KayakVagabond

the website of Greg Stamer

Lost in Iceland Article Online

Posted by Greg on February 4, 2010

Translucent ice sculptures in Jökulsárlón lagoon

Lost in Iceland was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine. The entire text follows below (you may need to click on “Read the full post” to view).

I will be visiting Newfoundland again this month and beginning work on a new article for Sea Kayaker about my solo circumnavigation of Newfoundland last year. With a new project on the way, and adequate time since it was published, I’m happy to finally share this article on my website.

Lost in Iceland was meant to be different — I forced myself to be uncomfortably honest and open, but I think that made it more human and hopefully, more interesting.  I have received more comments on “Lost in Iceland” than all of my other articles combined and its been translated into three additional languages for printing in various magazines and digests.  The version presented here is longer than the printed version and includes some text that had to to removed due to space considerations. I hope that you enjoy it.

Lost in Iceland

Greg Stamer

The famous seastacks and arches at VikWhen I was 22 years old and freshly graduated from college I had planned to bicycle through Europe, pedaling from hostel to hostel. My plans changed when I received a job offer just days after my graduation – a lucrative position as a software engineer. The position was prestigious, the money was fantastic, but I had to start immediately. I was disappointed about having to cancel my adventure, but excited at the same time. It was time to start following the corporate path to success. My friends were envious and my parents were proud.

Twenty-five years later my secure career had become a prison without walls. The death of my father triggered an internal earthquake that literally split my world apart and changed the way that I perceived success and life. My marriage failed. I realized that life is what happens daily, in between the grand plans. I could no longer spend most of my time in a cubicle, trying to squeeze my “real life” into the weekends. Although I enjoyed scores of kayaking trips one or two weeks long, the kind of kayaking expeditions I dreamed of were simply not possible. My requests for a leave of a month or more were refused due to “needs of the business.” I felt like a fox with his leg caught in a steel trap. I could give up and wither away, or I could chew myself free, leave a mess, but limp away to live on my own terms. There was only one sane, but brutal choice. In February of 2007 I left my job, sold or gave away most of my things, leased my home and I went to Europe. To Germany.

I had met Freya Hoffmeister, “The Woman in Black”, in 2005 at a kayaking symposium where I was teaching Greenland-style techniques. As an ex-gymnast she learned the maneuvers astonishingly fast. She had a dream to compete in the Greenland championships and I had competed there twice, being on the first American team in 2000 (SK FEB 2001). Freya appealed to my sense of adventure and I loved her fierce independence and spontaneity – the very things that I yearned for while living the corporate life.

Freya and I frequently crossed paths at kayaking events around the world and began a long-distance relationship, but we each grew tired of the distance. In a brash act of spontaneity, I phoned Freya in the middle of the night, and told her I would be willing to move. She said yes, and within months I relocated to Germany.

The old apothecary in Husum, GermanyWith Freya’s home in Husum as a base, we kayaked the turquoise waters of the Spanish Mediterranean amid rocky crags adorned with olive trees, kayaked in the peaceful Baltic Sea with snow falling around us, chased each other downhill on skis in the French Alps amid glaciers, and toured widely through Europe. We had found an “adventure partner” in each other and excitedly began dreaming of building a life together. Eventually we returned to Husum and cracks soon began to develop in our relationship. While traveling was easy and natural for us, the mundane routine of daily life illuminated our differences in stark, honest clarity. Not only our values but the speed, focus and depth of our lives was very different. Freya consumes life with the same intensity and passion as a cancer patient who is looking to fill every remaining minute left with excitement. Plans are set quickly and changed just as quickly. She sets goals for herself, achieves them and rapidly moves on to something new. “The past is past, the future is now,” she proclaims with conviction. We were moving in different directions and we could both feel the distance between us growing.

In May, we traveled to Wales where we were instructors at the Anglesey Sea Kayak symposium. Israeli sea kayaker Rotem Ron gave an evening lecture about her adventure in 2006, the first solo kayaking trip around Iceland. I had been fascinated by Iceland’s volcanoes, hot springs, and glaciers since childhood, and Rotem’s adventure struck a chord with Freya.

