We slipped quietly out of our shared room and dressed in the entrance area. Dawn, if you can call it that, was breaking pale and pink over southern Iceland. Our room at Álftavatn had been so warm and pleasant – why were we standing outside of it at 4:00am?
We set off in the direction of Emstrur.
Within a half hour, we hit our first river crossing: Bratthálskvísl. Nothing to do but strip down to skivvies and water shoes and get it done. We unbuckled the waist belts and chest straps on our packs. The air temperature at 4:30am was in the low forties. The water temperature? That was another story altogether. Most of Iceland’s rivers are fed by glacier run-off, and Bratthálskvísl is no exception. This water had been ice a couple of hours before it rushed past us. If it were more than 32.1°F, I would have been surprised. Having scoped out the best place to cross, we stood bare-legged in the cold, contemplating the task before us. I went first. As I took the first step into the dark, icy water, I felt the warmth drain from every part of my body – including my brain. I had thought I was cold. I was wrong. By the time the river was over my knees, I was exponentially colder. Heat I didn’t realize I had left was abandoning me at an alarming rate. That’s when I realized that it could always get worse. At least we didn’t have to swim. Fortunately, just-above-my-knees was as deep as this watercourse got. Lisa had it worse. For her, the water came to mid-thigh.
On the other side we sat, teeth chattering, and dried off with a small camp towel. Lisa’s legs were bright pink. We donned our pants and socks and agreed that being fully clothed in Iceland was the absolute best. There would be four more water crossings that day, two with bridges and two without. The second bridge-less crossing was wider and faster, but we were more ready for it. It somehow didn’t seem as bad as Bratthálskvísl. You never forget your first time.
We passed through Hvanngil, another Laugavegur pit-stop with huts and an area for tent camping. We could have easily made it there on day two, but we were pleased that we had chosen Álftavatn; the huts at Hvanngil looked shabby by comparison. Once past Hvanngil, both the terrain and the weather took a turn for the – how shall I say it?
Bleak. Grim. No – bleak. Definitely bleak. Or grim.
We had enjoyed a bit of sun for a while, but now the sky darkened. Low-hanging clouds obscured the mountaintops. A chilly fog closed in around us, and we shivered in the mist. The landscape, which from Álftavatn to Hvanngil had been lush and green, now turned black. Drifts of volcanic sand and rock littered an increasingly barren topography. As we reached the second bridge, a wooden span over a jagged cleft in the earth, we stopped. As we stood in the gloom, turbid water roiled in the dark chasm below. Tolkein’s Mordor seemed a more cheerful place to pass an afternoon. That’s when the rain started. Despite this, we were not the least bit demoralized – we were having the adventure of a lifetime. If anything was going to demoralize us, it would have been tromping half-naked through a glacial river at four o’clock in the morning, and we had already checked that off the list. We pulled on our rain gear and pushed on.
Our second water crossing was wider. And faster. At least it wasn’t deeper. Or colder. Though if it had been colder, we could have just walked across. This was definitely the scarier of the two crossings that day. The swiftness of water pulled us off our balance, but we persevered; there was bourbon on the other side. At 6:00am. Don’t judge us.
River crossings can be dangerous, but there are some steps you can take to be as safe as possible. Take your time and locate the best place for a crossing; cross downstream of any large obstructions, such as boulders and log jams. Don’t ford a river where the water is over your thighs. Don’t cross where the water is running faster than you can walk along the bank.
Once you’ve found the best place to cross, loosen any straps on your pack before venturing into the water. The ability to quickly shed one’s pack is imperative for water crossings of any significant depth – a fully loaded backpack can drag a hiker under in a rushing river.
Once in the river, face upstream and, using a single trekking pole, plant the pole and side step through the current. If your pole is like an extra foot, you should have two of your three feet planted securely at all times.
Finally – if you feel uncomfortable, don’t cross.
We had a little over nine miles to do that day. On the first two days, we had rarely been out of sight of other hikers, but our early start committed us to a solitary journey. Until we were within a mile of Emstrur, we had seen only one other human being, a lone hiker going the other direction. Navigation was the only matter that caused us some concern. The gloomy conditions and monochromatic landscape made the stakes that blazed the trail hard to see. The stakes were high, and the stakes were hard to see! We passed through expansive basins. Sometimes jeep tracks helped us to follow the trail, other times we just needed to locate the next faded wooden post in a sea of grey and black. We managed. It became a real event when we came upon a sign blazoning the news that we were still on course. Around 10:30am, we rounded a large black dune and saw the Emstrur hut in a hollow a quarter of a mile away. We were the first to arrive by far and claimed the best bunks.
After inhaling packages of Backpacker’s Pantry Risotto with Chicken, we were ready for a day hike. Nearby Markarfljótsgljúfur canyon was rumored to be spectacular. By rumored, I of course mean, meticulously researched by Lisa and found to be worthy. As usual, Lisa’s fieldwork was spot-on. We logged another three miles or so on a trail that snaked along the canyon rim and provided stunning views of the gorge and its fair fowl population. Leaving the canyon, we circumnavigated a large knoll, drinking in the lush countryside. Our jaunt was pleasant, the vistas being the main event. The scenery is better seen than described. Here’s a gallery:
The guest list was different in the hut that night. We did chat for a bit with a Danish couple, Kristof and Doreen, but in general people kept to themselves or their group. No matter, we only had eyes for our bunks. Although whispered conversations kept me awake for some time, sleep eventually came and we were up early again, though not 3:30 early. Þórsmörk awaited, a scant 9 ½ miles down the river Markarfljót. ♦