Sea Kayaking in Iceland’s Hornstrandir Nature Reserve


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In the Westfjords region of Iceland—a giant, serrated peninsula jutting out of the country’s remote northwest—the only thing possibly outnumbering the jellyfish are the waterfalls. Like tentacles in their own right, they cascade from lava-topped plateaus thousands of feet above. There are simply too many to count. I lose track at 23. Put both hands together and the spaces between your fingers represent all 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 trip through northwest Iceland’s Hornstrandir Nature Reserve that it’s my daughter who should be the writer.

Her description is spot on. Hovering in the sea below us is an illuminating carpet of enormous, slimy lion’s mane jellyfish, their orange tentacles draping into the depths. Sure, they might lack brains, blood and hearts—but they make up for it in tendrils that flow like Medusa.

“Remember that one place we had lunch—the spot without a waterfall?” my daughter asks me at one point. Deep in Iceland cataract country, that’s the only way to narrow it down.

How to Get to Iceland’s Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

Icelandic village

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

A quick, 40-minute flight from Reykjavik to the seaside village of Ísafjörður leads us to our kayaking group at the warehouse headquarters of Borea Adventures—led by our Polish guides, Anula and Piotr. This six-day trip is the company’s most advanced paddling offering. Our fellow crew members, all sea kayakers at heart, come from all over—including Germany, Denmark, Israel and the U.S.

Soon we’re loading our sea kayaks aboard Borea’s boat “Bjarmi” and motoring across the fjord toward Hesteyri, an old homesite known as the “Doctor’s House” (pictured above).

Formerly owned by the only doctor in the region and now converted into Borea’s bunkhouse, it’s one of the few old structures still standing in the entire reserve.

Borea is owned by Rúnar Karlsson and his wife, Nanný Guðmundsdóttir, both born and raised in Ísafjörður. A former Boy Scout, Rúnar is a classic Icelandic do-it-all-er. He’s an avid skier, paraglider, ice and rock climber, and sea kayaker, who leads mountaineering and avalanche courses for the Icelandic Rescue Team Association.

Choosing Your Borea Adventures Endeavor

While the majority of Borea trips are hiking- and backpacking-related, the outfitter hosts a fair number of sea kayaking trips during peak season. With a four-star kayaking certification from the prestigious British Canoe Union, Rúnar, who’s also led paddling expeditions to nearby Greenland, holds these sea kayaking adventures close to his heart, especially those in his beloved Hornstrandir.

“Hornstrandir is just a world of its own—there’s no other area in Iceland like it,” says Runar, whose father was born here as well as Nanný’s grandmother. “Its untouched coastline, fjords, bays and cliffs are so linked to the histories of our ancestors who lived here isolated for centuries,” adds Runar. “The fjords have no signs of human presence—not even a fence post. It’s totally protected. Nature rules the land.”

Right on cue, a humpback whale surfaces off the boat’s port side and a pair of dolphins arc along the horizon. Countless seal heads later, we spot the “Doctor’s House”—a lone white square standing out like a golf ball on a putting green. 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 front porch, we enter the tiny, old cottage. The mudroom hints of the abode’s ancestry. Next to old-school scissors and suture kits, jars on a shelf display labels from another era: “Chloroform,” Formaldehyde,” Spiritus Forte,” “Lidocain,” and “Chloral Hydrate.”

Black and white Arctic puffin
Jonatan Pie/Unsplash

A sign on the wooden wall reads “Laeknishusid Hesteyri”—Doctor’s House. It’s as if we stepped back in time 100 years.

In the afternoon, we test paddle our empty boats up the fjord. Tomorrow they’ll be packed with gear. Right away we know we’re in for a treat. Even the waterfalls get reflected off the fjord’s mirror-like water—crystal clear—falling twice as far.

That evening we feast on a dinner of lamb shank with cabbage, peas, and potatoes with butter sauce. In the window, a brown Arctic fox scampers around outside, sniffing for scraps, while our guides, Anula and Piotr, share stories of elves and troll folklore, sea kayaking Greenland, and even polar bears.

The last such ursus to float over on an iceberg and land in Iceland was five years ago. There have also been some amusing false alarms.

The Coast Guard recently responded to an ostensible pile of polar bear poop on a nearby peninsula. It turned out to be from a swan. Another “bear” report concluded with a Yeti-like sheep that had lost its flock and wintered solo, emerging with a massive, shaggy wool coat.

Over fresh rhubarb pie for dessert, the hut’s caretaker, Hrólfur Vagnsson, a professional musician, pulls out an accordion and sings a morose song about a thief caught stealing sheep for his family. Later, he grabs a lamgspil, a type of Icelandic violin, down from the wall and plays a song whose notes are as drawn-out as the neighboring fjords.