As we were driving back to Husum, Freya was still thinking about Iceland. From behind the steering wheel she suddenly blurted out that she was going to go – and not next summer or next year, but in three weeks. Her spontaneity did not surprise me. I said that I wasn’t interested in joining her; it was time for us to part company. But I soon changed my mind. It was now or never. Freya and I both were determined to start living the trips that we had dreamed of for years. We would concentrate on the trip as our goal. There was a risk of sacrificing the remains of our relationship in the bargain, but inside both of us was a faint hope that the adventure would draw us together again.

We both were scheduled to be instructors at another kayaking symposium, this one in Newfoundland, and while we were there we spent our free time planning our Iceland trip and purchasing gear. After that symposium concluded, Freya and I enjoyed an eight-day trip kayak-camping around the Avalon Peninsula in southeast Newfoundland. The trip served as a perfect sea trial for Iceland. It was a test to see if our different paddling styles and camping styles, and different personal styles, were compatible for the strains of kayak touring. As a dry run for Iceland it was a complete success. We teased each other mercilessly, but we each respected our differences, and returned to Germany in high spirits.

A modern mariner's shelter. Orange refuge shelters ring the coast.In Husum we made our preparations quickly. We ordered maps and gear, rented a satellite phone and tested communications. Since English-language weather reports are not available in Iceland, Karel Vissel, a computer technician living in Israel who supports kayaking expeditions worldwide with weather forecasting, agreed to send us daily weather updates to our satellite phone. In only a week we were ready to depart. At the airport our luggage was bulging at the seams with expedition gear including two weeks of food so that we could launch immediately upon our arrival. To avoid additional oversize charges we resorted to stuffing our carry-on bags and even our jackets with our heaviest items, cameras, radios and similar gear, to the point that it was awkward to walk and board the plane. We laughed as we struggled with our balance, wondering if the flight crew would notice. It was a huge relief to finally remove my leaden jacket. I hoisted it quickly – attempting to give the illusion that it was light as a feather, and placed it in the overhead compartment with a heavy thump.

After many years of dreaming of a long trip we were both like two greyhounds waiting impatiently for the starting gate to lift so we could sprint off. We had agreed that this would be a fast trip. We were in strong physical shape and we wanted to push ourselves. Our goal was to paddle headland to headland and do the kayaking we were most passionate about – the lively water offshore and the turbulent waters around headlands, where the energy of the sea is intensified and brought into sharp focus.

Long Crossings

Waterfalls of tremendous scale make for a refreshing, albeit noisy, shower.Faxaflói in extreme southwest Iceland is the largest bay in Iceland. It cuts a massive gash into the coast about 30 miles inland and extends more than 50 miles across. The capital of Iceland, Reykjavík is located on its southeastern shore and most of Iceland’s population lives in the vicinity. The area has a rich history and was the stage for the early settlement of Iceland.

“Are you sure that you have checked the scale of your map? Neither of those bays has been crossed by kayak before.” Steini Sigurlaugsson, an experienced Icelandic kayaker who was helping us with logistics and planning, was incredulous at our decision to make two 50-plus mile crossings of the largest bays in Iceland-Faxaflói (Whitehorse Bay) and Breidafjordur (Broad fiord)- back to back, at the very start of our journey. He urged us to reconsider. From our launch site at Garðskagi, we could just make out the mountains across Faxaflói, almost 60 miles away. This was by far the longest crossing attempted by either of us. We were prepared for foul weather during the long, exposed crossing, but I was as apprehensive as I was excited.

Only hours earlier we had been dropped off from the airport and we quickly readied our gear and pitched our tent. Unfortunately Steini was not able to meet us. We were anxious to talk to him in person about communications and trip logistics. Even after the long day of rushing through airports and hauling gear, I couldn’t fall asleep. The midnight sun, combined with the excitement of starting a major circumnavigation conspired to keep me awake. On June 9th, Freya and I awoke to calm weather, but fog obscured the horizon. The seas were amazingly calm and we’d have a light wind at our back. Except for the fog, the weather was perfect for the long crossing. We quickly struck camp and made our final preparations. We were completely alone and it was unnaturally quiet as we eased into our kayaks. Our next stop was the lighthouse at Malarif, 56 miles across Faxaflói.

