Slater’s map was riveting. It drew our eyes in, stimulating a discussion and beckoning adventure. Where could we go? Sometimes too many options can be a difficult thing. And when you are looking at a map, the options appear limitless.
Luckily we started to recognize that our priorities were lining up the same. We wanted to go somewhere none of our friends have been … somewhere incredibly challenging and somewhere with rugged beauty.
We knew this trip would also be beneficial to our careers. Slater is an astounding photographer, and I was trying to build the adventure side of my clothing brand, Savidge Apparel.
As we started looking at Northern Europe, the focus turned to a country with a landscape of an entirely different caliber. All I knew about Iceland was the Walter Mitty epic, life-changing adventure there. And even then, I wasn’t sure that was a true story.
As we started flirting with the possibility of going, we noticed that you can drive along a road that circumnavigates the whole island, passing by breathtaking waterfalls as it maneuvers along the Arctic Sea. No more discussion. We were going to Iceland.
Slater and I both grew up around water. I’ve lived in Manhattan Beach my whole life, and Slater spent the last several years alternating between here and Hawaii. While we confidently knew the beach and had driven miles of coastline before, neither of us had experienced extremely cold water. Iceland’s coastline would offer that and much more.
As we talked the night before about what to pack, we realized we were completely unprepared. Boarding the plane, we had our backpacks, Slater’s camera equipment, a 5mm wetsuit with a hood, booties, gloves and an inflatable stand-up paddleboard. That’s all.
Upon arrival, we slowly got accustomed to Icelandic weather. The wind was absolutely punishing, and Slater and I had to shout at each other just to be heard. The landscape consisted of yellow grass and green mounds with occasional peaks in the distance. I felt like I had been dropped off at one of the planets in the film Interstellar, which we coincidentally watched on the plane ride over.
First we made our way over to the Blue Lagoon, a hot spring known for attracting visitors from all around the world. From there we headed to Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world. We speculated about what the next few days would present to us, eager to get started on our adventure.
Our first big destination was the southern part of Iceland. After a little more than an hour of driving, we saw a massive waterfall in the distance, Seljalandsfoss. Ready to put our stand-up paddleboards to use, we took turns paddling beneath it.
Over the next couple days, we saw more and more waterfalls, and it became second nature for us to paddle underneath each of them. I never imagined that we would actually be able to do that, but Iceland works differently than the U.S. I’m not sure whether there is a law for it or not, but absolutely none of their natural wonders had any sort of protection or security. If we attempted that at Yosemite, we would probably be facing a $10,000 fine or jail time.
The south of Iceland presented us with another mission: visiting an abandoned U.S. Naval plane that crashed there in 1973. While most of the things we saw in Iceland were pretty much right off the road, finding this abandoned plane was going to be much more difficult. Our two-wheel-drive car was only recommended for driving in the city, and now we were going to be driving through sand hills.
We found a marker on the highway that was going to be our turning point, and we began to navigate the sandy road. As soon as we saw the ocean, the plane appeared to our left. We didn’t even need to say a word as we hopped out of the car and started to acquaint ourselves with the plane.
It was eerie … a giant piece of metal that had been torn up, shot at, filled with sand and contained the small remnants of ripped out chairs. Even the rescue plane that came to pick up the parts had crashed, killing two of its passengers.
We started to become acquainted with the plane, climbing on top of the wings and standing on top of its icy frame. I had the privilege of standing on top of it looking at the galaxy above.
After coming down from the plane, it was time to get out of there fast. As we attempted to get back on the main highway, we couldn’t find our path. The snow had covered our tracks, and the only things that had originally led us to the plane were scattered markers that were no longer visible.
We spent the next hour searching for which angle we had taken on the way in. It was getting to the point where we had to make a decision: Do we walk close to five miles to the nearest house, or do we sit it out in the car, hoping that a little heat will help us survive until sunrise? Before making a decision, we found our beacon of hope: a lone marker in the distance. We were safe, for now.
After admiring a few glaciers that cover 11% of Iceland, our next big stop was Jökulsárlón, a lake full of glaciers that dump into the ocean. The waves were pumping. Draining barrels passed by floating ice chunks, some of which were larger than people. Since we didn’t have a board, we ended up sticking with the lake where the more peaceful water provided us with a stand-up paddle journey navigating through icebergs.
As we headed to the northern part of Iceland, we reached the king of the waterfalls. Godafoss was covered in ice and was very different from the green waterfalls that we had seen thus far. The rapids were going to be incredibly challenging, and we knew it was going to be our toughest paddle yet.
Slater, being the expert, decided to go for this one. We tried to plan what would be the best thing to do if he fell—but then realized his chances of survival were slim at that point, so it would be better to focus on not falling.
It was time for action. Slater sprinted across the rapids to get in front of the waterfall. As he got close he came to a gradual pause, standing still below it. He threw his hands up in the air as if to challenge the waterfall. I’ve never had the privilege of taking a photo of something so cool in my life.
There were wild horses everywhere. Most of them were a little bit shorter than normal and had manes that far outdid the ones in the U.S. As we became more comfortable with them, we began to talk about jumping on one.
There was something about the challenge of riding a wild horse that I couldn’t ignore. What started with “just trying” became a few days of mastering technique while also taking harder and harder falls. As we got up north, the ground was covered with snow slush and the manes were frozen solid.
For one of the horses in particular, the owner pulled up on the road. He asked what we were doing and why I had my shirt off next to his horses when it was snowing. My only response was that we wanted to get a cool picture to send back home. I guess that worked because he just nodded and laughed.
Our final part of the journey would be surfing. We had run into a few issues with renting a board, since there is only one place in the whole country that does so. There are a lot of waves in Iceland, but finding the spots is tricky. We were lucky to find a right-hand point break with waves peeling in pretty consistently.
The surf was about waist-high, but that wasn’t going to stop us from surfing Iceland. I walked over the snowy rocks and began to paddle around, catching as many waves as I could before my core temperature dropped. The grey skies and snowfall didn’t help the 42º water.
Despite feeling completely numb, I felt so rewarded for experiencing those conditions. There is something about a country like Iceland that made us feel so alive.
Since coming back from their trip, Connor and Slater successfully funded a Kickstarter project to produce a photo book that documented their journey. The book, Northern Waters, contains 168 pages of photos and writings chronicling every aspect of the adventure and can be found on amazon.com, savidgeapparel.com or slatertrout.com. Connor’s clothing brand, Savidge, can be found in Dive N’ Surf, Spyder, Tabula Rasa, Surf Concepts, Pier Surf, Grizzly Clothing and several other stores in the South Bay. Many of his tees feature photography from Slater.
Etched in stone.