Photo Journal: An Iceland Adventure with Danny & Myriam
Photo Journal: An Iceland Adventure with Danny & Myriam
Sparsely populated, Iceland is a backcountry enthusiast’s dream. But there’s a problem. The landscape is streaked with creeks, rivers and lakes, which cut off—or at least add difficulty to—human-powered exploration.
Earlier this summer, Kahtoola founder and owner Danny Giovale, and his partner Myriam Bishop set out for a creative adventure in Iceland’s Highlands. For the past few years, the two have been adventuring around their home in Flagstaff, AZ, but also throughout the American Southwest and on a few international trips. Besides hiking and backpacking, rock climbing, canyoneering, skiing and other activities, they have recently been honing their packrafting skills. Not necessarily the adrenaline producing whitewater version of the sport, but rather the “traveler’s” form, where packrafting enables you to connect regions or landscapes where a river or lake would normally be an obstacle.
As a former backpacking guide with numerous seasons spent in the Icelandic backcountry, Myriam had accumulated precious knowledge of the area. She knew both the wonders of incredible scenery of the Fjallabak region of Iceland (“behind the mountains”), but also how rivers can be a challenge and prevent access to some of those gems. And from this, the idea of incorporating packrafting into their adventure was born.
Danny and Myriam decided to plot an itinerary that maximized spectacular and raw natural beauty of the Icelandic highlands, while optimizing the use of the packraft. They suspected that similar adventures must have already unfolded in those lands, but their research didn’t reveal much documentation of it. Trying to gather as much information on the challenges and feasibility of their endeavors, it soon became apparent that they would be pioneering most of the water portions of their trip. Hours were then spent scrutinizing topo maps and aerial images, to refine the itinerary. Will this portion be floatable? Can they hike around this waterfall or this section of rapids? Will the river be deep enough or current too strong? The water levels of these rivers can go through tremendous fluctuations depending on snow/ice melt and precipitation, and they had to be prepared for constant improvisation and adjustment.
Packrafting on whitewater rivers has been gaining popularity in recent years but most packrafts are far too heavy for extended backpacking trips. For Iceland, an ultralight packraft — weighing as little as a couple of pounds — and paddle were needed, and that meant less stability in crashing waves and would require paddling cautiously in shallow rivers to avoid punctures. Perhaps it’s telling that Alpacka Rafts, known as the leader in packraft design, makes ultralight packrafts that come with a clear warning that says these are best suited for “critical river crossings” and “ultra-running specialist missions”.
With these light, packable watercraft, Danny and Myriam would be able to hike, stop, inflate the raft, cross or travel down a body of water, then stop, deflate the raft and continue repeating this as many times as they’d like. So, on July 22, 2022 — in the spirit of adventure — the two set out to pioneer new packrafting routes in the Icelandic wilderness. Over two weeks, they hiked approximately 200km and rafted 80km, learning and discovering new places and experiences along the way.
The following is a photo journal of their time in some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. Enjoy!
What was the inspiration for this trip?
Myriam: One of the big things after backpacking in Iceland so much is that usually rivers are often barriers — and with a packraft, you can turn obstacles into opportunities. A highlight for me is that when we do something where we don’t have a lot of data, it forces us to be extra present in the moment.
Danny: A trip like this really feels adventurous — we don’t have a lot of information, there’s a lot of unknowns, and it’s a unique way of challenging yourself. To Myriam’s point, taking on an adventure with so many unknowns makes you more present and aware, and it’s very satisfying to navigate the unknown and do so with some level of success. To me, committing to packing such a lightweight setup means the gear details matter a lot. We’re crafting and coming up with new ways to use things to bring our pack weight down as much as possible. Our paddle shafts become our trekking poles, for example. We’ve been building our skills in the Grand Canyon doing this sort of thing, and that’s part of the overall satisfaction — that combination of refining gear and skills, and that’s enabling us to do something that we couldn’t have done before.
Why is is important to pursue these kinds of adventures? Or in other words, why this vs. relaxing somewhere on a beach?
Danny: I keep thinking we’re going to do a nice relaxing thing on a beach, and I did that with my kids in Hawaii recently. But with Myriam and I, we feel like we don’t want to waste the opportunity we have when we’re healthy, fit and capable, and so we do these things. We have this idea that we can do more relaxing things when we can’t do this kind of stuff anymore.
What draws you to the outdoors, and more specifically, the wilderness?
Danny: It’s exciting to me. Completely natural places where the forces of nature are uninterrupted and readily experienced are simply marvelous. I don’t really have the words to explain it but if I try to think of a world without these wild places and the benefits I feel they provide to all the planet, that just breaks my heart. That feeling fosters interest in how I can keep digging deeper to keep finding those places and those experiences and to help protect them. In a way, it’s like any field of interest where the more you study it, the more intriguing it becomes. It piques your curiosity and questions multiply as you learn something new… like the very young age of Iceland — less than 20 million years since reaching above sea level. Before you know it, you’re learning about the continental tectonics and noticing the recent (or active) volcanic activity, trying to feel one of the numerous subtle daily earthquakes and getting a glimpse of how the landscape is being formed. For me, direct experience makes the most lasting impression, so I am really drawn to that.
How does a trip like this tie in with Kahtoola’s values?
Danny: I strive to make Kahtoola a business that is a great place to work and is based on helping people get outside while being as environmentally and socially responsible as possible. That said, I get really excited by excellent equipment design because that’s where it all starts. I love creating products that allow you to do things that you could not otherwise do. That’s the major motivator for me and I think you can see that in our products. This trip was a great proving ground for our traction and gaiters as we had long periods of rough weather and lots of challenging terrain both in talus/moraine and on glaciers and snowfields. We were often talking about all aspects of gear and various improvements and ideas. In tough conditions, gear development is not so much just a nicety, but a meaningful way to enable us to do more.
I have a strong belief that you’ve got to be a user to understand what’s valuable in the gear that you develop. I think that’s the meat of it right there. How can I come into R&D and have meaningful opinions about what needs to be strengthened, developed, or changed if I’m not an avid user myself? I think that’s pretty fundamental so these types of trips are important opportunities.
Myriam: I’d like to add that doing things in intense and extreme conditions pushes us to test gear and continue to come up with ideas for innovations.
And the ultimate question: why is a trip like this important for Kahtoola?
Danny: On the company culture side, this isn’t just for me. Yes, I’m having that experience of me wanting to improve gear for myself, but that’s not the real purpose. The purpose is to enable others to get out in these conditions and enjoy themselves. That translates to other associates who work here, and encouraging them to join in and participate in those conversations from a user-based standpoint. And, after all, it’s ultimately not just about the gear — it’s about the experiences. And that’s where the richness of it has meaning for all of us.