Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thirty years ago in Iceland

Thirty years ago, summer 1977, it felt strange to drive past the bright flags and flapping buntings strung out between the houses and across the streets of the little Sussex village of Burwash. It was as if the village was decorated to see us off; ready to watch the spectacle of Geoff Hunter’s Austin Mini Van with sea kayaks (two of the very first Vynecks) lashed to the roof-rack pass on its way to Iceland, but no, it was the summer of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebration. Unlike the Queen’s, our procession came to a grinding halt when our paddles flew from the roof; we forgot to tie them down.
Geoff in his Vyneck in Iceland with fisherman-farmer Axel
Geoff in Vyneck, Iceland with Axel
That year there was a ferry service from Scrabster in Scotland to the Faroe Islands, and this, the first ferry of the season, was greeted by a bagpipe-playing band of kilted musicians striding the quay… another illusion of a personal send-off. We parked Geoff’s minivan in the harbor master’s shed for the summer and carried our weighty kayaks and boxes of gear on board Smiryl for a wild bouncing ride to Torshavn… and then, after four days to recover, for the remainder of the journey north to the snow-coated mountains of eastern Iceland to offload at Seydhisfjordur.
Geoff was a more seasoned paddler than I, having paddled around Britain a few years before in a plywood copy of a Greenland kayak he built himself.
"Angmagssalik Round Britain" about Geoff Hunter's 1970's trip

However he was patient with my pace, as we set off towards the sands of the south coast, about which we’d been warned by everyone who knew anything about Iceland. Dumping surf, quick-sands, sandstorms, no shelter and strong winds were a few warned-of dooms but there was always that back-up plan… we could quit if it proved too much for us. But I know Geoff… he’s not a quitter! We never considered it as more than a back-up plan, even when Geoff was being looped end over end in his Vyneck in the surf off a river mouth where a rapid current fought to help us out through the surf but in the end was not enough. The surf in the end prevented our escape. We finally admitted defeat and were returned to a pounding in the shore break with the day’s mileage total zero. When we changed into dry clothes we found beach sand and grit up to pea-sized nuggets had been forced as far into our clothing as our underpants. Of course, that was before the happy days of latex dry-seals around the wrists… or nowadays even cocoon-like breathable fabric dry-suits that can make kayaking a somewhat dry sport rather than a water sport. Typically our launching provided a sufficiently thorough drenching to set the level of wetness for the whole day, while throughout the night the wet gear dripped to mere dampness if it didn’t rain.
Nigel Foster (left) and Geoff Hunter, South coast Iceland 1977
But it was summer, and the weather was often pretty nice! Barring a few storms, and some chill snowy weather in August, we fared pretty well. Sometimes it might have been nice to have had a weather forecast. We could not receive the English-speaking BBC radio programs from home broadcast, and of course this was before portable VHF radios, and before cell-phones. Our best forecast was usually our own observation, but we also asked about the weather when we detoured to buy food supplies.
In 1977 Iceland had almost no kayakers. In the ten weeks we spent in Iceland that summer we met just one kayaker, a man who lived in the northwest fjords. He had been inspired to build his own skin-on-frame kayak after visiting Greenland. But there was no shortage of interesting people! One remote lighthouse holds the biggest private collection of books in Iceland. A handful of fishermen-farmers living in a remote place bury shark meat in the beach for months on end to ferment before hanging it in chunks in drying sheds for more months to reduce the odor… before… well in our case, before offering it to us to taste. Out in the fjords fishing boats approached us to offer us scalding cups of coffee, passed over the side as the vessels rolled low on the swell.
The puffin cliffs near Vik, Iceland
As with all good travel, we had a single well-defined goal to hold the experience together; in this case it was to try to paddle all the way around Iceland. We also had the time to spend doing it. In the south we were invited to stay with a farming family through 6 days of a particularly harsh storm. At Haemay we hiked up the volcano Helgafell, and camped on the beach, still hot since the 1973 eruption. In the northwest we helped with haymaking. We had enough time to get a good feel for Iceland and its people, and by the end it was with sadness that we realized the trip was over. As Geoff said, we should have made it last a bit longer, but perhaps that too is how it should be. It’s a sign of a bad trip if you’re glad when it’s over!
(Left) Raging Rivers Stormy Seas devoted one chapter to a part of the 1977 Iceland circumnavigation
So that was 1977… would I go back to Iceland? Absolutely! It's a brilliant place with great people! I already have returned more than a couple of times; to hike in the interior, to kayak more closely sections of coast we passed quickly, and to driving around the island.

In 2008 I'm going again for the “Eric the Red” sea kayaking symposium. Iceland has a great coastline, and nowadays has a thriving sea kayaking community. See you there? Click here for more about the 1977 Iceland circumnavigation.

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