Iceland’s “Forgotten Coast Route” Part Two: Chris Burkard’s Daily Journals

The Forgotten Coast Route starts in the small eastern Iceland town of Djúpivogur and traverses 300 miles over mostly continuous beaches, spits, ocean islands, and sandbars, to the town of Thorlakshofn. Using a combination of fatbikes and packrafts Chris Burkard, Steve “Doom” Fassbender, and Cameron Lawson navigated a portion of Iceland’s coast seldom seen. With over 40 river crossings and covering some of the windiest and weather-riddled parts of Iceland’s coastlines, the route presented serious challenges for the team.

Below are a series of daily, first-hand accounts of the expedition. These daily journals are based on interviews with Chris Burkard and written by trip photographer Ryan Hill.

DAY 1 Djupivogur to Skalafell ~ 80 km / 6 River Crossings

We kicked off our bike/packrafting journey in the Eastfjords at the small harbor town of Djupivogur. Fully stocked, mentally prepared, and feeling motivated we headed out and covered a lot of ground. We crossed two inlets to a series of small barrier islands followed by endless miles of sandbars that varied from soft and unrideable to near-perfect hard-packed sand. Along the way, we encountered puffins, whales, and of course millions of seabirds. The most annoying of which was the ultra-aggressive Skua – they would dive-bomb us for miles.

Our heads were always on a swivel while riding. Today was a perfect start to this adventure, ending with near-perfect light as we passed the town of Höfn, crossing the harbor at sunset. It was one of those Icelandic dream days, the ones you count your blessings for experiencing. The ones we all chase and have kept me returning to Iceland for over 40 trips now.

Overall, the day went off without a hitch, short of some derailleur difficulties with Cameron’s bike, which Steve quickly remedied. All-in-all we rode for 16 hours making camp around 11:30pm in some sand dunes after our sixth and final river crossing of the day. Six crossings down and at least 34 more to go.

DAY 2 Skalafell to Jokulsarlon ~ 76 km / 7 River Crossings

Today we woke up to rain at our camp along the beaches south of Höfn. Fortunately, the small dunes and grass made for a decent windbreak. Temperatures at night hovered around high 30’s – low 40’s (Fahrenheit). Cold, but totally manageable. We got on the sand around 10 AM in dense, hazy fog and encountered our first glacial river where the water was milky from sediments in the glacial silt. The terrain was slow-moving today as the high tides pushed us into soft sand. Riding a fatbike on sand (especially fully loaded with gear) feels more like lifting weights with your legs than pedaling a bike. It’s always engaging, as you’re constantly mashing the pedals, and there’s never a single moment to “coast.”

We resupplied at Hali Farm, each gorging ourselves with lamb stew and as much bread as they would give us and crossed the lagoon while getting attacked by Arctic Tern, or Kria, as they are referred to by Icelanders. While smaller than the Skua, Kria are more unrelenting in their attacks than their much larger counterparts and attack from above in large flocks. This makes them even more terrifying and troublesome. I comically tried to throw a rock at one only to have it fall back earthbound and hit me in the head… I guess I deserved it after such pointless retaliation.

At 8 PM, we made it to the famous Jokulsaron glacier lagoon and conditions were perfect, so we inflated our small raft and drifted past massive icebergs to the other side of the lake to camp. Despite being tired, Steve, Cameron, and I swapped stories about the day and watched a four-hour sunset over the glacier. I know it doesn’t get any better than this, there is no place I would rather have been. I caught myself wishing I could just stay in this moment even longer.

DAYS 3/4 Jokulsarlon – Alvioruhamrar Lighthouse ~ 120 km / 22 River Crossings

Over the next two days, we embarked upon the most remote, unknown, and dangerous section of our route encompassing all of Iceland’s largest glacial rivers. We encountered this section with less than ideal weather as it poured rain and gusted wind for two full days. We were wet to the bone. A friend from Kluster joined us today at Jokulsarlon. Mumi is the owner of the “thebikefarm” in Iceland and joined us for some of the wettest 24 hours of the trip thus far. If he knew what he was in for before, I’m not sure he would have joined.

I had never dreamed of crossing this section in such inhospitable weather. We were met with a gusting sidewind for most of the day. It brought with it whipping rain which unrelentingly hammered us as we made our way down the coast. The Atlantic Ocean sat to our left and massive interconnected rivers spread for as far as the eye could see. At times the sky, the sea, and the sand all fused together and it almost gave us vertigo as we struggled to find a hard line of sand to ride. In many ways, when the weather sets in like this, it creates a kind of monotony I didn’t expect. Low hanging clouds meet the black sand and there is nothing to break it up. No goal to peddle towards, just gray sky and black sand for as far as you can see until you meet one of the many crossings.