The next morning, after a Euro-breakfast of toast, hardboiled eggs, ham, cheese and jams, we paddle 18 kilometers across the fjords of Hesteyrarfjörður and Veiðileysufjörður. Spying several puffins en route, we learn that people do, in fact, eat these birds “down south.” This, of course, prompts a series of jokes about Puffin McNuggets and Kentucky Fried Puffin. But they’re too cute to even mull such thoughts.

Kayaking to Kviar

I pass seven waterfalls in just 100 strokes, all ribboning down from the ice cap high above. It’s one of the country’s many glaciers, including Vatna, Europe’s largest at 3,000 square miles and 3,000 feet deep. Here, they’ve all receded enough that only the ice cap remains. Rounding a point, the wind picks up, swallowing the calm seas. We group up before our next crossing.

Soon we see our next hut, a mere 13 waterfalls away.

A harbor seal escorts us to shore, where we pull our kayaks onto a cobblestone beach.

On the top of a small hill bordered by a creek in a tight ravine is our home, Kviar, nestled in the Kvíadalur Valley. Like Hesteyri, it’s one of the only cottages in the entire preserve. Built in 1921, the farmhouse has been owned by the same family since 1948—now outfitted with bunks to sleep 12 and a Danish-made diesel oven for heat. Elsewhere, geothermal power could’ve heated the home, as it does 85 percent of all Icelandic houses.

A group of hikers is already there, waiting for a boat pick-up. Perfect time for a quick stroll up the creek behind the cottage before a dinner of lamb shank stew with fresh rhubarb jam.

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

Soon, we’re running down the path and cannonballing into the midnight ocean.

On the next day’s paddle, it takes a while for the first waterfall to show. But when it resolutely does, like a peacock’s tail feathers, others soon follow—their plumage cascading from high above. Heading against a strong wind coming off the ice cap and up into Lónafjörður fjord, we decide to break into two groups, befitting a country which harbors the world’s oldest democracy. While one party returns back to the cottage, we press on to the end of the fjord.

Soon a lush, green oasis appears, bordered by ribbons of white. A gull feather arcs over the water like a rainbow, its reflection completing a fluffy circle. Beneath yet another cascade at the small bay of Sópandi is a seal colony—its members periscoping up out of the kelp with curious glances.

Here Come the Swells

Four days in, our arms and shoulders are now familiar with the routine. We paddle an hour across 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 high on the mountain. Like a doorman, a harbor seal welcomes us on the other side. 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 along, even as we pass through a giant, double arch. We pay for this shortly afterwards with an upwind paddle to camp in Grunnavík bay off the fjord. More seals usher us into camp.

Sans iodine, we fill our bottles from a creek near camp, next to dandelions bobbleheading in the breeze. Our beer from a brewery in Ísafjörður was touted as being “percolated through 14 million years of lava rock.” Above us rises this natural filter, in the form of giant, flat-topped mountains still basking in alpenglow at 11:30 p.m.

Paddling down the coast another 15 miles the following day, my eyes take in eight waterfalls at once without moving my pupils. The image is about one two-hundredth of the country’s 3,000-mile coastline, but it feels like its own vast world.

Camp is in a flat grassy area filled with a Stonehenge of giant, white swan feathers and golf ball-esque, puffy white flowers. High above us, four waterfalls disappear into the ground before re-emerging as four more, then three, before finally cascading into the ocean.

Yet another cascade, the towering Möngufoss waterfall, a crown jewel of the reserve, thunders just down the coast.

The waterfalls owe themselves to both the glaciers that feed them as well as the impervious lava cliffs that force them into freefall.

Over the last 500 years, a third of the planet’s lava flow has come from Iceland’s 200 volcanoes. Its best-known, Hekla, erupted four times in the 20th century, most recently in 1991. Eyjafjallajökull blew in March 2010 for the first time since 1821 and again in April 2020, disrupting international air traffic.

We’re in a land of raw, earthen power.

Dinner tonight happens at nearly midnight. None of us mind. Who wants this day to ever end?

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

Paddling this rough, grueling stretch, we’ll be staying in as tight a formation as the Arctic terns flying above us. These incredible birds have the longest earthly migration possible—up to 44,000 miles per year, from Antarctica to the Arctic and back. Our crossing is somewhat shorter—thankfully, given the two-foot-high swells rolling in from where the North Atlantic meets the Greenland Sea.

This is the same stretch the Vikings sailed when they founded the country in the 9th century. Next up, the Norse and Celtic seafarers, who often staged here to explore Greenland.

Looking west to where Greenland somewhere lies, I spy only churning sea and a couple of dolphins.

Safely across, we head west, paralleling the coast to another fjord, where we see our first road in six days.

