Sea Kayaking in Iceland’s Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

Within the Westfjords area of Iceland—an enormous, serrated peninsula jutting in another country’s distant northwest—the one factor presumably outnumbering the jellyfish are the waterfalls. Like tentacles in their very own proper, they cascade from lava-topped plateaus hundreds of ft above. There are just too many to depend. I lose observe at 23. Put each arms collectively and the areas between your fingers signify all of the fjords ripe for exploring.

“Dad—look! There’s a chandelier of jellyfish down there.”

It hits me on Day 4 of a six-day sea kayak journey by way of northwest Iceland’s Hornstrandir Nature Reserve that it’s my daughter who needs to be the author.

Her description is spot on. Hovering within the sea beneath us is an illuminating carpet of huge, slimy lion’s mane jellyfish, their orange tentacles draping into the depths. Certain, they may lack brains, blood and hearts—however they make up for it in tendrils that stream like Medusa.

“Keep in mind that one place we had lunch—the spot and not using a waterfall?” my daughter asks me at one level. Deep in Iceland cataract nation, that’s the one strategy to slim it down.

Get to Iceland’s Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

You possibly can fly from Reykjavik to the seaside village of Ísafjörður in below an hour.
Joel Rohland/Unsplash

A fast, 40-minute flight from Reykjavik to the seaside village of Ísafjörður leads us to our kayaking group on the warehouse headquarters of Borea Adventures—led by our Polish guides, Anula and Piotr. This six-day journey is the corporate’s most superior paddling providing. Our fellow crew members, all sea kayakers at coronary heart, come from throughout—together with Germany, Denmark, Israel and the U.S.

Quickly we’re loading our sea kayaks aboard Borea’s boat “Bjarmi” and motoring throughout the fjord towards Hesteyri, an outdated homesite referred to as the “Physician’s Home” (pictured above).

Previously owned by the one physician within the area and now transformed into Borea’s bunkhouse, it’s one of many few outdated constructions nonetheless standing in the whole reserve.

Borea is owned by Rúnar Karlsson and his spouse, Nanný Guðmundsdóttir, each born and raised in Ísafjörður. A former Boy Scout, Rúnar is a basic Icelandic do-it-all-er. He’s an avid skier, paraglider, ice and rock climber, and sea kayaker, who leads mountaineering and avalanche programs for the Icelandic Rescue Crew Affiliation.

Selecting Your Borea Adventures Endeavor

Whereas the vast majority of Borea journeys are hiking- and backpacking-related, the clothes shop hosts a good variety of sea kayaking journeys throughout peak season. With a four-star kayaking certification from the distinguished British Canoe Union, Rúnar, who’s additionally led paddling expeditions to close by Greenland, holds these sea kayaking adventures near his coronary heart, particularly these in his beloved Hornstrandir.

“Hornstrandir is only a world of its personal—there’s no different space in Iceland prefer it,” says Runar, whose father was born right here in addition to Nanný’s grandmother. “Its untouched shoreline, fjords, bays and cliffs are so linked to the histories of our ancestors who lived right here remoted for hundreds of years,” provides Runar. “The fjords haven’t any indicators of human presence—not even a fence submit. It’s completely protected. Nature guidelines the land.”

Proper on cue, a humpback whale surfaces off the boat’s port facet and a pair of dolphins arc alongside the horizon. Numerous seal heads later, we spot the “Physician’s Home”—a lone white sq. standing out like a golf ball on a placing inexperienced. Towing three kayaks at a time, we shuttle to shore in a Zodiac to a dock matching the overcast sky.

Stashing our gear on the entrance porch, we enter the tiny, outdated cottage. The mudroom hints of the abode’s ancestry. Subsequent to old-school scissors and suture kits, jars on a shelf show labels from one other period: “Chloroform,” Formaldehyde,” Spiritus Forte,” “Lidocain,” and “Chloral Hydrate.”

Black and white Arctic puffin
Jonatan Pie/Unsplash

An indication on the picket wall reads “Laeknishusid Hesteyri”—Physician’s Home. It’s as if we stepped again in time 100 years.

