Skjalfandafljot – The River of the Trembling Spirit
From our final glacier camp we stared down into the Vonarskard, one of the most remote and desolate of Iceland’s high mountain passes. It is a haunting place, steeped in legends of ghosts and outlaws, a place where the Vikings feared to tread and the old gods still roam.Our entrance into the Vonarskard was shielded by a wall of glacial moraine, 30-40 metres high and skirting the entire base of the glacial tongue. We eventually found a weakness in the defences, a small melt-stream cutting its way through the shale and rock, enough for us to clamber
over and haul our sleds through. Finally off the glacier and through the moraine, we dismantled our pulks, modified from their original design to be unscrewed and split into two pieces then stacked together, allowing them to be easily lashed to our rafts and packs. With our rucksacks packed, we descended into the river valley in search of the source.
The valley below us was roughly 2 kilometres wide running south to north, with the Hofsjokull ice cap dominating the Western skyline. We followed the valley north, the soft black alluvial sand disintegrating beneath each step with a puff of dust. After three hard- won kilometres we saw the glint of distant water, a sheen of silver filling the valley floor. The ground beneath our feet turned boggy and wet, sucking at our boots, then swallowing our legs up to our knees, the weight of our packs forcing us deeper into the tar-like mud. Another hour of walking brought us to a confluence of glacial streams pouring from the Vatnajokull in the East and the Hofsjokull to the West. The result was a thin layer of water
stretching across the valley, flashed silver by reflections of a bright sky, brushed with high cirrus. We had found the source of our river. Soon, the river was ankle deep, enough for us to inflate and drag our rafts. Glad to be rid of the weight on our shoulders, we donned our dry suits and took our first steps towards the sea.
It was not long before the river gained shape and volume, following the contours of the land. Paddling now, we followed the sweeping braids of the river as it swayed gently east and west across the low river valley. The v-shaped valley tightened at its mouth, the river gaining pace as it funnelled into a single fast-moving body. Gliding unhindered around a rocky outcrop, it expanded again into an empty, open plain, releasing its coiled energy into a series of twisting braids. We felt the land falling away gradually before us, the river growing in size, fed by numerous melt-water streams from the surrounding snow-capped hills. Gaining volume, the river carved its way through the landscape, the last of winter’s snow pack forming steep walls of snow and ice.
Snow began to fall, gently at first, then harder, whipped by a northerly headwind, rising to a gale, obscuring our view of the river ahead. We were moving fast now, at the whim of the current. The river filed again into a single channel and we snaked along under overhanging seracs of ice, our previous lighthearted chatter swiftly turning to thoughts of vigilance and concern. We landed our packrafts at the first sandbank we could find; it was time to discuss and reassess. We had made 15 kilometres since we joined to river and we were elated by our progress. Confident in our safety and ability to exit the river if needed, we decided to
push on. The channel swung around a low ridge of ice, the canyon ahead grew narrower and deeper, the water quickening. The river fell away, melting into the horizon. We could no longer pick its course against a wall of rising spray and falling snow. The headwind brought with it a guttural, grinding roar. Water smashing against rock, hammer against anvil. Our worst fears materialised. We scoured the surrounding walls in desperation, searching for an escape route. Nothing but smooth sided ice. To save ourselves being swept down the rapid we jumped out of our boats. The water pressed thick and heavy against our thighs but we were able to stand and arrest our progress down river. Slowly we edged our way down the first small rapid, one nervous step at a time. Wrestling with the current we forced our way across to a slither of sand next to the canyon wall and secured our boats. Scrambling and slipping our way up the ice and out of the canyon we stared down river in disbelief. From our elevated vantage point we could see a maelstrom of churning whitewater the end of which was marked with a series of small waterfalls. We had narrowly avoided disaster and scolded ourselves for poor decision making. We had ignored our ‘no paddling in canyons policy’ at the first opportunity. It was 5pm, dusk was beginning to tighten its grip on the land and we were getting cold. The day seemed over, but not before we had hauled our boats up the canyon walls and carried them to a suitable camp ground. After a little under half a kilometre, we found a single bank of grass large enough to take a tent amidst a boulder-strewn desert. We collapsed inside, exhausted and beaten.
We left our river now as it continued its thunderous course through a series of deep whitewater canyons. It would be three days and around forty kilometres of walking before we would be reunited. Before us lay a gently undulating plateau of black sand. Whaleback ridges etched with snow-patch camouflage extended to the horizon. Thin sunlight stretched across the sky, giving only the faintest hint of warmth. Thick cumulus clouds herded to the North. Soft, dusty sand and sucking mud were our constant companions for three days. Fields of lava slowed our progress further still, a shattered landscape, born of fire and violence. As we walked, we began to see a transition away from the empty highland desert. Spring rose up around us and wetlands emerged. Wading birds had started to return. Banks of grass and flowers woke from their slumber beneath the snow. Highland streams brought movement, energy and life to a scarred and blackened land.
