THROUGH a mist-shrouded cavern of ice, helmeted kayakers ride the JOkulsa a Fjollum at its source deep inside the mighty Vatnajokull glacier of Iceland. he stream’s name means “glacier-fed river in the mountains.” Here Mick Coyne leads teammates in a tunnel formed by geothermal springs. The river soon emerges from the glacier and flows north for 128 miles, marked by violent rapids and four major waterfalls. Last summer our 12-man international team successfully challenged the JOkulsa, with a revolutionary technique using kayaks, inflatable rafts, and ultralight aircraft.
COAST-TO-COAST TRAVERSE of Iceland (left) carried our expedition on a roundabout route from Hornafjordur in the south to the island’s northern shore, where the Jokulsa empties into the Arctic Ocean. Our first challenge was the Vatnajokull, one of Europe’s largest glaciers, occupying one-twelfth of Iceland and creating its own unpredictable weather. For transport as well as reconnaissance of our route, we brought along British two-man ultralight aircraft (below), equipped with detachable floats, wheels, and skis, for landing on water, tundra, or ice. With a carrying capacity of 400 pounds, the craft could airlift our entire expedition by stages, including kayaks and the rubber raft designed to carry the disassembled ultralight downriver. Here our Icelandic crew, who are also members of the National Life-Saving
Association of Iceland, which gave us generous support, watch pilot Gerry Breen make a practice takeoff from Jokulsarlon lake at the southern edge of the glacier.
FURY OF A GALE envelops us on the third day of our attempt to cross the surface of the Vatnajokull. The blinding storm struck without warning, forcing us to make camp. Wind and cold combined to produce a chill factor of minus 30°F. Though polar daylight was almost continuous, driving snow reduced visibility to a few feet. Despite efforts to keep the tents snow free, their collapse on the third day forced us to dig ice caves in the glacier for shelter. On the fifth day we retreated to the foot of the glacier. A second mishap (below) befell pilot Gerry Breen and me when our ultralight’s exhaust system failed during a flight around the glacier and we had to crash-land. We rigged a shelter out of the ultralight’s wing and a pair of skis while we made repairs. Three days later the craft was airborne again, and we met the team in the ice cave at the source of the Jokulsa, deep beneath the glacier’s northern edge.
YAWNING SINKHOLE of ice pierces the VatnajOkull like a huge inverted funnel 150 feet deep and 70 feet across at the surface. Formed by steam from geothermal vents, it provides an entrance to the source of the Jokulsa. An experienced mountaineer as well as kayaker, Mick Coyne descends into the shaft as teammates lower his kayak. High winds and freezing temperatures slowed the operation topside, but within the sinkhole the air was warm. A relic of the most recent ice age,VatnajOkull is thousands of years old. Layers of ice exposed on the sinkhole walls reminded us of giant tree rings.
“Lowering yourself past them,” Mick recalls, “was like drifting back through time.”
ICY SHAFT OF WATER spills from the roof of a chamber inside the glacier. The near-freezing water mixes with the boiling flow from geothermal springs to produce a temperature of about 95°F. Before starting our voyage downriver, we enjoyed our first bath in nearly a month.
We were a dozen men representing five nationalities—British, Australian, French, American, and Icelandic. Together we combined more than a score of skills and professions. Mick Coyne, seen here at right center, is a geologist and former Royal Marine. American Jeb Stuart, far left, is an expert river rafter from Colorado, and French kayaker Benoit Dabout, far right, studies civil engineering. Our two Icelanders, Gudbrandur johannsson, left center, and Gisli Hjelmarsson, are members of the Life-Saving Association and acted as our guides. British ultralight champion Gerry Breen is a former member of the Royal Air Force and a meteorologist, and our French cameraman and film director, Bruno Cusa,is a licensed helicopter pilot. He was assisted by sound technician Jean Jacques Mrejen. To the role of expedition leader, I brought my training as a British research engineer and practical mechanic, plus many years’ experience with kayaks.
Selecting the team, I looked for character as well as skill. All the technical ability in the world cannot make up for poor judgment or failure to put the group ahead of self. In that respect, too, our party was outstanding; I would run the wildest river on earth with any of them.
AIRBORNE KAYAKS, lashed to the undercarriage of an ultralight piloted by Gerry Breen (below), leap a stretch of the Jokulsa. Below are four impassable waterfalls, among them the spectacular Dettifoss (page 321). We came ashore two miles above the canyon and unloaded the disassembled ultralight from our 18-foot inflatable raft (above). It took only 12 minutes to assemble the aircraft. Meanwhile our Australian pilot Simon Baker scouted the river in our second ultralight. The two machines lifted men and equipment, including the deflated raft, directly over the falls. Four miles downriver we took to the water again. Vertical walls of crumbly basaltic lava (right) would have made climbing out of the canyon close to impossible.
CALDRON of white water engulfs Jeb Stuart and his rafting crew as Mick and I paddle alongside. We met these rapids eight miles below the great cataract of Dettifoss (left). Despite his skill and experience, Jeb (in baseball cap) was unable to prevent his raft from swamping; only frantic bailing for nearly ten miles kept craft and crew afloat.
We had previously scouted some of these rapids on foot. Ultralight reconnaissance can pinpoint major river hazards, but there is no substitute for close inspection. If we had been totally unprepared, the results could have been disastrous. As it was, Mick (wearing blue life vest) was torn out of his kayak and hurled downriver fighting desperately to stay afloat (below). Benoit helped him ashore about a mile downstream, but the cold and constant immersion took their toll. Fortunately the water was about 45°F. A few degrees lower, and Mick might not have survived.
It was our last major crisis. Seven days later we reached the coast. We had pioneered a new technique combining the use of kayaks and ultralights and had become the first to run the wild jokulsa from source to mouth.