Iceland: The Land of Freefall


The land of fire and ice is a true wonder to behold. We drove from valley to valley, river to river, witnessing some of the most alien geography right here on Earth. Every valley was different, each equally jaw-dropping as the last. Every waterfall was beautiful, but no surprises there.

While we had come to Iceland for its waterfalls, we really didn’t know what to expect. None of us had been there in the summer before, and we had certainly never paddled there. Instead of the harsh winds, snow, rain, and freezing water we expected, the sun came out the evening we arrived and stayed out pretty much until we left two weeks later, only dipping below the horizon for a couple of hours each night.

Sitting proud and high in the sky, the sun provided just enough heat to fill the rivers and set the stage for the huckfest we sought.

When Aaron asked me if I wanted to go to Iceland, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. It’s been at the top of my list since watching Steve Fisher’s “Halo Effect” when I was 12. Barra was also frothing at the idea of Icelandic waterfalls, and Jonah had always wanted to shoot in this volcanic paradise with its dramatic landscapes. Rather than explore or find something new, the way we had in Borneo, this trip was about maximizing freefall and having a good time with the boys.

We arrived in Reykjavik in the morning after a very short, cheap, and easy flight from Edinburgh and were on the river by the afternoon. This set the tone for the rest of the trip, and we paddled nearly every day for two weeks.

Iceland is a tourist—and kayaker—favourite for how easy it is to access the spectacular countryside. All you have to do is get in the car and drive. Route 1, known affectionately as the Ring Road for the way it circles the island, brings you almost directly to most points of interest—including many of the country’s most famous waterfalls.

We travelled around the island anticlockwise, initially moving south from Reykjavik. The incredible big volume and alpine-style kayaking in the south pleasantly surprised us as we had expected to paddle nothing but bedrock waterfalls. As it turns out, Iceland has it all.

The waterfall fun started on the Fossa River in the eastern region. Where the name of most waterfalls in Iceland end with ‘foss,’ Icelandic for ‘waterfall,’ the Fossa has so many, it’s literally the waterfall river. Photos don’t do it justice.

The valley has an otherworldly stepped rock formation, almost as if somebody had carved contour lines straight into the landscape. Flow some melted snow down these basalt steps, and voilà. A world-class section in what feels like true wilderness, but is still easily accessible. The classic section is a lapable sequence of five or six drops, ranging from 20 to 40 feet.

The next step up from the Fossa was the Keldua. Many of the world’s best waterfall specialists consider this river the best run in Iceland and, therefore, one of the best in the world. You hike beside the river as far as you want and then paddle back to the car. We hiked seven kilometres, as far as the world-renowned quad-drop sequence.

When you picture waterfall paradise, this is it: A steep slide followed by a 20-foot drop, followed by a 30-foot drop, followed by a 45-foot drop. The horizon line at the top of this sequence is a spectacle to behold. Making our way downstream, I quickly understood why this river is regarded so highly. It has clean drop after clean drop after clean drop, with only one or two portages. A veritable crescendo of pristine whitewater tumbling off the face of the Earth as we know it.

The water was some of the clearest I’ve ever seen, the deep turquoise colour made brighter by the black volcanic rock of the box canyon. Though we only did one lap, it was enough to cement the Keldua high on my list of all-time favourite rivers. I will definitely be returning.

There were plenty of other gems in the east, some of which we got to enjoy and others we had to leave for another time. After the Keldua, we took a day to rest and started to think about moving north. Our main objective was the Skjálfandafljót River. While I had heard of Aldeyjarfoss, Godafoss, and Ullafoss, I hadn’t realized they were all on this one powerful stream connecting the Vantnajökull Glacier with the sea.

Godafoss, which translates to “waterfall of the Gods,” is basically a waterfall stadium over 30 metres wide and 12 meters tall. It’s easy to believe the Gods of Iceland were kayakers when you take in its otherworldly perfection. There are hundreds of different lines to try, with a huge pool to land in. Because it’s such a huge tourist attraction, it has a well-worn path to the top and steps up from the bottom. It’s the perfect environment to work on freefall technique, a playground that’s almost too good to be true.

After two days at Godafoss, we headed downstream to Ullafoss, a crazy-looking 50-footer with a barreling wave on the lip. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to throw a kickflip in homage to Rush Sturges and, more recently, the Torryd crew. Luckily, it came around, and I landed nice and vertical.

Unfortunately, landing vertically didn’t translate into my line off Aldeyjarfoss.  I really didn’t fancy being swallowed by the folding lip and sent to China, only to return to the surface with ruptured eardrums and a dent in my boat—or worse. So I opted to run far right, which, in hindsight, the river was too low for. I was perfectly on line, right where I wanted to be, when I was bucked off the lip by a rock, and my feet were suddenly above my head.

I had enough time to throw my paddle, contemplate my mistake, and wait for the impact. As expected, it wasn’t soft, but I had managed to avoid an unsolicited trip to China. I breathed a sigh of relief when I hand-rolled up and found my paddle right next to me.

Still, I had mixed feelings as we drove away. Two descents without any injuries was a successful run, but it certainly wasn’t the line I had envisioned. Aldeyjarfoss, I promise I’ll be back to clean it up someday.

The waterfalls of Iceland are truly something magical. The basalt-lined gorges already hold so many classics, yet there are still so many out there to be discovered. It’s no wonder generations of kayakers have made their pilgrimage here to refine and test the limits of freefall.

Iceland is a piece of whitewater history, and we felt privileged to carve our part in it. To experience the rivers and drops of the films I grew up watching, to be at the mercy of this raw place of extreme conditions, and the sheer power of nature was awe-inspiring at times and positively terrifying at others. No words, pictures, or film can do it justice.


Guest Contributor Pretam Gurung graduated from University of Strathclyde with a First Class Honors Degree in Naval Architecture with High Performance Marine Vehicles in November, 2023. He plans to continue combining his passion for kayaking with his education as a Naval Architect by pursuing a PhD in addition to future travels and expeditions.

Editors note: Photos courtesy of Aaron White and Jonah Morgan; Learn how Pretam planned for this trip here