We quickly settled into the paddling routine that we adopted in Newfoundland. We paddled for an hour navigating by compass, rafted up for a quick snack, turned on the GPS to check our course, speed and check for drift. After the five-minute break, we set off again. This routine kept us together, and gave us something tangible to look forward to during the long hours in the cockpit. Freya and I are both competitive to a fault, and it wasn’t long before each hour of paddling became an unspoken “stage race” where we vied to be in the lead at the hour mark. We pushed much harder and faster this way than had we been alone, but as the miles accumulated behind us we began acting more like competitors than a team.

The sky was sheathed in fog, but from time to time the sun discovered a crack in the clouds and the sea became a sparkling field of diamonds. When the fog lifted we could see whales, more than 20 of them, dancing along the horizon. After several hours we could no longer see the shoreline behind us, nor our destination ahead. Long crossings might sound glamorous, but in reality they make time stand still, especially when in fog. With no shoreline to gauge our speed, the only indication that we were moving were the Puffins and other seabirds that materialized slowly out of the fog ahead and nervously scattered as we cruised by.

Halfway into crossing Faxaflói the mountains peaked through the fog. In the clear, rarified air of Iceland, they appeared close enough to touch but we paddled for hours without being able to discern any change in the distant landscape. At each rest stop I would turn on the GPS and read the verdict about how far we had traveled since our last break. Even though we were often traveling faster than four knots it felt as if we were crawling. When the fog closed again it robbed us of color. My bright yellow kayak was the only indication that the world had not turned completely gray. As the hours wore on, our breaks grew slightly longer, and we would take short naps, slumped forward and hugging each other’s kayak for stability. At times we paddled with eyes closed, and even fell into a very light sleep while still moving.

The exposed Breidafjordur crossing before the weather hit the fan...Finally, at 1 a.m., after 15 hours, the boats grated against black volcanic rock at the base of the Malarif lighthouse. Before we could collapse into our sleeping bags we had to unload our kayaks and drag them up a steep cobble beach, change into dry clothes, set up camp, prepare and eat dinner and report our position on the satellite phone. Freya discovered that the case holding her cell phone had leaked, ruining the phone. For signaling devices we carried a personal locater beacon, a satellite phone, and two VHF marine radios, so we didn’t consider this a major setback.

We awoke the next morning feeling surprisingly refreshed and eager for our second major crossing: Breidafjordur. We reported our position to Steini via a satellite phone text message and requested a weather report. Within minutes his message arrived. Communications seemed to be working perfectly. The forecast called for unusually calm winds and smooth seas. Heavy headwinds were forecast for the next day.

We wanted to make the crossing of Breidafjordur before the headwinds arrived. We first had to round the tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, a misshapen tongue of land forged from volcanic activity and scoured by glaciers. Standing prominently as a lone sentinel near the tip is Snæfellsjokull, a glacier-draped volcano. Many believe Snæfellsjokull has magical powers and consider it to be one of the seven main energy centers on Earth. I half-joked to Freya that maybe this explained why we didn’t feel any morning stiffness after such a long day before.

The volcanic coastline appeared as if it had just erupted from the earth. The base of the cliffs we passed were long ribbons of black and green rock stacked so tall that it hurt to crane our necks high enough to peer up to the peaks. The day was beautiful and sunny and the water was as smooth as glass – like a huge lake. We had not expected such fine weather. Steini would later write to us saying, “Amazing how lucky you guys are with the weather. All of May was northerly Force 6-7 and snowing occasionally.”

Horses run wild amid the ruins of old farmhouses.The winds that we had been racing to beat arrived early and caught us with 16 nautical miles remaining in our crossing. An ugly, dense, black front churned and boiled along an opaque horizon and slammed into us so suddenly that it felt like a giant switch had been thrown. We were hit with Force 5-6 winds and our forward progress was instantly reduced to a crawl. We had to shout above the commotion of the wind to communicate. Our breaks became extremely short and infrequent since the instant we stopped paddling we were immediately blown backward. I cursed myself for not bringing a drogue to slow drift. Several hours from landfall a helicopter and then a large commercial ship passed close by. We kept paddling steadily to make it evident that we were not in need of any assistance.

