mind; we don’t want the day to end.

We save our longest crossing, about 5.5 miles, for our final day, staying in as tight a formation as the Arctic Terns flying above us. They have the longest migration of any bird —up to 44,000 miles per year, from Antarctica to the Arctic and back, even sleeping in route. Our crossing is thankfully shorter, especially with two-foot-high quartering swells rolling in from where the North Atlantic meets the Greenland Sea — the same seas Vikings sailed when they founded the country in the 9thcentury and its Norse and Celtic seafarers later, who often staged here to explore Greenland. I look west to where Greenland lay and spy only a couple of dolphins.

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Iceland causes you to…reflect.

Safely across, we head west, paralleling the coast to another fjord, where we see our first road in six days. It takes a sharp turn, perhaps, as folklore maintains, detouring around a stubborn boulder rumored to be inhabited by trolls.

Another flock of birds swarms us, this time a chunky convoy of cartoonish puffins, nun-like with their white underbellies and black tops and orange beaks matching the sclera of their eyes and webbed feet. Flapping madly to help their football-shaped bodies and oversized bills overcome gravity, they dart like Star Wars starfighters, seemingly posing and grinning as they fly overhead. It’s a formation, I muse, that almost resembles a…chandelier.

Info: www.boreaadventures.com

If You Go:

Getting There: Icelandic Air offers direct flights from 10 major U.S. cities, from Seattle to Boston. Once you arrive, catch the FlyBus from the airport to downtown Reykjavik, where you can walk to restaurants, bars, museums, the wharf and more. Taxis are prevalent and friendly — maybe because there’s no Uber (‘It’s too expensive to drive,” said our cabby, Sam).

Dining: If you go to one restaurant in Reykjavik, make it The Fish Co. in the heart of downtown, voted the city’s best seafood nine years running. Headed by owner and master chef Lárus Gunnar Jónasson, it blends Nordic fusion with Icelandic cuisine. Try the sushi platter, salted cod, or melt-in-your-mouth, slow-cooked Arctic Char with apple jam, smoked emulsion, beer-glazed sunchokes and  a dill, vinaigrette beer foam. It’s all served by a friendly staff in the stone-walled old Zimsen house, a former store built in the 19th century. www.fiskfelagid.is

Accommodations: Lodging in Reykjavik runs the gamut from hostels to chains and trendy boutiques. Our fave: the 100-year-old Borg Hotel, right on the downtown square with access to parks, restaurants, bars, museums the wharf and more. Once the site of classic dance balls, it offers a classic Icelandic breakfast buffet, a full bar (often with live music), and quaint rooms with porches overlooking the square. www.borghotel.com

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Soaking up the Blue Lagoon

Soak It Up: Opening in May, Sky Lagoon (www.skylagoon.com) is Reykjavik’s newest springs and spa, complete with a hotspring-filled infinity pool overlooking the ocean, hotspring waterfall, and seven-step spa treatment featuring cold plunge; glass-walled sauna overlooking the bay; cool mist room; sea salt/sesame oil body scrub; steam room; shower; and hotspring soak (try its swim-up bar).

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What a way to end a trip…

Soaked in by locals for more than 1,000 years, the more famous Blue Lagoon (www.bluelagoon.com) also offers geothermal seawater, spa experiences, and even a skin care line. Named one of 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic, a 2018 expansion created the Retreat at Blue Lagoon, adding a 62-room luxury hotel, subterranean spa and two restaurants. Bonus: Each soak comes with a three-mask treatment of silica, algae and mineral.

Gear I used

Hilleberg Tents: These are what people use up north. Their beauty: the fly and body are attached, meaning you can set them up in the rain without the inside getting wet. A vestibule nearly as large as the interior works great for stashing everything from drysuits and drybags to boots. www.hilleberg.com

Big Agnes Sidewinder Sleeping bags: Winning Outside and Backpacker magazine’s Editors’ Choice awards, the new Sidewinder SL and Camp sleeping bags from Big Agnes — with treated down for water repellency — are designed especially for those who like sleeping on their sides, with a long, ambidextrous zipper that stays out of the way when rolling from side to side. It’s a nice feature — especially when you’re peeking out your tent to watch seals and distant whales. www.bigagnes.com

Sea to Summit Drybags: Sea to Summit’s 20-liter compression sack drybag was perfect for condensing our sleeping bags down to the size of a cantaloupe to fit into our bow hatch. Waterproof and air permeable eVent fabric, with a watertight, hypalon roll-top closure, kept the water out even when waves from two-foot swell permeated our storage hatches. The lighter weight drysack also proved handy for day items bungeed to the deck rigging. www.seatosummitusa.com

Level Six Odin and Freya Drysuit: You don’t want to go into the drink in the North Atlantic, but if you do the front-entry Odin (and women’s Freya) drysuit from Level Six has you covered. Constructed of its toughest waterproof-breathable nylon, Exhaust 3.0, it shrugs off abrasion while keeping the elements where they belong. Features include a stealth double tunnel, 3-ply built-in socks, articulated spine, reinforced knees and elbows, relief zipper and adjustable waist-belt. Fleece-lined, zipper pockets provide access to accessories while bombproof, British latex wrist and neck gaskets keep you bone dry. www.levelsix.com

Kokatat Habanero Liner: The Habanero is a paddling specific, one-piece drysuit liner with a long front entry zipper and a second waist zipper that acts as a drop seat, with flap fly for front relief (the women’s has an “invisible” zipper for use with female urination devices). It comes with heavyweight, four-way stretch fleece in the main body and lighter weight grid fleece in the underarms, cuffs, neck and ankles — perfect for paddling. We lived in them, even at night, at one point going two days straight. www.kokatat.com

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Eugene,

    I’ve done the same trip with Runar from Boreaadventure in 2012. It was absolutely gorgeous. I recommend it to everyone.

    Yves

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