At times we lashed ourselves to our boats so we wouldn’t lose them as we inflated them or while deconstructing our bikes. Fearing if we didn’t have a hold of them at all times the ferocious wind would take them from us leaving us stranded in the desolate landscape. I guess if it came down to it we could ferry gear across on a single boat but, in weather like this, I don’t know if that’s even possible. Around 40km into our day we stopped inflating the rafts to save time. Instead, opting to don our drysuits and plunge ourselves and our bikes into the smaller rivers closer to the surf where the rivers were narrowest. Sand became our mortal enemy, when wet it would stick to everything, including our hands, and after hours of handling the bikes, our hands were left numb and battered.

We had one scary instance where Steve mistimed his crossing, and a surging wave crashed over the sandbar dragging him and his bike towards the sea. It was a short mishap, but one that reminded me how serious these crossings needed to be taken.

About 50 km into day 3, and after about 14 hours of being on the sand, we spotted the sea cliffs that we had hoped would be our shelter for that night. Towering green cliffs erupted from the black sand. Unfortunately, a full night’s rest wasn’t in the cards.

It looked like the weather was going to be socked in on this section of coast, and unless we wanted to be caught in a headwind all of the next day on the worst section of coast, we needed to head onwards. We had to take advantage of a brief 10-hour break in the weather and get further away from Vatnajökull Glacier which traps the weather along the coast. After drying off briefly at a small emergency cabin, we trudged back into the monotony only broken up by Kria attacks, whale bones, and the occasional Puffin sighting.

Mumi kept an amazing pace, never faltering or holding us up at all. It was impressive to watch. Given it was his first day and perhaps a bigger day than he bargained for, he fell right into the rhythm of the crew. Overall it was a great morning with light wind, low clouds, and thankfully no more rain. A welcomed a brief break in the weather until about midday, and then everything changed so suddenly. We came around a bend in the coast and were slapped by a slight headwind and rain that unrelentingly hammered. We trudged on, approaching our planned shelter for the evening and the end of Mumi’s tenure with us.

When we got to the shelter, we were greeted by a small red hut, half overtaken by the beach. Its doors were covered by dunes and even though we put in a valiant effort we were unable to dig it out. We made the decision to trudge on another 30km to the next shelter and it was at this point that Mumi decided to bid us farewell. With a final proclamation of “I’m done” he was off, pedaling inland towards one of the few farms we would encounter from where he planned to bike back home. We were done too, but it wasn’t that simple for us.

We donned our drysuits, knowing the rain wasn’t going to subside, and at least then it would be one less step at every river crossing. We had three more crossings to go, but in this wind, it was no small task. We inched forward, hiking and pushing our bikes when we had to, cycling when we could. It was slow going. This was truthfully some of the worst weather I’d seen in Iceland during summer. And we were stuck in it. Experiencing everything it had to offer.

During our second to last crossing, the wind was so bad that there were standing waves that rebounded into the ocean. Mixing the surf with the incoming waves to create an impact zone I wouldn’t want to find myself in even if I had been donning a 5/4 wetsuit and fins. Let alone finding myself there with a thin drysuit and a 70lb bike strapped to a raft.

We all just sat there for a second, fully knowing what we had to do. There was no turning back and the sand-covered shelter was the only thing behind us. The wind had turned nuclear and the only saving grace was that it was now at our backs.

I wasn’t sure if it was doable. We looked to Steve and I had pretty much already mentally decided to do whatever Steve suggested was the call. If he went, I’d follow. Steve started unrolling his packraft and then I did too. We were going. I decided not to think and just react. I built my boat in the windiest conditions I could imagine. Every-single-thing had to be tied to the raft so it didn’t blow away.

We all were stalling, stressed, knowing at some point we just had to go.

But just before we went, Cam finally spoke up and said: “Guys should we just bivy here? This does not seem safe and I don’t have a drysuit.”

We knew the risk he especially was taking. Steve and I had both brought drysuits for this type of situation.

Steve reasoned with Cam and ultimately said: “We have one option, freeze or cross.”

So we did the only logical thing and tied our bodies to our boats so if the wind flipped us we would at least not lose our boat in the wind.

