Riding the Long Beaches of Iceland

by Nancy Marie Brown

Along the west coast of Iceland, beneath the great glacier Snaefellsjokull, is a magical riding trail uncovered only at low tide.

This route, across the Longufjorur or “Long Beaches,” has been in use by horsemen and women since the Saga Age. Before roads were bulldozed through the Eldborg lava fields in the early 1900s, it was the main highway. Until 1933 you’d buy your soap and nails and flour at a general store out there on the sands, where now you’ll find only seals and seabirds and hear only the surf–or hoofbeats on sand.

“It’s a dangerous path if you don’t know the tides,” my friend Haukur warned, when he took me on the trail for the first time in 1995. When I wrote about that experience in my book A Good Horse Has No Color, I summed it up this way: “This is Iceland.”

This August I hope to recreate that ride–with your help. I’m looking for 8 adventurers to sign up for the Trekking Bootcamp offered by America2Iceland from August 10-16. Click here for more details.

Note that you need to be a good rider (intermediate or advanced), though the breed of horse you usually ride doesn’t matter much. We will, of course, be riding Icelandic horses (it’s the only breed in Iceland), but if you can trot and canter all day long, you’ll quickly learn to tolt. You also need to be able to swim, just in case.

Why? The trail cuts the mouths of several rivers, some of them deep-channeled salmon streams, others edged with quicksand. The safe paths shift from storm to storm, while the force of the wind and its direction, and the fullness of the moon, decide how fast a rider must cross.

Ebenezer Henderson, a Scottish churchman who traveled throughout Iceland in 1814, described the crossing well: “We advanced at a noble rate, it being necessary to keep our horses every now and then at the gallop, in order to escape being overtaken by the tide before we reached the land. At one time we were nearly two miles from the shore; and I must confess I felt rather uneasy, while my companion was relating the number of travelers who had lost their lives in consequence of having been unexpectedly surrounded by the sea.”

Henderson (or his guide) was exaggerating–but not much.

In his book Summer at Little Lava my husband, Charles Fergus, told this story:

“A man known as Tobbi–short for Tobias–farmed during the 1600s along the Longufjorur…. Tobbi was known as a poet. One day a group of travelers asked him where they could safely cross over the sands. At work in his smithy, making a tool or repairing some article of iron, Tobbi answered them with a verse:
My work is going very slowly in the smithy,
Even through I’m clattering.
You should aim for Eldborg,
Under the hammer of Thor.
The travelers set off toward Eldborg. Perhaps they dawdled, crossing the sands. The tide rose and caught them, and they drowned. After that, Tobbi lost his ability to compose poetry and could bring forth only gibberish. He became known as Æra-Tobbi, ‘Crazy Tobbi.’ ”

In 1995, riding with Haukur, an expert guide who knew the tides, I was in no danger. But I did get rather wet. We crossed over mudflats pocked with airholes and headed for several grass-topped islands abandoned by the tide like a pod of stranded whales. A sea eagle lifted off one of the islands as we approached and scolded us with a high-pitched cackle. Geese flew over, banking, startled.

We rode north onto the sandbar, across some grassy flats, back out through the sucky mud to the hard wet sand, whose color ranged from black to coffee-colored to tawny to gold. Tide pools, I knew, held tiny shrimp and sea lettuce; their bottoms were mosaics of shells.

The horses got spattered with muck and splashed water as high as our faces—icy, but delightful in the sunshine, since everyone wore rubber boots and rainpants or chaps. These were practiced riders, and they kept up a fast pace. The woman next to me occasionally rode at a trot, balancing above her saddle to spell her mount, yet I matched her speed easily, tolting all the time. Later I overheard her remark to Haukur that I rode a tolt well for an American. He, knowing I understood her Icelandic, grinned at me. “It’s the horse,” he said.

With the islands to our left, we rode on hard-packed sand, the tapping of our horses’ hooves making music with the wind and the seabirds’ cries. I could feel time almost stop, suspended in the wet air between sea and sky, as history clustered all around us.

Close on our right rose the snow-flecked mountains of Snaefellsnes, the Snow Mountain Peninsula. Ahead loomed the Snow Mountain itself, glacier-topped Snaefellsjokull, a classic Mount Fuji-shaped stratovolcano. Jules Verne began his Journey to the Center of the Earth from this mountain, and New Agers now affirm it the third holiest spot on the planet, ascending it in droves on the summer solstice and bringing new riches to the fishing towns down below. Gazing at its beauty, I wondered what the two more-holy places could possibly be.
Then suddenly we were off the sands and into another farmyard. After a short rest, we decided to take a swim–but I’ve written about that on this blog before.

This August, we’ll be riding from Stadarhus, about 40 km from the beach. We’ll spend the first two days at the farm, getting used to our horses in a clinic that will get you ready for the trek.

On Day 3 we’ll ride 40 km to Hitarholmi, returning to Stadarhus for dinner, a soak in the hot tub, and a good night’s sleep in private or double rooms (as we will each night). Day 4 is a 45 km stretch along the beach to Kolvidarnes–and we go whenever the tide is right, so it could be very early or very late. On Day 5, we’ll do a 30 km ride out onto the sands and back to Kolvidarnes–again, whenever the tide is right. Then on Day 6, we’ll turn inland, riding 30 km to Stori-Kalfalaekur, where we’ll say goodbye to our horses. On Day 7, we’ll regretfully fly home, with wind-chapped and sun-burned faces–or maybe a suitcase full of rain-soaked riding clothes, you never know. Either way, it will be a magical adventure.

Sign up now. I can’t wait to show you the Long Beaches of Iceland.