The Backpack

Skogar, Iceland

First published by Travelers’ Tales, Tales To Go, April 2017

2015 Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing

Dressed in equal parts fleece and Gore-Tex, with a backpack at my feet and a map in my hands, I stood outside the central bus station in Reykjavik on a cold and overcast morning in August. I was one of many hikers waiting for a bus into the Icelandic wilderness, each with our own backstory. Mine was unoriginal if not clichéd. At thirty-one, I was a disillusioned lawyer at a large New York law firm and newly single after discovering my boyfriend of four years had been cheating on me. I came to Iceland, a world away from Manhattan’s concrete and cocktails, to clear my mind and come up with a new plan for my life that included neither billable hours nor unfaithful investment bankers.

The bus ride to Skogar took about three hours, with several stops along the way. Located 96 miles from Reykjavik in the south of Iceland, Skogar is not so much a town as the site of the eponymous Skogafoss, one of Iceland’s most picturesque waterfalls. It is also the starting point for the popular sixteen-mile trek that I had come here for. Like many hikers, I planned to do it in two days. On the first, I would hike past some twenty-four waterfalls and two glaciers to Fimmvörðuháls, the so-called “five cairns pass.” I would stay here overnight at a mountain hut, and descend into one of the country’s most beautiful wilderness areas, a place known as Thorsmörk, or “Thunder God’s forest,” on day two.

Shortly after my arrival in Skogar, I met an Italian couple at the hostel where I was staying for the night. They had just come from the mountain hut at Fimmvörðuháls, and looked exhausted and bedraggled. Apart from one other hiker, they had been the only people at the hut; even the warden was inexplicably absent. It was cold, wet and foggy up there, they reported, and snow showers were a very real possibility. Even now, in August! Several exposed sections of the hike, including one known as the Kattahryggur, or “cat’s spine,” where the trail followed along a narrow, rocky ridge sloping steeply on either side, were particularly hairy in this weather. I had to agree that this did not bode well. But then again, I had prepared myself well for such adverse conditions, and was confident that everything I could possibly need was in my backpack.

I got up early the next morning, eager to get going. It was a quick walk from the hostel to the base of Skogafoss, the thunder of falling water growing louder, and a fine, cool mist dampening my face as I closed in on it. There were no tour buses at this early hour, and the campers in the adjacent field still lay asleep in their colorful tents. I remained alone with my thoughts, and the occasional sheep, as I followed the steep trail up to the top of the 200-foot falls and continued along the river gorge. The scenery was spectacular, the river carving its way through the earth in deep canyons blanketed in every imaginable shade of velvety green vegetation. It was exhilarating to have this fantastically beautiful place all to myself, and I felt more alive than I had in a long time.

Capturing it all on film was a little tricky, though, as a solo hiker. In these days before smart phones, “selfies,” and even digital photography, I had to rely on my camera’s self-timer to obtain the ever-important photographic evidence that I had been here. I had already made good use of this technology when I came upon yet another waterfall, this one even more stunning than the previous fifteen. Just one more waterfall photo, I told myself as I lifted my pack off my back and stepped off the trail to get a better view. Carefully standing the pack up on its end, I set my camera on top, pressed the self-timer button and hustled to get in position for the perfect Icelandic wilderness shot. As I stood there smiling at my camera, its red light flashing rapidly, a most unfortunate thing happened: the pack fell over. And then, worse still, it began to roll heavily down the small hill where I had placed it, making a bee-line for the ravine!

Panicked, I took off immediately after my backpack. Scrambling to catch up, I lurched and grabbed for it wildly as it continued to roll. In a matter of seconds, it had gained alarming speed, and was bouncing violently down the increasingly steep and rocky slope. Suddenly, just a few feet in front of me, the edge of the cliff appeared. I fortunately had the presence of mind to stop myself as my backpack tumbled over and down, crashing into the steep wall of the ravine a few times as it made its descent into the fast moving river some 100 feet below. Terrified at how close I had come to going over the cliff along with my pack, I slowly turned myself around and crawled up the hill on all fours.

