Whitewater Rafting in the Glacial River of Northern Iceland

Posted on November 8, 2011 by

“It’s all about teamwork!” Our rafting instructor Girish shouts loudly to overcome the deafening sounds of the gushing water around us.

“Forward,” he barks at us, “faster!” We paddle in full force, fighting hard to stay afloat amidst the powerful eddies that threaten to swallow us. One, two. One, two. I follow the momentum of my teammates but my arms get weaker and weaker with every dip. Suddenly, my world spins in 360 degrees – we are trapped within a vortex of water and the only way out is to paddle some more. This time, we don’t need Girish to remind us – we paddle as a team with all our strength. Minutes later, we’re out of the maelstrom and into calm waters…

Conquering Fears

In the backcountry of North Iceland, we’re rafting down the mighty glacial river, Jökulsá Austari, also known as the Beast of the East. With a white water system that rates between Class III and IV, the glacial river promises a demanding and action-packed rafting experience. Along with its twin, Jökulsá Vestari – the west glacial river, it offers some of the best rafting in Iceland – which has consistently topped Lonely Planet’s list of things to do in Iceland.

Here in the Skagafjörður Fjord, rafting is becoming a trendy sport not only amongst tourists but also locals. We are joined by a bunch of teenagers from Reykjavik, here on a school trip. After getting kitted out in our water-resistant vest and helmet, Alberto and I hop onto our raft along with four teenagers to prepare for a dry run. Our new teammates are evidently nervous about their first attempt at rafting but our guide Girish, looking extraordinarily chirpy on this dull rainy day, is determined to shake away their fears. After just five minutes of paddling, he poses us with a challenge.

“Now you have to jump off this cliff, or else you can’t continue rafting!” Girish commands, his eyes glittering with child-like cheekiness. We reluctantly drag our raft to shore and nervously climb up to the top of a 5m-tall cliff. Staring down at the gushing water beneath my feet, my knees tremble slightly and my fingers freeze. It’s almost 5 degrees Celsius out, the water must be ice cold. It’s my third polar dip in the past year – having recently swam in the icy Arctic waters and the river of Southeast Alaska. Surely this has got to be the last?!

There’s no time to hesitate. I take the plunge and the minute I enter the water, I feel as if I’m being sucked into the whirlpool of water. My clothes, jacket and vest drag my body down but after a few minutes of kicking, I emerge from the water surface, my lungs pumping harder than ever to breathe. Back out on the shore, it’s freezing cold but I don’t care – it’s amusing to watch the kids leap off the cliffs, doing air kicks and squealing like monkeys.

Nature and Adventure

Soon enough, we’re back on our raft, conquering the powerful undercurrents and foamy waters. As we pass through calm sections of the river, we kick back and watch our backdrop transform dramatically from greenish tundra hills to eerie grey cliffs.  The river powers through imposing canyons and mammoth mountains that overshadow our small raft. Along the way, we even spot herds of sheep and carcasses left as supper for the indigenous Arctic fox. It’s one thing to be rafting in challenging waters and another to be rafting in such amazing surroundings.

It is this combination of natural beauty and adventure that brought Girish here in the first place. Originally from the Indian Himalayas, he’d moved to Iceland just two years ago in search of rafting adventures. When asked if he likes Iceland, he beams and his eyes shimmer again with enthusiasm, “How can you not fall in love with Iceland?”

I look back at what we’ve seen and done in Iceland so far: ice-climbing on a glacier, climbing an active volcano and diving between tectonic plates, I think I understand what he means…

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

7 Responses to “Whitewater Rafting in the Glacial River of Northern Iceland”

  1. thatbackpacker November 9, 2011 1:57 am #

    Ahhh! Jumping from a cliff into frigid water sounds so scary to me! But I think it's time to start trying some of these adventure sports :D

  2. Nancy & Shawn Power November 10, 2011 3:59 am #

    Nellie, you sure like adventure, don't you! Are you still up there? Hope your enjoying yourself.

    Nancy & Shawn

  3. Rafting Wales March 27, 2013 8:46 am #

    This looks like a good laugh. I've done a fair bit of rafting in wales, its definitely not as warm as the zambezi but its a good laugh and there are some good rivers for people of all experiences.


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