We started the crossing surrounded by seals staring at us. Just getting into the water felt terrifying as the boat rocked and tried to roll from the wind. Only our body weight could counterbalance the boat. I paddled so hard I immediately broke a sweat as my arms smashed paddles into the water wildly. The ride was bumpy and felt at times like a mechanical bull pushing us up-and-down and side-to-side. As fast as it all began, it was over. We were across. We packed our gear as quickly as humanly possible to get to the hut before we started to shiver. The small yellow speck just visible in the distance, the lighthouse that marked the end of the day. We were all thankful.

DAY 5: Alviðruhamrar Lighthouse – Vik ~50 km / 9 River Crossings

Unfortunately, we awoke with somber news as Cameron decided his trip would end today. His achilles had been hurting him and when he woke up he was having trouble walking and pedaling was out of the question. Apparently it had been a problem all day yesterday and he assumed with a night’s rest it would fix itself. There is no way he would stop if there was any way he could continue on. So we set forth. After yesterday’s four man crew it was a bit of a bummer to have just Steve and I remaining.

It’s not often that you worry about the “surf” on a bike ride, but often on day 5 we found ourselves riding on the wet sand just beyond the surf, which was the only rideable surface. This stretch of coastline around Iceland’s southernmost point is known for its sleeper waves, big surf, rip tides, and overall extremely dangerous shoreline. We kept one eye on the waves at all times.

The day had started with strong offshore winds and a fresh groundswell, my days chasing surf emerged and I found myself paying more attention to the surf than where I was riding. Our goal was to make it to Vik but moving was slow as huge surf rushed up the beach repeatedly forcing us into soft sand. But after the past few days of ferocious weather, this felt pleasant.

The glacial river crossings were cold, some of the coldest we had encountered. We made it to Vik chilled to the bone, beaten. Luckily a local let us into her home, fed us, and let us dry some clothes. We welcomed that physical and emotional break and were once again reminded of, and grateful for, Icelandic hospitality. Our spirits buoyed, we pushed onward as the winds subsided, we paddled around Dyrholaey, then rode the iconic “endless black beach” before making camp that evening. Nestled between two dunes and being treated to a true Icelandic midnight sunset. Again I’m reminded why I do this.

DAYS 6/7: Solheimafjara – Thorlakshofn ~120km / 14 River Crossings

The final push always seems to come with its highs and lows. On day 6, we had planned some of the lowest mileage of the trip, but another intense headwind made it one of our hardest days. Dry and soft sand made it feel like an absolute slog where we found ourselves pushing our bikes and at times cursing at the weight. We crossed the mighty Markarfljót River, which flows straight from the highlands, near sunset. It’s a large, cold crossing with high tide wave trains rolling in. That night we took shelter in a small bunker on the coast, warming up and drying out gear.

The last day contained two of the crossings I feared the most. All the preparation told me it was going to be easy but, still, crossing the Thorsja and the Olfusa Rivers was something to be respected. Both the largest and highest volume rivers in the country, wide exposed crossings laid in the path of our monstrous 44-mile final day. With days of experience behind us, we crossed safely all the while enjoying the colorful glacial patterns and a glorious weather window.

This final section held special meaning for me. Having spent years documenting some of these rivers from the air, being on the sand felt rather surreal. In many ways it was the perfect end to the trip. While the going was tough, the weather was perfect and having an end in sight kept objectives achievable and the mood high, all things considered. Especially since a resupply of fresh hotdogs was waiting.

Upon rolling up to the gas station, we were met by a local Icelander on a fatbike who had watched our public tracker. He took it upon himself to meet, and joined in on some of the final few kms to our final crossing. Once we reached our last crossing, we bid him farewell, paddling one last time towards Thorlakshofn. We had finally made it. Shortly after we were greeted by pavement, and the sand was done. We had really done it.

Untimely the end of this journey was bittersweet. It wasn’t like a summit, with a definitive end. We just sort or stopped at some arbitrary point. The beach ended, yes, but it was such a nice day and at a certain point it felt easier to just keep pedaling rather than going back to work, family, and normal life. That’s why those last few miles I just tried to go as slow as I could. Just to truly savor the experience – there were really so many moments that come to mind that shined, lots of highs. Honestly, my favorite times were during the middle of the trip. Dead center, when there were so many unknowns and the tension felt high. That was when we were really out there and remote. It felt like with every mile, every big crossing, we trusted ourselves and each other more.

It was the tipping point of the trip, the moment we knew that nothing was going to stop us from finishing. NOTHING. It’s a cool feeling and honestly it was more internal than anything. Although the trip was littered with beautiful vistas and moments of bliss, for the most part it was stark and monotonous. But, in that endless rippling sand, you find a sense of odd peace in the experience. In experiencing a place in everything it has to offer and really getting to savor its highs and lows.