Back at the site of the doomed photo shoot, I found my camera, which had fallen off the pack when it started to roll. My body trembling and mind racing, I staggered back out onto the path. How could I have let this happen?! Everything was in that backpack…my clothes, money, credit cards, airline ticket, passport, and uggh, my new Palm Pilot! All my careful planning and preparation, and it wasn’t the weather, fatigue, or even the dreaded Kattahryggur that had been my downfall, but my damn camera! And as for asking someone for help, where were the throngs of hikers that the guidebooks spoke of? I had not seen a single human being since I left the hostel that morning. This was bad. Really bad.

I’m not sure what I would have done at that point if not for the miraculous appearance of two hikers who seemed to materialize out of the fog about fifty feet up the trail. Standing there in a passionate embrace were a man and woman in their mid-thirties, he with brown hair and a goatee and she with short blond hair and a heart-shaped face. Both were extremely fit and healthy looking. These were clearly the kind of people who would never lose their backpacks in a river. I stumbled right on over to them. “Um, sorry to bother you,” I burst out. “My backpack just fell over the cliff.” This put a quick end to the hugging.

As I soon learned, my guardian angels were Gunny and Andreas, from Iceland and Belgium, respectively. In a long-distance relationship, they had just spent four romantic days hiking the famous 33-mile Laugavegur trail and were on the final leg of their journey when they met me. Experienced mountaineers and the voices of reason, they convinced me that it was not a good idea to try to climb down into the gorge to find my backpack.

“It is just things, you know. It is not worth your life,” Gunny said with a look of concern.

Instead, she and Andreas suggested that the three of us head back down to Skogar together and then figure out what to do. Before we got going, Andreas laid down on his stomach at the edge of the cliff and surveyed the river below. Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of my backpack in the fast moving whitewater.

Though I felt a bit of a third wheel, it was a huge relief to have linked up with Gunny and Andreas. They were lovely people: calm, capable and reassuring. We walked and talked, and though I, myself, had come to accept the grim reality that my backpack and everything in it was gone forever, every quarter mile or so Andreas dutifully trudged over to the edge of the gorge to look for it in the river.

We had been hiking together for about two hours, when Andreas called out from the cliff. “Your backpack, it is blue?” Gunny and I rushed over to meet him. Unbelievably, Andreas had managed to spot my backpack, which was stuck between some rocks in an eddy at the bottom of a waterfall! So close, yet so far away, it was a 100 foot drop to the river, the canyon walls nearly vertical. Once again I contemplated the possibility of getting myself down there somehow, but was quickly dissuaded by my new friends. Before leaving, we marked the location of my pack with a large pile of rocks, and continued on to Skogar with renewed purpose.

Once we got back down near sea level, the three of us headed over to the small visitor center next to the parking lot for Skogafoss. Gunny explained my situation to the nice, elderly lady behind the desk in her lilting Icelandic. The woman glanced at me sympathetically as she and Gunny spoke, and then wrote down some names and numbers on a piece of scrap paper.

“Well, it is good news, I think.” Gunny said. “There is an old farmer who sometimes goes into the gorge to fetch his sheep when they are lost, so perhaps he could help. Or, there is the Icelandic Rescue Team in Vik.”

The Icelandic Rescue Team sounded to me like a better bet, so Gunny called the number on the paper and was able to arrange for them to come. They would meet me at the visitor center in about an hour.

Gunny and Andreas had to get back to Reykjavik, but insisted on leaving me with 6,000 kronor—roughly fifty U.S. dollars—just in case things did not work out with the backpack. With an hour to kill, I used some of the money to buy a pizza at the café. It was soggy and bland, but I gobbled it down hungrily, listening and watching expectantly for the arrival of the rescue team.