It takes a sharp turn, perhaps, as folklore maintains, detouring around a stubborn boulder rumored to be inhabited by trolls.

Another 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 feet. Flapping madly to help their football-shaped bodies and oversized bills overcome gravity, they dart like Star Wars starfighters, seemingly posing and grinning as they fly overhead.

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

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Blue Lagoon Iceland
Courtesy of Blue Lagoon Iceland

Know Before You Go

Getting There

Icelandic Air offers direct flights from 10 major U.S. cities, from Seattle to Boston. Once you arrive, catch the FlyBus from the airport to downtown Reykjavik, where you can walk to restaurants, bars, museums, the wharf and more. Taxis are prevalent and friendly — maybe because there’s no Uber (‘It’s too expensive to drive,” said our cabby, Sam).

Dining

If you go to one restaurant in Reykjavik, make it The Fish Co. in the heart of downtown—voted the city’s best seafood nine years running. Headed by owner and master chef Lárus Gunnar Jónasson, it blends Nordic fusion with Icelandic cuisine. Try 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, vinaigrette beer foam. It’s all served by a friendly staff in the stone-walled old Zimsen house, a former store built in the 19th century.

Lodging

Accommodations in Reykjavik runs the gamut from hostels to chains and trendy boutiques. Our fave: the 100-year-old Borg Hotel, right on the downtown square with access to parks, restaurants, bars, museums the wharf and more. Once the site of classic dance balls, it offers a classic Icelandic breakfast buffet, a full bar (often with live music), and quaint rooms with porches overlooking the square.

Famous Spas

Opening in May, Sky Lagoon is Reykjavik’s newest springs and spa, complete with a hot spring-filled infinity pool overlooking the ocean, hot spring waterfall, and seven-step spa treatment featuring cold plunge; glass-walled sauna overlooking the bay; cool mist room; sea salt/sesame oil body scrub; steam room; shower; and hot spring soak (try its swim-up bar).

Soaked in by locals for more than 1,000 years, the more famous Blue Lagoon also offers geothermal seawater, spa experiences, and even a skin care line. Named one of 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic, a 2018 expansion created the Retreat at Blue Lagoon, adding a 62-room luxury hotel, subterranean spa and two restaurants. Bonus: Each soak comes with a three-mask treatment of silica, algae and mineral.

The Best Gear for Sea Kayaking in Iceland

Green, two-person tent
Courtesy Image

1. Hilleberg Tents

Hilleberg Tents are what people use up north. Their beauty: the fly and body are attached—meaning you can set them up in the rain without the inside getting wet. A vestibule nearly as large as the interior works great for stashing everything from drysuits and drybags to boots.

[From $595; hilleberg.com]

Learn more

Big Agnes Sidewinder Sleeping Bags

Big Agnes Sidewinder Sleeping Bags
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2. Big Agnes Sidewinder Sleeping Bags

Bagging several Editors’ Choice awards, the new Sidewinder SL and Camp sleeping bags from Big Agnes—with treated down for water repellency—are designed especially for those who like sleeping on their sides. A long, ambidextrous zipper stays out of your way when rolling from side to side. This feature is especially handy when pivoting to peek out your tent to watch seals and distant whales.

[From $149.95; bigagnes.com]

Get it

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 perfect for condensing sleeping bags down to the size of a cantaloupe to fit into your kayak’s bow hatch. Waterproof and air-permeable eVent fabric, with a watertight, hypalon roll-top closure, keeps the water out even when waves from two-foot swells permeate your storage hatches. The lighter weight drysack also proves handy for day items bungeed to the deck rigging.

[from $21.95; seatosummitusa.com]

Get it

Level Six Odin Drysuit

Level Six Odin Drysuit
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4. Level Six Odin Drysuit

You don’t want to go into the drink in the North Atlantic, but if you do the front-entry Odin (and women’s Freya) drysuit from Level Six has you covered. Constructed of its toughest waterproof-breathable nylon, Exhaust 3.0, it shrugs off abrasion while keeping the elements where they belong. Features include a stealth double tunnel, 3-ply built-in socks, articulated spine, reinforced knees and elbows, relief zipper and adjustable waist-belt. Fleece-lined zipper pockets let you reach accessories while British latex wrist and neck gaskets keep you bone dry.

[$900; levelsix.com]

Get it

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 long front entry zipper and a second waist zipper that acts as a drop seat. A flap fly offers front relief, while the women’s liner has an “invisible” zipper for use with female urination devices. Heavyweight, four-way stretch fleece in the main body and lighter weight grid fleece in the underarms, cuffs, neck, and ankles is perfect for paddling. We lived in these liners—even at night.

[$180; kokatat.com]

Get it


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