Within the afternoon, we take a look at paddle our empty boats up the fjord. Tomorrow they’ll be filled with gear. Instantly we all know we’re in for a deal with. Even the waterfalls get mirrored off the fjord’s mirror-like water—crystal clear—falling twice as far.

That night we feast on a dinner of lamb shank with cabbage, peas, and potatoes with butter sauce. Within the window, a brown Arctic fox scampers round outdoors, sniffing for scraps, whereas our guides, Anula and Piotr, share tales of elves and troll folklore, sea kayaking Greenland, and even polar bears.

The final such ursus to drift over on an iceberg and land in Iceland was 5 years in the past. There have additionally been some amusing false alarms.

The Coast Guard lately responded to an ostensible pile of polar bear poop on a close-by peninsula. It turned out to be from a swan. One other “bear” report concluded with a Yeti-like sheep that had misplaced its flock and wintered solo, rising with a large, shaggy wool coat.

Over recent rhubarb pie for dessert, the hut’s caretaker, Hrólfur Vagnsson, an expert musician, pulls out an accordion and sings a morose track a couple of thief caught stealing sheep for his household. Later, he grabs a lamgspil, a sort of Icelandic violin, down from the wall and performs a track whose notes are as drawn-out because the neighboring fjords.

The subsequent morning, after a Euro-breakfast of toast, hardboiled eggs, ham, cheese and jams, we paddle 18 kilometers throughout the fjords of Hesteyrarfjörður and Veiðileysufjörður. Spying a number of puffins en route, we study that folks do, actually, eat these birds “down south.” This, after all, prompts a collection of jokes about Puffin McNuggets and Kentucky Fried Puffin. However they’re too cute to even mull such ideas.

Kayaking to Kviar

I move seven waterfalls in simply 100 strokes, all ribboning down from the ice cap excessive above. It’s one of many nation’s many glaciers, together with Vatna, Europe’s largest at 3,000 sq. miles and three,000 ft deep. Right here, they’ve all receded sufficient that solely the ice cap stays. Rounding some extent, the wind picks up, swallowing the calm seas. We group up earlier than our subsequent crossing.

Quickly we see our subsequent hut, a mere 13 waterfalls away.

A harbor seal escorts us to shore, the place we pull our kayaks onto a cobblestone seashore.

On the highest of a small hill bordered by a creek in a decent ravine is our house, Kviar, nestled within the Kvíadalur Valley. Like Hesteyri, it’s one of many solely cottages in the whole protect. Inbuilt 1921, the farmhouse has been owned by the identical household since 1948—now outfitted with bunks to sleep 12 and a Danish-made diesel oven for warmth. Elsewhere, geothermal energy may’ve heated the house, because it does 85 % of all Icelandic homes.

A gaggle of hikers is already there, ready for a ship pick-up. Excellent time for a fast stroll up the creek behind the cottage earlier than a dinner of lamb shank stew with recent rhubarb jam.

Later, we hop in a wood-fired sauna, dropping varied oils into the water bucket, which we dab on, creating aromas of eucalyptus and lavender. Tiny, stone troll collectible figurines watch from the windowsill.

Quickly, we’re working down the trail and cannonballing into the midnight ocean.

On the subsequent day’s paddle, it takes some time for the primary waterfall to point out. However when it resolutely does, like a peacock’s tail feathers, others quickly observe—their plumage cascading from excessive above. Heading towards a robust wind coming off the ice cap and up into Lónafjörður fjord, we determine to interrupt into two teams, befitting a rustic which harbors the world’s oldest democracy. Whereas one occasion returns again to the cottage, we press on to the tip of the fjord.

Quickly a lush, inexperienced oasis seems, bordered by ribbons of white. A gull feather arcs over the water like a rainbow, its reflection finishing a fluffy circle. Beneath one more cascade on the small bay of Sópandi is a seal colony—its members periscoping up out of the kelp with curious glances.

