When we finally come down from the snow-peaked mountains, there are rivers. Rivers meandering back and forth across the landscape everywhere. All those ribbons of water mean river crossings. On the first day that I properly bandage my blister, I’m told within an hour of leaving the hut that I have to take my shoes and socks off and cross a frigid snowmelt. By the time I make it across, toes a burning red and pins and needles attacking my ankles and shins, the duct tape holding my moleskin and band-aide to my heel is flapping at the side of my foot and small pieces of black volcanic rock are flooded into what’s left of the skin on my blister. But this train doesn’t stop, so I wipe the water and rock off with my sock, put my hiking boots back on and push off with the rest of the group. Only to come to another river crossing…and then another. Are there no bridges in this country?
I learn bridges are only reserved for the real white waters such as over the Syðri-Emstruá river, a canyon I have no plans of rappelling.
Sometimes the icy rush of the stream feels good on my heel. Other times I contemplate leaving my shoes on and just rushing like an angry bull through the water.
Sometimes there are ice bridges. Francois gingerly steps out on the blue and white path, shoving a hiking pole as safely into the snowpack in front of him as he can to test for the strength and depth of the ice. He motions us to walk over it one by one, bypassing yet another rushing river.
These rivers can be powerful things.
In Þórsmörk, where we will all be picked up at the end of this trek, the Krossá River has movable bridges. The glacial river changes everyday and quite suddenly. The bridges need to move to accommodate the people who cross it for hiking trails on the other side. The structures are on huge monster truck wheels and moved according to where the water is the deepest at that particular moment. This ever-changing water way is also the road for the departing buses. The hut keeps a photo album of all the buses and vans that have been picked up by flash floods. This does not distill a sense of safety or comfort for our future departure.
When we started the hike, the rivers were gurgling cauldrons of hot spring, sulfured water. The scalding water pipes steam up from the ground and depending on the direction of the wind, flows around the hikers as we march.
As we move down the mountain, the water becomes more idyllic as it follows us through valleys and emptying into lakes.
Other times it is tumultuous, livid, gushing. Or beautiful. Falling from cliffs and spilling down into canyons that spread below us, making bridge crossing feel so much more treacherous than having to dip our feet into some cold stream beds.
On the third day, I become so sick of taking my shoes off that I travel down the river bank looking for a thin spot in one of the turns to jump across. Kim’s feet have been soaked and freezing every day as her shoes are not weather-proof and she has taken the just-walk-across-the-river course of action. I find a spot that I think will work and toss my pack to her on the other side of the bank. She places it on the dry ground and holds her arms out to catch me if need be. She cheers me on like the good friend she is. We watch our group down the river calmly stripping their shoes off and crossing like the dutiful hikers they’re trained to be.
I back up to get a running start. I assess the speed and clearance I will need. I swing my arms back and forth because for some reason I think this will help. I take a deep breath. It’s only water, after all.
“Okay, here I come!” I yell as I dash off to take my leap.
I am not athletic. I have a blistered foot. I’m padded down with layers of clothes and have been using every muscle in my legs for 10 hours straight for three days…but somehow, I make it! Kim clutches my forearms and my front foot sinks a little into the muddy river bank but otherwise I’ve cleared the river.
My adrenaline is pumping through me. We laugh so hard and are in so much shock that I made it that we momentarily forget how to high-five and flap our hands at each other in the air.
I look back. The gap in the river was probably 2 ½ feet. I’m still impressed. I grab my pack and we walk on. Rivers can’t keep me back. I’m a river beast!
By the last day on the trail, the temperature has increased dramatically and we have all stripped our clothes to the minimum that is allowable while traveling with others. Pants come unzipped from thighs and calves (oh REI), thermals tied around foreheads to block the sun. The river is mainly rocks now and puddles of neon green algae, yet somehow still wide enough in parts that we still have to ford it barefoot. I now understand why the packing list suggested river shoes. If only I had known what those were at the time.
On the day before we leave, Germunder (his real name! It took me three days but I finally learned how to pronounce it) takes us on one last “short” hike around Þórsmörk. He wiggles us around the hills and paths between the two mountain huts in the area. We divert off the main trail and follow a low flowing river. This time there will be no crossing. We follow the water until we meet a cavern full of large boulders. We don’t stop there. Germunder leads us on, climbing over the large rocks that look as if they’ve been shaped by giants. He grabs our hands and pulls us over. After passing the rocks, we duck down onto our hands and knees to slither through the cave entrance. We find ourselves in a small, natural cathedral. Green moss drapes the rock walls and purple flowers dot the ground. A thin trickle of water flows from twenty feet above us and we position ourselves just so, letting the water spray around our faces and fall into our opened mouths.
“This is the Singing Cave,” Germunder tells us. The Alaskan Eight stand up near the entrance of the cave while Kim and I take pictures in front of the waterfall. “The cave is known for it’s good acoustics,” Germunder continues. Without a second thought, Kim launches into Lean on Me. I join in. Our Alaskan ladies don’t miss a beat and before you know it we fill the singing cave with so much song we drown out the water. The song swirls around us. This is it. This is our last moment together. We leaned on each other when we weren’t strong. We had pain and some of us visited sorrow. We definitely had to swallow our pride. Francois and Germunder quite literally gave us their hands multiple times on the trail. This is the magic of Kim, always knowing the perfect song for any given moment. We finish out the chorus and we all stand there for a moment. I let the water splash between my fingers. It’s almost as if you can hear us all exhaling a collective sigh. Slowly, one by one, we exit the cave.
“One patriotic song followed another, echoing from the mountain in the hush of early autumn evening, till the loon ceased crying from the lake, greatly wondering…the last song, in praise of the country life, resounded from the marshes as a farewell to the people of Summerhouse.” -Halldór Laxness, from Independent People, the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature and awarded to an Icelandic author
Next week is the last post about Iceland for awhile. We’ll move to another part of the world after that.
I’m experimenting with when to post. Leave me a comment and let me know when you’re more likely to see or read this blog. Has it been on the weekend? Mornings at work? After you get off on a weekday? I’d love to hear about when is best to send out a new post.