Whitewater Rafting, North Iceland
The raging waters of the East Glacial River gorge (Austari-Jökulsá) are the stage for our most challenging and action-packed day trip, appropriately named the “Beast of the East”! A spectacular combination of deep canyon scenery and relentless heart-pumping whitewater, the East Glacial River has consistently been rated one of Europe’s best rafting rivers and topped popular guide books’ lists of Iceland’s “must-do” highlights. Arguably the most remote single-day rafting trip on the planet, this whitewater adventure delivers an unforgettable journey into the raw beauty of Iceland’s river wilderness and a dose of adrenaline strong enough to satisfy the most powerful of cravings!
Sold. We love whitewater rafting and the more extreme the rapids are, the more we gravitate towards. We knew this trip was for us and it didn’t disappoint. There were other options of rafting trips closer to Reykjavik that wouldn’t have us driving to North Iceland, but it wouldn’t have been the same kind of rapids and scenery. Even if class 4 rapids aren’t your thing, there are many other rafting trips you can go on. The great thing about Iceland is that there is an adventure for everyone.
The day started with a 3AM wake-up which isn’t so bad when the sun never really goes down. That was one of the best things about going to Iceland in the summer, we had constant light so it didn’t matter that we were still sight-seeing at 10 at night or waking up in the early hours. It made the drive a lot easier and since there is only one main highway (Ring Road 1) that circumvents Iceland, it was pretty easy to find. It was a 3 hours drive to Hafgrímsstaðir rafting base where we got briefed, suited up in these amazing dry suits and met our tour guides before boarding a bus for another hour drive to the East Glacial River gorge. The weather was similar to the day before, sprinkling and misty, but we didn’t mind since we would be wet the entire day anyways. Once the guides unloaded the rafts, we all stood around going over all the possible scenarios that could happen out there on the river and all the safety precautions. They even had two safety kayakers who would kayak close to the rafts in case anything happened. We split off into two rafts and made our way down the rocky and slippery slope to the river itself.
I was a little tentative with the wetsuit and how cold the water would be once the water got in, but to my surprise, the wet suits literally stuck to your skin so no water could get in at all. We were well insulated except for the option of wearing gloves, which I ended up taking off after a while to paddle better. We spent the first hour on the river getting used to the smaller rapids and working as a team. It’s a lot harder when you’re out on the river battling the river than on land, obviously and it took a few tries before we all finally got in sync. The scenery was amazing all around us, from the high cliffs to rock formations that looked like trolls perched on top of the hill, it was hard to keep my eyes focused on the river ahead.
The next 20-25km of the East Glacial is a constant barrage of long technical read and run class 3-4 rapids. We cautiously ran the first few rapids until we started to relax and tune into the river. I had heard about the “big” one from a local the day before, dubbed ‘Green Room’, the biggest rapid on the river. The guides weren’t sure if we would be able to hit it or not for safety reasons so we pulled off to the side and climbed our way up the cliffs to view the rapid from above. Once the guides deemed the rapid runnable, we let the other raft go first as our group watched from above.
The Green Room is especially tough because of the mess of churning confused water that waits at the bottom of the drop. The first drop leaves you right in line for the second drop which is guarded by a midstream rock. If you don’t hit it right, you could flip into the churning water which will leave you underwater for some time, like a whirpool. The first raft hit it perfectly and before I knew it, we were making our way down the Green Room. It was clear what we had to do, and it helped to watch the other raft go first to fully survey the magnitude of this rapid and how to approach it. It was the biggest rapid I’ve ever been on and definitely lived up to the description.
We stopped off to the side of the river for a surprise treat before finishing off our adventure. A local farm from above the canyon had zip lined (!) down a crate of homemade waffles with fresh whipped cream and pure hot cocoa for us! It was possibly the best thing we ate in Iceland, everything tasted so fresh and the hot cocoa was the perfect refreshment from the frigid waters. We all happily chowed down before our tour guide told us the next rapid would be called “Vomit your lunch”. Fitting to it’s name, we ended up flipping at the end of the rapid, only the side I was on of course. Luckily, the safety kayaks were right there for us to hold onto as they kayaked their way to the other raft which was waiting for us. I realized later it was totally planned, but fun nevertheless to get in the waters of Iceland. If we hadn’t flipped, I never would have cliff dived later on in the day since the dry suit kept me warm and buoyant.
I’ve been wanting to cliff dive ever since our last trip to Jamaica so I knew I had to do it. There were only about 4 of us that wanted to jump and I watched everyone else go before making my way up the side of the cliff. The cliff was rocky and slippery and I was literally grabbing onto the rocks on top of me to keep me from falling. The guide was waiting at the top and told me to put one hand on his helmet if I needed the support. It looked way higher from above and I haven’t felt my heart pounding that fast in a really long time. He pointed in the direction of where I should jump and I almost wanted to back out, but he said there was no where to go but to jump since it would be too dangerous to have me climb back down. In a flash, I was in the water paddling my way back to shore. Such an adrenaline rush and so worth it.
The last part of the trip was easy cruising down the river where we got to take in the majestic scenery. Some people jumped off the raft and swam down, letting the currents float them downstream. We finished our trip with the bus waiting for us and it was only a 20 minute ride back to the base where local beers were poured and stories were told of an adventure we will never forget.
On the drive back to the city, we had all these landmarks mapped out along the highway that wouldn’t have taken us too out of the way, but the only landmark we ended up seeing was a dirt lot at a trail head which we used to pull off and sleep for the next few hours!
*Arctic Adventures/Viking Rafting was kind enough to cover our costs for this tour in exchange for writing about this tour. As always, all opinions are my own.