Hidden Worlds - An Icelandic Slush Junket
Words by Michael Kew, Photographs by Chris Burkard
The norm was unacceptable. Smiling surf guides, detailed spot maps, clean hotels, hot food—who needed any of that? Such amenities were easy, soft, predictable, and they sucked marrow from the bone of adventure. There was no risk inside a soapy shower and freshly laundered bedsheets, preceded by a giddy four-course repast in Reykjavík amid keen Icelandic vixens, the scene lubricated by $12 drafts of Viking Gold.
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You may have seen Iceland's surf. Recently the international media has pounced upon the jagged, treeless island and its 3,700 miles of stormy North Atlantic coast, open to swell from all angles, all wind, all tide, all day. Coldwater exotica is officially chic…if there's a hotel within sight, a dry hallway leading to heated room with enough space to dry one's hooded 5mm fullsuit. The well-worn and documented reefs of the Rekyjanes Peninsula were sufficient to satisfy most professional surf tourists.
For Californian Keith Malloy and New Jerseyites Mike Gleason and Sam Hammer, this was an unsightly option. Surf-searching Iceland anew required a raw slant: sleeping tentless in northernmost territory beneath polar auroras was part of the grist. Frozen cameras, numb extremities, snow, rain, and arctic wind would all define the status quo—an abnormal surf trip in an otherworldly place.
Our first few nights in Iceland were spent on the smooth black reefs of the Reykjanes Peninsula, an immense acreage of ancient lava flows and lunar ambiance beneath the shadow of famous Reykjavík, a world away. Being "on it" in Iceland was taken literally, and by night we made camp on the very reefs over which we surfed by day. There were no distractions, no other surfers, no stain of humanity. Indeed, the wave-rich Reykjanes was an eden to remember.
Some English bodyboarding chaps had generously advised us of one particular wave's whereabouts on the Reykjanes—a bona fide slab. They'd found it a few months prior and got barreled off their heads, so we happily followed suit. Previously the wave's access was off-limits due to military presence, but the dirt road—"Slab Avenue"—had always been there, snaking through the lava fields. The wave was severely tide-sensitive, firing only for a short while each day. But each wave was a barrel, and within eyesight were 20 similar reefs.
Halfway through the journey we approached Lost Cove Farm, which resembled medieval Scandinavia. Weekday 11 p.m. light revealed a punchy beachbreak along Iceland's south coast, impervious to change, a 9th-century relic of sheep paddocks and cement cube homes on a desolate fringe. From afar it looked good—the cold north wind massaging southern windswell into something pretty. Alas, the boys passed, and the cove remained unsurfed.
The asphalt passage toward waves wasn't always clear. Miles of black ice were a result of vernal night blizzards, common in northern Iceland, where camping wasn't. Two feet of snow around the tent poles, fire an impossibility, no rainbow at the end of this stretch…but a guaranteed wave garden of untold potential.
Hammer felt right at home in Iceland, flexing stiff body in thick wetsuit to punt in setting sunlight. There was one epic black-sand beachbreak that had never been surfed, but we made it a staple, rumbling out with 4WD to sleep and dream on the narrow sandspit flanked by sea and river, snowmelt-chilled wedges offering glee galore—if you were accustomed to surfing in a 6-mil. Like Sam.
Location was everything. Sam was smitten over his rivermouth wedge—so much so, he suggested we spend a few moons on the adjacent sandspit. Camping there was attunement for Icelandic enlightenment, Sam the disciple, the rest of us participants. Random south coast coves with ample wind protection and a generous swell window generally leant themselves to greatness for the trained eye.
Another one of our haunts was the enchanted village of Vík í Mýrdal ("Bay of the Marshy Valley," population 300), Iceland's southernmost and rainiest outpost, home to hard-hitting beachbreaks and the country's most active swell window. Not a bad place to hang for awhile. Nearby, a glacial river fed ice to a gravel rivermouth sandbar, offspring of eons of volcanic spew onto the youngest land on Earth (Iceland is constantly evolving). The peak was small but shapely, the water near freezing, and the only thing missing was a sizeable wavetrain from the south to afford surfability—unless you happened to be one of Iceland's gnomes, fairies, or elves.
Finding good waves in Iceland required a lot of driving—20 hours some days. Keith Malloy would find likely campsites, and Mike Gleason, our faithful driver, would take to the long road ahead, dismissing doubt with fantasies of an arctic Rincon. Bellwether Hammer trusted Iceland, believing each road could lead to gold, and on a stormy island with nooks aplenty, he never said never.
At a remote coast in northern Iceland below fields of shaggy sheep, Gleason looked up the beach and saw reforming double-up rights. It was his cup of tea. Instantly he was out there—Gleason must hold the fastest world record for getting into a wetsuit. Still, having surfed in Norway and the Pacific Northwest, he said Iceland's was the coldest water he'd ever surfed in. We camped on that beach for three days, yet not one car passed on the adjacent road…only sounds being baaaahing sheep and the crashing surf.
Each night the ground was hard and cold—frozen, actually—which was inconvenient for tent-camping. But we chose to have no choice. In north Iceland we were stripped of the usual surf-trip accoutrements, befriended by the Greenland Sea and its austere offerings. It was a meditation, of sorts—no distractions, no driving, no nightlife, no other people. Up there, surfing took on a special meaning.
The seabirds fly, the river flows, the rocks erode. Three thousand-seven hundred miles of coast on Europe's second largest island undoubtedly hold secrets—likely to remain so for a long time, perhaps forever—but on this trip, a hidden world was unveiled. Signal of centuries past, the wave-worn coast stood sentinel to a number of sublime surf sessions, unforgotten by the birds, unnoticed by the rocks or river, but to us, in the end, Iceland meant magic.
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