If you can’t spot the black sheep in the herd on your first day in Iceland, then you are the black sheep! Sal was very quickly beginning to feel this way as questioning eyes stared in his direction exiting the airport — dragging what looked to be a seven-foot coffin on wheels, made of canvas and heavy-duty straps. The stares in the airport were not far off from the reactions he received back home from those who knew him well. Most thought he and his friends were crazy and stupid for wasting their time and money on a frigid pipe dream. Putting it mildly, surfers must be willing to live through a bit of pain and suffering in order to score waves in the Arctic Circle. Iceland isn’t exactly Huntington Beach where on any given day of the year, one can bump the parking meter and casually walk down to the beach and paddle out for a few crumbly waves.
Surfing in Iceland requires patience, knowledge of the coast and a will to trek where others would never dream of. As the flock of white sheep waited patiently for tour buses and private transports, Sal, JT and Luca (three California surfers) braved the early morning darkness in search of a magic bus they would call home for the next six days.
With camera gear strapped to his back, Luca breathed in the cold damp air and pinched his frozen nostrils together. “Well, we’re not in Bali anymore boys!” said Luca as he turned around and smirked at his two friends with a devilish grin on his face. The wind picked up under the amber glowing street lights at the rental camper office as the boys were given a brief tutorial on what looked to be a camper van better suited for delivering bread to restaurants in downtown Reykjavik than a surf mission to the Greenland Sea.
JT was handed the keys and the three began to pounder how they would fit all their gear into the van. With little care to strategize now on how everything would fit, the three swung open the rear barn doors to the van and tossed in surfboards, wet-suits, duffels, backpacks, camera gear and a case of Bullet Bourbon. “The Heat”, as the whiskey would soon come to be known as was not brought along by mistake. It was a necessity when traveling in these harsh conditions.
The sun would not rise for another few hours as the three set off for the lighthouse in Garður; the closest surf break to Keflavik International. Right away, Sal turned on the GPS and Luca reached for the WiFi. With Garður plotted and music bumping, their journey had finally begun.
For months leading up to the trip, the three did their research; mapped, plotted, emailed locals and watched short video clips on repeat of pro-surfers scoring perfect ice blue barrels with snow-capped mountain peaks in the background. Set out to find what most others would never dream of, the boys’ search for something different became somewhat of an obsession. This is a feeling that only a surfer knows. One can try to explain it to co-workers, friends and even loved ones, but not until you’ve slid through a blue curl in a faraway land will you really grasp this feeling of enlightenment the three men were in search of.
As fall turns to winter in early October, the water temperature in the Greenland Sea hovers just over 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Here, on a remote fjord just south of the Arctic Circle lies a right-hand point break on the outskirts of Ólafsfjörður; a small fishing village dating back to 1940 when the herring industry began to flourish. Prior to a small horse trail being improved some sixty years ago, Ólafsfjörður was only accessible by ships and seaplanes. With visions in his mind of living out the same experiences he saw in those epic surf videos at Ollies (the nickname they coined the wave), Sal couldn’t help but dream of riding one of those fabled arctic right handers.
To sit in those frozen waters on the northern tip of the world with just his two best friends intoxicated his existence. It’s what’s led him to where he is now, standing outside the Garður Lighthouse in the early morning light, staring out towards an angry grey abyss. Without much of a real plan (other than to find good waves), Iceland was their canvas and the campervan their paintbrush. Part of their plan was to not have a plan and that fueled their fire for exploration. They had heard stories of waterfalls and glaciers and incredibly tall and jagged peaks, but little did the three understand the elements that awaited them.
Timing their arrival perfectly with a powerful Atlantic storm, the entire southern coastline was maxed out. 25’-30’ seas, 40 mph onshore winds and more rain than the three thought was humanly possible. Thank god for the camper van, their home, their shelter and their escape from the elements. Perceived short drives along the Ring Road turned into white knuckle journeys. Distance that should have taken an hour or so took twice as long. The boys were on red alert as waves of water and wind blew across the dark lonely highway. For four days straight they drove east along the Ring Road with high hopes of more hospitable conditions.