We intercepted the river as it coursed through a steep-sided valley. Its character had changed since we left it, wider now, full and fast flowing. We plodded on, our pre- expedition study of satellite images having warned us that an impending waterfall or rapid stalked this section of river, unmarked on any maps. Concentrating hard on studying the river we barely noticed our river bank disappearing into the mountainside. The river swung east towards a wall of cliffs and dropped 20 metres into a canyon trapping us between river and mountain. Fording the river seemed our only choice. We loosened our packs, unclipped our waist belts and entered the water. The piercing cold gripped like a vice, immediately numbing my feet. We reached the middle unscathed, the water knee deep and running fast. Without warning, I plunged into my waist almost losing my footing. I dug my boots in and
gripped my poles, the weight of the water against my body slowly edging me downstream. I looked back over my shoulder towards the falls, the water raced away towards the drop off. No time to shed our packs and get to the bank if we went in. I was utterly terrified. No room for error now, no time for weakness or fatigue. Going back would see us trapped; pressing on was our only option. Finally, the water became shallower; the terrifying pressure threatening to sweep us to our doom lessened. We collapsed on the opposite bank, wide- eyed and trembling with cold and fear. We sat for a while out of the wind, behind the only rock feature we could find, and ate some chocolate in silence. Both of us knew we’d made a stupid decision, one that had pushed us dangerously close to the edge of disaster in an environment that
would have shown us no mercy. We’d got away with it this time but vowed never again to underestimate to power of the wilderness through which we travelled. That evening we climbed into our tent soaked through, freezing and exhausted, a gentle snow beginning to settle. I thought about home. The lonely honk of a greylag goose, empty and mournful, echoed down the valley toward a darkening sky.
Nearly two weeks in now and the relentless headwinds, the driving ice and snow, the damp, and above all the grinding weight of our gear was beginning to tell. We were both becoming exhausted, shivering cold through the nights despite good sleeping bags, our food just not enough to keep pace with our calorific demands. We needed to eat more food but that meant we had to cover more distance or risk running out of supplies. We made a crucial decision – it was time to go for broke. With extra food in our bellies and miraculously warmer, we made ambitious plans for the days ahead, knowing our grit would be tested like never before, if we were to savour success. Not making the distances each day would mean hunger and failure.
The valley opened again into a wide plain and the river followed a braided path for the next 25 kilometres. Launching our boats early, we paddled under a pale, watery sun. A light wind skimmed the surface of the water; it was bitterly cold. Icicles formed on our paddles, helmets and beards. Crusts of rime ice flaked off our drysuits as we moved. Later in the day the wind rose and the snow returned making navigation difficult. We knew that at the end of this valley the river raced into a gorge shortly before reaching the Hrafnabjargafoss waterfall. We had to be off
the river before then. We crawled along hugging the bank for the last few kilometres, a curtain of snow hiding any features ahead. Out of the murk loomed towering basalt cliffs, black gates beyond which we could hear the hollow booming call of the whitewater. We had reached the canyon.
The following days saw us walk through snow-covered fields of lava, past the Hrafnabjargafoss and Aldeyjarfoss waterfalls, pillars of basalt forming an amphitheatre of raging currents and swirling winds. These falls signalled the start of the lowland river and we thought for the first time that we might just make it all the way across the country.
Only the Godafoss waterfall stood between us and the coast now and we reached it after another day’s paddle. A mighty horseshoe-shaped cascade, the entire volume of the Skjalfandafljot river tumbled fifteen metres into the canyon below. Tourist buses cluttered the car park, people milled around taking photos, the smell of food wafted towards us from the café. We suddenly felt self-conscious and vulnerable; filthy, bearded, eyes hollow with fatigue. We grabbed our packs and walked back into the wild, only 30 kilometres until the Arctic Ocean; we weren’t ready for civilisation just yet.
Our final day started fresh and bright. New snow lay on the ground and the sun hung high in a pastel sky. We walked until lunchtime through pine forest plantations, following the tracks of Arctic foxes amongst the trees. We were on the river for the last time by early afternoon, the current running fast and strong. We chatted and drifted in the sunshine, the calls of Whooper Swans and Greylag geese drifting with us downriver. Ten kilometres from the coast we were hit by our first squall, the weather hounding and malevolent to the end; first throwing a violent headwind from the North, then engulfing us in snow. Our steady progress slowed to a crawl; waves whipped up, breaking over the bow of our rafts; fat sticky snowflakes stung our eyes and filled our mouths. These squalls would roll in from the sea like clockwork every ten to fifteen minutes. The last stretch of river took us three hours to paddle.
We could hear the ocean breakers now as they pounded the thin spit of sand that separated our river from the sea. The Skjalfandafljot opened finally into a wide estuary, riven with submerged sand banks, the main channel hidden. It felt like our final test as we dragged our rafts from sand bank to sand bank amongst the swirling snow. At last we saw the cliffs and the river mouth. The wind dropped. A pulse of sunlight through a broken sky brought an ethereal glow to the
lagoon through which we now paddled. It was as if we had been released and allowed to finish our journey, the malevolent spirit of Iceland’s weather finally, begrudgingly, allowing us to pass.
A grey seal bobbed beside us; we had come full circle. We landed our boats at the mouth of the river and stood for a while staring out to sea.