Coastal kayaking in Iceland

As soon as we decided we were going to Iceland, I googled to see if there were multi-day kayaking expeditions that we could go on. The first search result returned was Borea Adventures‘s 3-day coastal kayaking in the wilderness. A quick glance through the itinerary and the photos, I was sold. Hadn’t even looked up to see where we would be launching from. I booked in our trip before I looked up the map and bought air tickets. 🙂

The company warned that this kayaking expedition was demanding and no walk in the park. Which made us even more eager, even though we weren’t quite sure what to expect. To date, our longest sea kayaking expedition was in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, where the waters are relatively sheltered and temperatures relatively balmy. For this expedition though, we squeezed into dry suits with tight rubber necks and wrists, and slapped on neoprene pogies over our paddles to keep our hands warm. The water was roughly 7 degrees, about the same as the air.

We launched in partly cloudy conditions, against the stunning backdrop of Drangajökull glacier with its valleys still covered in snow. The headwinds were strong, but we felt fresh and made good distance before we pulled up on a marshy and sea-weedy bank for lunch.

Coastal kayaking adventure Westfjords Iceland
Grabbing lunch from the dry hatches

Coastal kayaking adventure Westfjords Iceland

Coastal kayaking adventure Westfjords Iceland

Coastal kayaking adventure Westfjords Iceland

The winds picked up even more after lunch, and after we rounded the arch, we had to battle 3-m waves as well, which slowed our progress tremendously. Having become used to fast paddles down river, where we could easily cover 20 km under 3 hours, it felt somewhat discouraging that we had been on the water for close to 5.5 hours but had only managed 18 km. But our two guides assured us we had made good pace, and we were all glad when we finally turned into the bay where our campsite was.

A full rainbow arc had appeared above the campground, and I was so distracted looking at it as I pulled close to shore that I failed to notice a side wave coming in until it was upon me. In a blind, I forgot which side to brace (need more practice till it becomes instinctual!), and the wave pushed me over. The shock of the cold water refreshed me. I tore off the spray skirt and popped out of the cockpit as water rushed in. Sadly, though I managed to grab onto my wool cap before it was sucked away by the retreating wave, I didn’t realize till later that my sunglasses had fallen off. Worse still, the waterproof bag in which I’d stashed my camera wasn’t so waterproof in the end. Managed one test shot of the rainbow in the following picture, before the camera died completely. 😦

Coastal kayaking adventure Westfjords Iceland
The last photo my camera captured before it died
Coastal kayaking adventure Westfjords Iceland
Our gorgeous campsite

It was difficult to stay morose for long though. The sun had popped out from behind the receding clouds and was warm on our skin. We could spread out all our damp gear to dry in just our thermal underlayers as we leisurely set up our tents in between nibbles of chocolate and nuts. Our guides also erected an enormous 10-man tent where we could sprawl out and seek refuge from the breeze and flies. And long after everyone else had gone to bed, I crawled out of my tent at midnight just in time to watch the sun dip briefly behind the mountains.

Coastal kayaking adventure Westfjords Iceland
Midnight “sunset”. The sun actually doesn’t dip below the horizon from mid-June to mid-July
Coastal kayaking adventure Westfjords Iceland
The midnight sun casting its golden glow on the mountains behind our campsite

The sun was high in the sky by the time we awoke at 7am the next day to break camp and down big breakfasts. It felt warm enough to even stow away my now-dry wool cap and pogies. We pushed off in calm conditions, and made good pace in the first couple of hours.

Then the winds rose again, and the clouds raced in. Soon, the rain started to fall, drizzly at first, then in steady pinpricks against our exposed faces. We were aiming for a campsite 24 km away, by the foot of an enormous waterfall, but try as we pulled against the winds, the conditions were against us. Finally, our head guide called it. “Let’s race to round that pile of rocks up ahead; there’s heavier storms forecast. We need to get the tents set up before.” We all breathed sighs of relief as we eyed the rocks in the near distance. But it was another hour of solid pulling before we collapsed panting on the rocky shoreline.

We managed to erect the tents just in time. After we’d all stumbled into the main mess tent, the rain started again, with winds battering the fabric walls. But we were dry, and tucked into a feast of fajitas that never tasted so good.

Our second campsite in Westfjords Iceland
Our second campsite in Westfjords Iceland. Exploring the hiking trail up to the glacier, in between bouts of spitting rain

We all slept early that night, in part from exhaustion, and in part because we had nowhere to go from the storms that raged on outside. All night long, the winds slapped ferociously against the thin fabric walls, and at some points I wondered if the pegs we’d hammered in would hold.

Hold they did. Happily, by the time our alarms rang at 630 am the next day, the worst of the storms had abated. Today was crossing day. We had to paddle 10 km across the channel to Vigur Island, a small spear-shaped island off Isafjordour that is inhibited by a single family farming eider duck down. The winds – by this time, what’s new – were against us again, and strong, but we made steady progress, keeping our eyes peeled along the way for those curious seals that popped their heads up every once in a while to stare at us, and hoping for glimpses of pods of whales.

Jeff saw the first spout, in the far off distance. Then just in front of us, the graceful arc of a humpback gently broaching from the surface. We watched it swim gracefully from us, awed by its majestic presence.

As the small lump of land that was Vigur drew closer, the circus of puffins grew in size. They looked so adorable, the way they frantically kicked their orange-red webbed feet off the water surface as they fluttered their wings to get fly away from our gliding kayaks. I wished my camera was still working, so I could capture close ups of their distinctive orange and red banded beaks, but settled for enjoying the view of the thousands of puffins in the air and water.

After 2 days camping in the wilderness where we did not see any one else, it felt a little jarring pulling up to the island as two motor boats filled with day trippers disembarked at the same time. We ate a leisurely lunch, then grabbed wooden stakes for a short stroll around the island. The stakes were to help fend off the possessive arctic terns that circled us and squawked angrily whenever we approached too close their nests in the tall grass. This island is a haven for bird watchers, since it is also filled with other varieties such as the guillemoths and eider ducks.

Fending off the possessive arctic terns with wooden sticks raised above our heads - Vigur Iceland
Fending off the possessive arctic terns with wooden sticks raised above our heads – Vigur Iceland

And then, all too soon – though our blistered hands and sore shoulders were ready for a break – it was time for the last push back to mainland.

What an awesome adventure. And we’ve already marked out our next arctic expedition – Greenland, where we’d get to paddle among icebergs. Can’t wait!

4 Replies to “Coastal kayaking in Iceland”

      1. I will do that!!! I heard from a Dutchman one time I flew through there on Iceland Air back to AMS that it was the land of fantasy. He had adventure travelled all over the world and said that Iceland was the place of dreamlike adventures that could not be explained. “You have to visit yourself” was his advise. Has been on my bucket list ever since.

        Liked by 1 person

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