That Time I Went Swimming in Úlfljótsvatn Lake

Bright shining sun, and the warmth of the air is strengthened by the breeze, not detracted. It is so bright at nearly 9PM that we need sunglasses, which conveniently I left in my bag at the house. I left my underlay on as an outer layer over my swim suit, and we headed to the ‘beach.’ This is the sum of Arctic MidSummer in Iceland.

Our Icelandic housemates and a group of the other volunteers went for a foolhardy swim in Úlfljótsvatn Lake the other day! A group of us gathered on the shore, trying not to lose our nerve as we confronted the reality of the 5C water shimmering bluely up at us. It’s only about 100m to the close island across the channel, but standing on the shore made it seem much farther.

“Keep doing like this,” Eyja says, demonstrating how to open and close one’s fingers, touching each tip to the tip of the thumb in a procession of hand positions resembling yogic mudras.

Checking for hypothermia


“If it starts to get very hard to do this, turn back.”

Just putting my feet in the water was enough to make me want to turn back. It was so cold as to make my skin hurt almost immediately, and my legs started to go numbish within minutes of the late entry I made to the water, a few yards behind the others. I pulled up, stubby little rocks hitting all the sensitive points on my feet. Some people pay good money for Reflexology. Some people go swimming in frigid lakes.

“Nope,” said one of the volunteers, turning back. “Nope, this is as far as I go.”

He knew himself better than that, which was a great thing. I splashed around in the shallows, slowly losing feeling in my feet from the pressure point precision of the rocks as well as the cold. Russ came in up to a point, but also knew himself better than to get all the way in. This time.

Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow

I visualized the hot shower after, sighed out a long breath, and dunked in.

Gasping, whooping, and holy-shit-that’s-cold sounds burst involuntarily from my immersed lungs. Up to my neck in the water was plenty, thank you very much. The water was clear and approaching crystalline around me, especially when I flailed a bit in the attempt to get back up. I must work on my composure in the cold!

The swim back was slightly too much for one of our friends, who wisely waited to get a canoe back to the main shore. His mild hypothermia setting in, the rest of us ran around like chickens trying to find the food pail (mildly organized toward a goal, but not really much idea how to achieve it) attempting to get a boat to help him out. I ran up to the campsite in my swimsuit and hiking boots, searching for a mobile phone with which to call for help in case they started back across and got stuck in the middle.

People in campers enjoying the coldwarm sunshine stared in confusion at my high-fashion outfit and look of concern.

Rafnar rescued by a row boat and canoe contingent, we headed up to the shower. Every pore of my skin felt alive and clean from the cold, and the contrast with the hot spring water that flows out of all the taps in Iceland was remarkably invigorating. I was tempted to go back in the very next day.

It’s been a beautiful first week in Iceland, and we leave tomorrow for the famed Westfjord region. We hope to make it to the farthest West coast of Europe, on the North American Tectonic Plate, in a few days’ time.

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