The headwinds drained our strength. To keep focused and to keep from getting sloppy, I made 10 strokes in perfect form and with full power, then closed my eyes and took ten easy rest strokes, and then I repeated the cycle. After 22 hours, Freya and I landed on Raudasandur, a beach composed of finely crushed red sea shells. Exhausted, I stumbled ashore like a drunkard. I had never felt so physically drained. Freya and I looked at each other without expression and then got to the difficult business of dragging our leaden boats up the beach.

RaudasandurWe were spent, cold and hungry. We quickly set up camp and fixed dinner. I was composing a text message for Steini on our satellite phone, giving our position and status, when in the distance we heard the drone of a truck engine. Soon the truck flashed into view on the beach and water exploded from its wheel wells as it forded a small stream close to our camp. The truck stopped abruptly in front of our tent and four uniformed men hopped out and strode toward us. “Are you the lost kayakers?” one of them asked.

“No, we’re not lost. Who are you looking for?” I responded. The leader of the rescue team indicated that they were searching for two kayakers, a man and a woman, American and German. My heart sank when it became clear that we were the object of the search. “Did you have any idea that we were looking for you? We have about 15 rescue boats and 30 cars out searching. All together 62 different groups of searchers are looking for you. A farmer saw you come ashore and called us. We also had a report from a ferry and a helicopter, but both of those reports indicated only a single kayaker heading toward this beach.”

Apparently only my yellow kayak had been spotted on the water by the rescue teams that had confused the searchers. Freya’s black gear is good for cold climates as it quickly warms in the sun, but it makes her difficult to spot on the water. At several points during our trip I lost sight of her, and had difficulty locating her amidst the black sea and rocks.

“Why are you looking for us?” I asked. I tried to hide the embarrassment I felt for being the object of a rescue effort after having been out only two days in fine weather.

Sorting out the rescue mess in the monster truckI learned that the search had been started on our first day, at 10 p.m., while we were still hours away from making landfall on our initial crossing. One of our friends had become worried that they hadn’t heard from us, and called the Coast Guard. We had told our contacts that we would report our position regularly, but by this we meant daily. Obviously, we had not been specific enough. We kept the satellite phone in a dry bag and had no intention of using it routinely at sea for fear of water damage. The loss of Freya’s cell phone had prevented more casual contact. We also had a communications glitch. Although we had tested our satellite communications with a number of different email addresses, the text messages to our primary contact were reaching his computer, but they were inadvertently going into a spam folder where they sat unseen. Freya and I both were sharing the task of reading and sending messages, but we did not notice any inconsistencies. In fact, communication appeared perfect. When we asked for weather reports we received them, but it was only a coincidence. Steini had been sending reports regularly without our asking for them.

I made several phone calls to clear up the situation. When I trekked to the farm nearby to ask permission to camp I was interviewed by several journalists. The farmer later visited our camp and told us how he saw us landing and had quickly called the authorities. Soon afterward two policemen arrived with a paper for us to sign. The paper stated that going forward we would provide our contact team with our correct location information. When I patiently explained that we were exactly where we had planned to be the police said that wasn’t how they understood the situation and simply held out the paper. I felt a rush of anger but I took a deep breath, smiled, and said that I would contact the Coast Guard daily. I was too tired to press my point and signed the paper. The policemen then left without saying a word. I was so mentally and physically spent that it was painful to remain awake, but finally we could sleep. I stumbled inside the tent, fumbled with the door zipper, and was asleep in an instant.

We were ready to fall fast asleep just as the rescue team arrived. After sleeping only an hour Freya and I were awakened by a tapping on our tent. “Hello, Hello! We are with the news. Are you in there? Can we talk to you?” Several reporters and cameramen had come to report the story on national television. I wasn’t fully conscious and simply incorporated the noise into a dream until Freya shook me awake. She grumbled some words in German that I hadn’t heard before, but needed no translation. We were both in dire need of sleep but with people tramping about the campsite we would certainly remain awake so I agreed to an interview. Freya gave me a stern look and called me the “polite American” – she was not in the mood for media attention at all. “I thought you lived for attention,” I shot back. In protest, Freya refused to speak or stand, and squatted next to her kayak. We both had dark circles under our eyes from lack of sleep and Freya wore her sunglasses during the entire interview. I told the reporters that we appreciated the efforts of the search crews but were sorry that they had been called on a false alarm. A friend of ours who caught the interview via the Internet remarked that I had handled the questions tactfully, given the circumstances, and that Freya, with her black attire, sunglasses and no-nonsense demeanor, was “looking wonderfully enigmatic; a cross between a Secret Service agent and Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.”

