Water is an essential ingredient of Iceland; the clue is the title. Rocks around here often have a waterfall as an accessory (or seven), hotpools are as common as hot dinners and you can fish in every harbour. But it’s not enough to watch; you have to get involved. There are endless ways of doing this, from snorkelling in a fissure to kayaking on the ocean. On our journey around Iceland we stopped in the north to try out two classic water based family adventures….
“You two at the front. You have a very important job. You need to watch out for rocks. Ok?”
“Ok!” Big thumbs up from Matthew and Cameron.
Seconds later the raft grounds on a boulder.
“What happened? You were supposed to be the lookouts. Are you still asleep?” laughs Chris Doyle-Kelly, General Manager of Arctic Rafting and our guide for the day.
Not much chance of that. It’s barely 11am and we have already downed several coffees, squeezed into rubber suits and boots, put on helmets, driven twenty for twenty minutes in a bus, listened to a safety briefing, climbed into a raft, figured out how to paddle and stranded ourselves on a rock. Not bad for a family of total beginners. I feel proud.
We celebrate with the most natural elevenses I have ever had; hot chocolate made with water straight from a hot pool. No eggy smell either. These guys at Arctic Rafting have clearly done it before.
Many times before. Hafgrimsstadir has been their base and glacially fed playground for three years and twice a day they take a crowd of adrenaline seekers down one of two rivers. Families and the nervous get to ride the Western Glacial River, which despite its swirling white foam is tame as a kitten next to the ‘big one,’ fondly nicknamed The Beast of the East. “The Eastern Glacial River is getting the reputation for being one of the best rivers in Europe” says Chris, who will take a braver group out onto its rapids after lunch.
People have a lot to say about The Beast on the guest board of the Arctic Rafting hang-out lounge; I guess it’s a form of post rafting therapy. My favourite quote is “Looked around and my wife was gone,” but I’m sincerely hoping the same thing doesn’t happen to me.
The guides park the rafts in an eddy. Our next challenge is to jump into the river from a tall rock, get our bearings in the water and swim against the current back to the rest of the group. The guides are ready; one moored nearby in a safety boat and two holding ropes for anyone who forgets to doggy paddle for their life. It’s hard not to feel anxious about Cameron who is small for his ten years and not a particularly strong swimmer. But he deposits himself back, dripping and exhilarated.
We bounce and forge our way down a dramatic gorge, capturing a prisoner from another raft on the way. My daughter sits on the side of the boat with a paddle twice her size, confidently pushing it through the glacial flow. I’m beginning to revise my belief (handed down from my mother) that white water rafting is only for teenagers and the insane.
“Get down,” shouts Chris, and we dive into the boat. This time it’s not a boulder, but a wall of water in our path. I look around and Stuart and the kids are still on board, climbing back onto the side of the raft, with Hannah there first.
“That was epic,” she says.
The wet and the wildlife
And then, white water turns to white horses and we are afloat on the ocean; powered only by the wind. We have moved on to Husavik; the whale watching capital of Iceland. Here the adrenaline rush also comes from a surge of water, but this time it’s from the spout of a whale. Whales and puffins gather in Skjálfandi Bay in the summer to splash (the whales) to nest (the puffins) and to feed (whales, puffins and tourists.) At the moment there’s a 98 per cent chance of seeing a whale on one of the many tours running from Husavik. We are seeing them the old fashioned way, on a ‘Whales, Puffins and Sails tour.’
Our schooner ‘Hauker,’ is owned by North Sailing; a family run company with a fleet of elegant salvaged oak vessels. It feels like the Armada when a whale is spotted and the crews bring their unique boats together to view it. But when a humpback curls its back, no one pays any attention to our sails; it’s all about the tail now. It’s a moment you don’t forget; that spray painted smash of black and white as the tail hits the water then disappears.
But like the family rafting, there’s no slacking on this boat. There are jobs to be done; and we are part of the crew. Dressed in a one piece boiler suit we never thought we’d need until we hit the cold ocean winds, we haul and rig and gyb. The captain puts Matthew in charge of the steering wheel and we pray that he’ll be a better lookout than before. Because Puffin Island, complete with its summer population of nesting puffins is the boulder in the way today. And 200,000 puffins in a huff is not an appealing prospect.
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