As Gunny had explained, the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, known as the “ICE-SAR,” is a national association of around 18,000 trained volunteers, who serve on local search and rescue teams throughout Iceland. Their stated mission is to prevent accidents and save human lives and valuables. Mainly, they come to the aid of hapless tourists, like myself, who get their cars stuck in rivers, fall into crevices in glaciers and the like. And the most amazing thing is that they devote their time and risk their lives on a volunteer basis, without any compensation whatsoever. The team that was on its way to rescue my backpack was based in Vik, a small coastal town twenty miles West of Skogar.

I was picturing an Icelandic version of Bay Watch, when a gigantic blue and white truck emblazoned with the words “Bjorgunarsveitin Vikverji” rumbled into the parking lot. The four normal, friendly looking guys who jumped down from the truck, however, quickly extinguished that fantasy. Baldur, apparently the leader and the oldest in the group, had a friendly smile, brown curly hair, glasses, and a few extra pounds around the middle. His brother, Fálki, also on the chubby side, only more so, had short, white-blond hair, bright blue eyes and an air of mischief about him. The third and youngest brother, Sigurbjörn, by contrast, was tall and skinny, and Cousin Magnús, sandy haired and athletic. They were all dressed in bright orange and purple jackets with the ICE-SAR logo. After polite introductions and hand-shaking, we piled into the truck and drove off, to my surprise, straight up the steep hillside I had climbed earlier in the day.

As we bumped along over the rocks, I did my best to describe the area we should target. The team seemed pretty confident that everything would turn out just fine, and laughed and joked with each other like this was no big deal. I looked over at Sigurbjörn, who seemed to be getting a serious ribbing from the others. He had been pretty quiet and was not looking so hot.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Baldur gave a hearty chuckle, “Oh, ja, he is fine. Just a little bit hung over. He had his birthday yesterday, and now he is the legal age to drink. How late was it last night, Sigurbjörn?”

Sigurbjörn grunted something in response, looking like he was about to throw up.

It only took about twenty minutes for us to reach the area where I thought we would find the rock cairn marking the location of my backpack. It was hard to be sure, though, as the waterfalls were all starting to look the same to me, and there were few other landmarks up here on the barren heath, just a lot of rocks and moss. Unfortunately, the marker was not at the place I thought it would be, so Baldur proposed that we divide into two groups, one heading up and one down the river. I joined forces with Baldur and Fálki, who cheerfully assured me they would not give up until we found my backpack. In fact, Fálki told me, one time when some other fool lost their pack to this very same gorge, their team had spent an entire day searching the river all the way to the ocean. They never did find that one, though.

Finally, about two hours later, an excited whoop came from downriver. Baldur, Fálki and I quickly backtracked and found Sigurbjörn and Magnús standing by a pile of rocks. It was smaller than I remembered, but they had found the marker. Some celebratory back slapping and high fiving, and at last, the moment of truth had arrived: Would my backpack still be there, or had it broken free from the rocks to continue its wild ride down the river and over Skogafoss? I felt nervous, excited and suddenly acrophobic as we neared the edge of the cliff. I couldn’t bring myself to get close enough for a look, so Magnús got down on his stomach and peaked over.

“Yes, I see him!” He confirmed almost immediately. “He is at the bottom of a waterfall!”

Now that we had located the backpack, the team went into serious ICE-SAR rescue mode. Ropes, harnesses, carabiners, helmets and assorted foul-weather outerwear and boots were carried out from the truck, and the guys began suiting up. I noticed that Sigurbjörn, still looking rather ill, was the only one wearing a harness.

“Will he be going down into the river?” I asked. The others looked at me as though it were obvious.

“Ja, he is the lightest, so he has to do it,” Baldur explained.

Fálki patted his stomach with a wide grin. “Too big!”