News crew reporting at our campsiteOnce the television crews had left, I double-checked our kayaks and discovered that my cockpit cover and the front hatch of my kayak had been removed by one of the crew for filming. The interior was now gritty with red sand. Grumbling, I cleaned up the kayak, then returned to the tent and fell into a long, deep sleep.

For the remainder of the trip I contacted the Coast Guard daily on my VHF. For the first two communications we had a helicopter fly over within 15 minutes of reporting our position. While the Coast Guard later said it was only a coincidence, at the time we were sure that our kayaks were being used as a training exercise, to locate small boats at sea.

Freya and I reached a balance on our journey. Although we squabbled incessantly like an old married couple, we looked out for each other, and pushed each other at the same time. The difference in our paddle types was not a significant issue. With a wing paddle Freya set the pace in flat water and in headwinds and with my Greenland paddle I was slightly faster in the confused water around headlands and while surfing. Much of this was probably mental; Freya is energized by “fighting” headwinds, and I am energized by getting a “fast free ride” from tailwinds. Our daily average was more than 40 miles (65 km) per day.

NW Fiords and the Northern Headlands

The magnificent Horn before the fog rolled in.
The Northwest fiords are among the most beautiful locations that I have ever traveled. The landscape appeared so raw and unspoiled that it seemed to be from another time. Had I seen wooly mammoths grazing in the valleys, they would not have seemed out of place. Ice-capped mountains, narrow crooked fiords, rolling green plains, all touched by the sea and of such an intense scale that it was difficult to fully comprehend.  As we crossed headlands between mountains, cold air pouring down from the higher elevations and into the fiords dropped the air temperatures instantly, as if a giant freezer door had just been opened.

Just prior to starting our long crossing of Húnaflói (Bear Bay), we encountered our first geothermal pool. Although we had covered only 30km (18.6 miles) for the day, it was heaven to soak our tired bodies in the hot mineral water. We soaked for six hours and enjoyed the luxury of our first short paddling day, as we couldn’t go farther for the day without having to complete a major crossing.

During the break I saw my reflection in a mirror for the first time since we had started the circumnavigation. I was aghast at my disheveled appearance and at how much weight I had lost. My swim trunks had grown huge on me. My face was thin, and my entire stomach was so hollow that my navel was misshapen. I had been eating all the pasta I could tolerate but I was burning many more calories than I was eating. I increased my calorie intake but even so, lost 21 pounds by the time we completed the journey.

As we continued headland to headland across the northern reaches of the country, fog was a frequent companion. Occasionally we would stop for lunch or spend the night on offshore islands. As we neared the island of Flatey, the sun poked through the fog and it became so warm that I could smell the warm latex of my drysuit neck gasket. As the fog receded, a squadron of arctic terns swooped down to the water all around us, a black cyclone, squawking loudly as they fed on a school of baitfish surrounding our kayaks. Two pods of dolphins streamed toward our kayaks like torpedoes and at the very last moment they disappeared under our hulls to feed on the dense school of fish beneath us. My pulse raced as I watched them disappear into the cold, deep water. We laughed, thrilled to be in the midst of such intense life and activity.

Southern Coast

No place to hide from the wind. Black sand as far as you can see.

We pushed hard to reach the settlement at Höfn to resupply before a forecasted storm slammed into the exposed coast. My muscles were screaming for rest, as we had already covered 56 miles (90 kilometers). It was nearing midnight, but this close to the Arctic Circle the sun still burned brightly on our faces and illuminated the volcanic landscape and the milky white waves laden with glacial silt. With 24 hours of daylight we could paddle as long as our strength held out. Standing between us and the dream of collapsing into our sleeping bags was the needle thin inlet at Höfn (meaning “harbor” and pronounced “Hup” like a hiccup). Höfn is regarded by many as the most dangerous inlet in Iceland. More than 50 people have lost their lives to its fast tidal rapids, jagged rocks and constantly shifting black volcanic sandbars.