As the final days of their trip approached, a decision had to be made…wait out the storm on the southern coast with hope for clear skies and calmer seas, or completely abandon their course and drive north to Ólafsfjörður. The decision was easy. With the lure of Ollies and the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights, they changed directions and pointed their ship north. At 6:00am, they departed Djúpivogur and by 8:00pm they had found themselves surrounded by giant fjords on the shoreline of the Greenland Sea. That night they fell into a much needed pub in the city of Hvammstangi. With a footy game on the big screen between Iceland and Turkey, pints of Viking beer were enjoyed and team songs were learned and sung. The locals were particularly friendly and interested in their excursion. The boys were given pointers on where to stay and sites to watch out for. All three would go to bed in the van that night; full and warm in the belly.
Waking up in the van to sunlight and a crisp feeling in the air, the boys luck had finally turned around. There was not a cloud to be seen and not a rain drop for miles. With black coffee on their minds and a phantom swell scheduled to grow through the day, the boy’s spirits were high. Slow to get out of his warm sleeping bag, Sal grabbed the portable stove from the rear of the van and began to boil water as JT reviewed the map and plugged the day’s coordinates into the GPS. Rolling out of the campsite, the van swooped and turned northeast along the most beautiful stretch of coastline. It was almost as if there was no end in sight. Nearly impossible to see where the sea ended and the sky began. This was god’s country.
On the last day of the trip, they finally arrived and got their first glimpse at Ollies. The setup was perfect. Far better than any of them could have dreamed of. Throwing on their thick wet-suits and ready to forge the freezing temperatures of the Greenland Sea, the boys paddled out to the lineup.
Waking from slumber, the sea’s horizon began to rise as the first signs of the new swell began to build on the horizon. Tension started to grow as the three slid to their stomachs and paddled for position. Without a drop of water out of place, the long period corduroy lines made their way to the lineup and refracted off the rocky shoreline. The energy in the water was electric; thundering down the point with power and precision. Now was the time to rise to the occasion. Sal couldn’t believe his eyes as a set of four waves passed underneath him; each one bigger than the last. “It’s here boys…It’s here!!” said JT while grinning from ear-to-ear.
With lineup markers spotted, the three waited in position as the next set loomed on the horizon. Luca turned and paddled for the second wave of the set. He drops in and disappears on his back-hand as Sal and JT look on from behind. Water blows off the back of the wave as the offshore wind grooms the incoming swell. Luca sails off the end of the dying wave and begins to sink in the motionless water. Now sitting in the channel, he sees his friend threading a fast runner.
Pumping, pumping, pumping down the line, Sal fades down and arch’s a beautiful turn off the bottom. The wave begins to throw in front of him and Sal tucks in as the wave curls. From the shoulder, Luca throws his hands in the air and screams with excitement as Sal gets spit out of the barrel and ejects into the air off the back of the wave. Flying like Superman, Sal dives head first into the frigid water. He emerges and paddles over to Luca yelling with excitement. Luca shakes his head with acknowledgement and paddles over to meet his friend. “That was sick, let’s go get another Sal.” As the two paddle back to the lineup, JT is seen on the biggest and hollowest wave yet. Luca and Sal look at each other and nod their head with approval.
As the boys float in the bobbing sea, the sun behind them begins to fall. A pink and purple glow is present above the fiords surrounding them. In a harmonious balance of movement, earth’s colors and the sea’s natural breeze collide; the three hug the shoreline and stare off towards the alpenglow. Thoughts of the past and soon to be future intoxicate their present existence. Slowly, Sal’s my mind begins to clear as he allows the nights air to pass freely through his breath. The boys pause and gaze at each other and then out towards the vast openness; now dark and cold. “We made it”, said Sal. “Yeah we did. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe we are here right now”, said Luca. Warmth is found in each other’s smiles as the nights stars reflect and dance on the sea around them.
There are many in the like case, more and more and so we learn of these anthologies beyond all experience. Those who have traveled to far off lands can relate to their volume of photographs, photographs which will bring back to them at any time and wherever they may be, not only a memory of their experience, but a clearer vision than they could call to be. In some degree, a repetition or flashback of their first enjoyment. But photographs, like other souvenirs have this defect, they recall something, but not all. They cannot bring back the air, the water, the mountains nor the colorful company found along the way. Yet still we keep them close, keep them in view, for the real nature that once embraced us.