Once I understood the method by which Sigurbjörn would make his way into the ravine, it became clear that hangover or no hangover, he was the only one suitable for this particular challenge. Since there were no trees or anything else to which the rope could be secured, Baldur, Fálki, and Magnús would combine forces, and their considerable weight, to belay Sigurbjörn into the river. Sitting on the ground, one behind the other with legs outstretched, they pulled back on the rope, giving Sigurbjörn just enough slack to slowly descend down the side of the ravine. After many long minutes, the belayers relaxed their grips, wiping sweat from their foreheads.

“He is down!” Fálki shouted, giving me the thumbs up sign.

Another twenty minutes or so went by as Sigurbjörn carefully made his way through the fast moving current to retrieve my backpack, pried it loose from the rocks and tied the rope around it. Baldur, Fálki, and Magnús then got back into position and heaved the thing up, now much heavier after soaking in the river for a few hours. Upon inspection, I was amazed to discover that apart from a small rip in the cover, my backpack was completely intact and undamaged, despite having been shot off several waterfalls and dragged over rocks.

The mood was jubilant as we packed the rescue equipment and my soggy backpack into the truck. “Where do you stay tonight?” Baldur asked. “We will drive you there.”

Focused more on my lost belongings, I had not yet given any thought to this issue. I had a bed reserved for the night at the Fimmvörðuháls hut, but clearly neither I nor my gear were in any condition to hike there at this point. Baldur silently pondered this new information for a few seconds, and then made a call on his cell phone. After a short and incomprehensible conversation, he looked at me and said, “I check with my wife, and you are welcome to stay with us tonight.” Although I had only known Baldur for about four hours at that point, I accepted his offer on the spot.

So off to Baldur’s apartment in Vik we drove. Baldur’s wife, Helga, and their two-year-old daughter, Solveig, were waiting for us at the door when we arrived. Before I even realized what they were doing, Baldur and Helga had taken all my wet clothes and the sleeping bag out of the pack and deposited them in the washing machine. My passport, airline tickets, cash and the pack itself were laid out to dry near the heater. Only my Lonely Planet guide, a couple of maps, some food and of course the Palm Pilot, were beyond salvaging and had to be thrown away. I gave my hosts the heavy Progresso soup cans I had schlepped all the way from New York—a completely inadequate thank you for all they had done, but at least it was something.

After a nice, hot shower, I emerged from the bathroom warm and clean in my freshly laundered clothes and the thick, brown, hand-knit sweater Fálki had let me borrow from him during the rescue mission. The rest of the team had returned for dinner, and were sprawled around the table laughing and drinking beer.

“The sweater, she looks nice on you,” Fálki said with a shy smile as I pulled up a chair. I tried to give it back to him, but he insisted I keep it. He told me his grandmother had made it, and he had many others like it at home.

“I bet she never would have guessed it would one day end up in New York City!” I joked. Everyone agreed.

The muted light of the midnight sun remained in the sky when I finally crawled off to bed; pleasantly full and a bit buzzed after a hearty and delicious meal of lamb stew, canned vegetables and many bottles of my new favorite beer, Viking Gull. Full of laughter and lively conversation on topics ranging from international politics to the Aurora Borealis, I would never forget this night. It was only my second day in Iceland, and a traumatic one at that, but I had fallen for this country and its people, and knew already I would be back.

As I lay on an air mattress in Baldur and Helga’s small office-cum-guest room, I marveled over the serendipitous chain of events that had brought me here. I hadn’t made it to Thorsmörk, or even Fimmvörðuháls, but there was no doubt in my mind that what I had experienced was far better than any hiking trip I ever could have planned. It occurred to me then that maybe I didn’t need to have the rest of my life mapped out, after all. Instead, maybe life’s unexpected twists and turns, and not all my careful planning and preparation, would bring me to the place that was right for me in the end. I took one last look at my backpack, still amazed at the sight of it, before drifting off to sleep with a smile on my face and a warm and fuzzy feeling in my heart.

The names of the various characters in this otherwise true story were made up by the author, who regrets to have forgotten their real names with the passage of time.