Right here Come the Swells

4 days in, our arms and shoulders are actually aware of the routine. We paddle an hour throughout Leirufjörður fjord (translation: “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 excessive on the mountain. Like a doorman, a harbor seal welcomes us on the opposite facet. 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 alongside, whilst we move by way of an enormous, double arch. We pay for this shortly afterwards with an upwind paddle to camp in Grunnavík bay off the fjord. Extra seals usher us into camp.

Sans iodine, we fill our bottles from a creek close to camp, subsequent to dandelions bobbleheading within the breeze. Our beer from a brewery in Ísafjörður was touted as being “percolated by way of 14 million years of lava rock.” Above us rises this pure filter, within the type of large, flat-topped mountains nonetheless basking in alpenglow at 11:30 p.m.

Paddling down the coast one other 15 miles the next day, my eyes soak up eight waterfalls without delay with out transferring my pupils. The picture is about one two-hundredth of the nation’s 3,000-mile shoreline, but it surely looks like its personal huge world.

Camp is in a flat grassy space stuffed with a Stonehenge of large, white swan feathers and golf ball-esque, puffy white flowers. Excessive above us, 4 waterfalls disappear into the bottom earlier than re-emerging as 4 extra, then three, earlier than lastly cascading into the ocean.

One more cascade, the towering Möngufoss waterfall, a crown jewel of the reserve, thunders simply down the coast.

The waterfalls owe themselves to each the glaciers that feed them in addition to the impervious lava cliffs that drive them into freefall.

During the last 500 years, a 3rd of the planet’s lava stream has come from Iceland’s 200 volcanoes. Its best-known, Hekla, erupted 4 occasions within the twentieth century, most lately in 1991. Eyjafjallajökull blew in March 2010 for the primary time since 1821 and once more in April 2020, disrupting worldwide air visitors.

We’re in a land of uncooked, earthen energy.

Dinner tonight occurs at almost midnight. None of us thoughts. Who desires at the present time to ever finish?

Our longest open-water crossing—about 5.5 miles—is reserved for our last day.

Paddling this tough, grueling stretch, we’ll be staying in as tight a formation because the Arctic terns flying above us. These unbelievable birds have the longest earthly migration attainable—as much as 44,000 miles per yr, from Antarctica to the Arctic and again. Our crossing is considerably shorter—fortunately, given the two-foot-high swells rolling in from the place the North Atlantic meets the Greenland Sea.

This is similar stretch the Vikings sailed once they based the nation within the ninth century. Subsequent up, the Norse and Celtic seafarers, who usually staged right here to discover Greenland.

Wanting west to the place Greenland someplace lies, I spy solely churning sea and a few dolphins.

Safely throughout, we head west, paralleling the coast to a different fjord, the place we see our first street in six days.

It takes a pointy flip, maybe, as folklore maintains, detouring round a cussed boulder rumored to be inhabited by trolls.

One other flock of birds swarms us—this time a chunky convoy of cartoonish puffins, nun-like with their white underbellies, black tops, and orange beaks matching the sclera of their eyes and webbed ft. Flapping madly to assist their football-shaped our bodies and outsized payments overcome gravity, they dart like Star Wars starfighters, seemingly posing and grinning as they fly overhead.

It’s a formation, I muse, that nearly resembles a … chandelier.

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Blue Lagoon Iceland
Courtesy of Blue Lagoon Iceland

Know Earlier than You Go

Getting There

Icelandic Air provides direct flights from 10 main U.S. cities, from Seattle to Boston. When you arrive, catch the FlyBus from the airport to downtown Reykjavik, the place you’ll be able to stroll to eating places, bars, museums, the wharf and extra. Taxis are prevalent and pleasant — possibly as a result of there’s no Uber (‘It’s too costly to drive,” stated our cabby, Sam).


In the event you go to at least one restaurant in Reykjavik, make it The Fish Co. within the coronary heart of downtown—voted town’s finest seafood 9 years working. Headed by proprietor and grasp chef Lárus Gunnar Jónasson, it blends Nordic fusion with Icelandic delicacies. Strive 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, French dressing beer foam. It’s all served by a pleasant employees within the stone-walled outdated Zimsen home, a former retailer constructed within the nineteenth century.