We were prepared to handle sandstorms. I poured out maximum power. Normally this would have me racing at six knots or more but I was virtually at a standstill among the stark black boulders guarding the inlet. Sweat trickled inside my drysuit and my face felt hot and flushed. My strength would not last long. Freya too was only managing to keep from getting washed out to sea. We adjusted our course slightly to ferry glide across the main flow of the current and slowly clawed our way across the inlet mouth to a small eddy on the western edge of the inlet where we could catch our breath in the gently swirling water.

Immediately before us were car-sized rocks standing between the sea on one side and a source of outflow from Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökul, on the other. Just upstream from us was a long field of white, steep and confused standing waves created by the tidal race that can flow at 10 knots or more. We would have to wait hours for the tide to change, portage overland to bypass the inlet or go on the offensive and head directly into the violence. We were tired and chose to go for it. It was the wrong decision.

Jökulsárlón - a labyrinth of iceI planned to eddy-hop from boulder to boulder until clear of the standing waves, and then ferry glide into the slower moving water by shore, but I clipped a rock, lost speed, and was swept directly into the violent wave train. The standing waves were large, cold and turbulent, requiring frequent bracing. I fought for simple control for five long minutes until I managed to accelerate into less turbulent water at the foot of the waves and surf diagonally into the shelter of rocks near shore. Freya was watching the drama from the opposite shore. Determined to find an easier way, she managed to ferry-glide across the current without being swept seaward and entered the eddy right next to the shore. Freya reached out and held onto a small rock along the bank. She then alternated paddling with pulling herself forward one rock at a time, each rock gouging her hull, while being careful not to let her bow drift away from the rocks, where it would have been immediately snatched by the current.

Waiting is the hardest part...The southern coast provided our most serious challenges. Its cold, arid desert of black sand is the result of floods created by volcanoes erupting underneath the ice sheets. Locals warned us of quicksand in some areas where wild horses have been known to get mired and perish. Few features in the landscape provide any shelter from the wind and steep beaches produce powerful dumping surf. To minimize the number of beach landings through the surf, we frequently spent the entire day at sea, coming ashore only to make camp. Upon launching from one camp, a dumper exploded on top of me before I had tucked fully and when I opened my eyes seconds later I discovered that both of my contact lenses had been flushed away. I surfed back ashore, blind, before putting in new lenses and making a successful launch.

Icebergs are nowhere to be seen around the Icelandic coast except for glacial lakes, such as Jökulsárlón, situated on the south end of the Vatnajökull glacier near Höfn. In Höfn, Freya and I had debated bypassing Jökulsárlón to make better time, but a bystander had overheard our discussion and commented, “What’s the point of racing around Iceland if you don’t stop to see anything?”

When we paddled through a break in the black sand shoreline and into Jökulsárlón, we found a lagoon brimming with icebergs trapped by the shallow inlet to the sea. The face of Vatnajökull glacier calves bergs in an infinite variety of shapes and in a spectrum of colors from white to pink to blue to brown. It was bitterly cold in the lagoon but after having spent most of our time paddling in open water we felt almost giddy to be weaving around the sculptured ice. Occasionally the silence was shattered as a berg rolled, or cracked, producing a deafening sound like rifle shot. We spent the night in the lagoon, camped with a view of icebergs silhouetted by an intense blood-red sky.

The view from our tent at Jökulsárlón

Two days after leaving Jökulsárlón we had favorable tailwinds and pushed hard- covering 68 miles (110 km)-to put this section of coast behind us as quickly as possible. Near Vik, a village that lies at the apex of Iceland’s smooth southern coast, spike-sharp sea stacks marked that we had passed the halfway point of the expansive reaches of black sand. Persistent headwinds slowed our progress and we began paddling around the clock – whenever the winds were lightest. As we approached the fishing town of Stokkseyri we both were relieved to put the end of the inhospitable deserts of black volcanic grit behind us, even though that meant that our journey was almost over.

We landed in a rocky harbor at Stokkseyri, climbed a steep berm to scout for a campsite and found ourselves amid lush green lawns. Since we had grown accustomed to seeing nothing but black sand, the intense color was startling. A homeowner offered to let us pitch our tent on her yard of deep green grass surrounded with flowers; it seemed like an incredible luxury. Freya pulled me aside and said, “We don’t belong on a fancy, civilized lawn. We are vagabonds, Greg.” Freya was right. We politely declined and camped on rocks near the water. It wasn’t comfort we craved, but freedom and the untamed, rough edge of life beyond civilization.

Closing the circle

Freya and I stepped ashore on the northern tip of the Reykjanes peninsula just before midnight, completing our circumnavigation of about 1,007 miles (1620 kilometers), in 33 days. We shared a brief, perfunctory hug and then we gazed across Faxaflói to the distant shore, remembering our first long crossing at the beginning of the trip.

An unforgettable journey.Steini was there to greet us. As we loaded our gear and drove in silence through a moonscape of volcanic rock, it occurred to me that the real challenge of the journey – the re-immersion into “regular life”- was only beginning. The long kayak journey had given me a laser-like sense of purpose and the freedom and thrill of living fully in the moment. The very risk of the trip itself was life-affirming in a way that “cubicle life” had not been. At the end I was filled with an odd mix of emotions. The feelings of satisfaction and achievement of completing the trip were tempered by the pain of a broken relationship. (Over time Freya and I would be able to salvage a friendship from the ashes.) A chapter of my life had closed. I had no home to return to – it would be months before I could reclaim it after leasing it-and I had no career to return to. The overwhelming feeling that I would need to reinvent myself felt as large and looming as the towering cliffs of the Northwest fiords.

As we drove, Steini mentioned how the first settlers sailing to Iceland carried carved sacred pillars from their homes in Norway. As they approached Iceland they threw the pillars overboard and settled wherever the currents carried the pillars ashore. I realized that I, too, needed to give up the illusion of control that my career had fostered, follow my passions and let the currents carry me where they will. Exhausted and with an unexpected feeling of peace, I fell into a sound sleep.

Trip Stats:Iceland 2007, nightly stops

  • June 9th – July 11th 2007
  • 33 days total trip
  • 25 paddling days
  • 1007 miles (1620 km) total distance
  • 40.4 miles (65 km) daily average
  • 68 miles (110 km) longest daily distance
  • 56 miles (90 km) longest open crossing
  • Clockwise circumnavigation
  • 24 hrs of sunlight !

Equipment used

Kayaks, NDK Explorers (Freya used a 3-piece model), Greg’s paddles, take apart carbon Greenland by Superior Kayaks, Freya’s paddles, mid wing and large wing by Epic Kayaks, Gore-Tex Expedition Dry Suits by Kokatat, Ocean Tour EXP Reinforced spray skirts by Snapdragon; Turtle Back deck bags, Under Deck bags, Interior Mounted Cockpit bags, paddle leashes, Sea Tec tow systems by North Water, Quicklace Mukluks and Mukluks light boots by Chota, Greg’s PFD, Lotus Designs Locean, Freya’s PFD, Peak UK.
The author wishes to give special thanks to Nigel Dennis of Sea Kayaking UK for providing a kayak for my use to make the trip possible, Steini Sigurlaugsson of Seakayak Iceland for logistics, encouragement and inviting us into his home, and Karel Vissel for his reliable weather reports and support.

Greg is president and founder of Qajaq USA (qajaqusa.org). He lives in Orlando, Florida. Greg has a Website at www.gregstamer.com

Text copyright Greg Stamer. Images are copyright Greg Stamer and Freya Hoffmeister. Additional images can be viewed in the “Lost in Iceland” gallery.

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  3. Marcus Said,

    Hello Greg,

    how are you!! Have you posted any pics from Newfounland yet … I am curious … hope you are well!!

    Marcus

  4. Greg Said,

    Hello Marcus,

    Good to hear from you! I am doing well and have been following your recent adventures! Are you still planning to circumnavigate Iceland? You had some tough weather last time.

    I have a few pics of NFLD at http://www.gregstamer.com/category/newfoundland2008 . I’m holding on to the rest until I finish my Sea Kayaker article. I was just in NFLD earlier this month visiting and enjoying some Nordic skiing.

    All the Best,
    Greg

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