Lodging in Reykjavik runs the gamut from hostels to chains and stylish boutiques. Our fave: the 100-year-old Borg Resort, proper on the downtown sq. with entry to parks, eating places, bars, museums the wharf and extra. As soon as the positioning of basic dance balls, it provides a basic Icelandic breakfast buffet, a full bar (usually with reside music), and quaint rooms with porches overlooking the sq..

Well-known Spas

Opening in Might, Sky Lagoon is Reykjavik’s latest springs and spa, full with a sizzling spring-filled infinity pool overlooking the ocean, sizzling spring waterfall, and seven-step spa remedy that includes chilly plunge; glass-walled sauna overlooking the bay; cool mist room; sea salt/sesame oil physique scrub; steam room; bathe; and sizzling spring soak (attempt its swim-up bar).

Soaked in by locals for greater than 1,000 years, the extra well-known Blue Lagoon additionally provides geothermal seawater, spa experiences, and even a skincare line. Named one in every of 25 Wonders of the World by Nationwide Geographic, a 2018 enlargement created the Retreat at Blue Lagoon, including a 62-room luxurious resort, subterranean spa and two eating places. Bonus: Every soak comes with a three-mask remedy of silica, algae and mineral.

The Finest Gear for Sea Kayaking in Iceland

Green, two-person tent
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1. Hilleberg Tents

Hilleberg Tents are what individuals burn up north. Their magnificence: the fly and physique are hooked up—that means you’ll be able to set them up within the rain with out the within getting moist. A vestibule almost as massive as the inside works nice for stashing every part from drysuits and drybags to boots.

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Big Agnes Sidewinder Sleeping Bags

Massive Agnes Sidewinder Sleeping Baggage
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2. Massive Agnes Sidewinder Sleeping Baggage

Bagging a number of Editors’ Alternative awards, the brand new Sidewinder SL and Camp sleeping baggage from Massive Agnes—with handled down for water repellency—are designed particularly for many who like sleeping on their sides. An extended, ambidextrous zipper stays out of your method when rolling backward and forward. This function is very useful when pivoting to peek out your tent to observe seals and distant whales.

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Sea to Summit Drybags

Sea to Summit Drybags
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3. Sea to Summit Drybags

Sea to Summit’s 20-liter compression sack drybag is ideal for condensing sleeping baggage right down to the dimensions of a cantaloupe to suit into your kayak’s bow hatch. Waterproof and air-permeable eVent cloth, with a watertight, hypalon roll-top closure, retains the water out even when waves from two-foot swells permeate your storage hatches. The lighter weight drysack additionally proves useful for day gadgets bungeed to the deck rigging.

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Level Six Odin Drysuit

Stage Six Odin Drysuit
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4. Stage Six Odin Drysuit

You don’t wish to go into the drink within the North Atlantic, however for those who do the front-entry Odin (and girls’s Freya) drysuit from Stage Six has you lined. Constructed of its hardest waterproof-breathable nylon, Exhaust 3.0, it shrugs off abrasion whereas conserving the weather the place they belong. Options embrace a stealth double tunnel, 3-ply built-in socks, articulated backbone, bolstered knees and elbows, reduction zipper and adjustable waist-belt. Fleece-lined zipper pockets allow you to attain equipment whereas British latex wrist and neck gaskets maintain you bone dry.


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Kokatat Habanero Liner

Kokatat Habanero Liner
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5. Kokatat Habanero Liner

The Habanero from Kokatat is a paddler-designed, one-piece drysuit liner with a protracted entrance entry zipper and a second waist zipper that acts as a drop seat. A flap fly provides entrance reduction, whereas the ladies’s liner has an “invisible” zipper to be used with feminine urination units. Heavyweight, four-way stretch fleece in the primary physique and lighter weight grid fleece within the underarms, cuffs, neck, and ankles is ideal for paddling. We lived in these liners—even at evening.


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