June 20th, 2016, is a day I will not easily forget because it is the day I almost lost my life. I say 'almost' because if it were not for the intervention of fate in the form of a very tall, noble and Viking-ish Icelandic Tour Guide, the universe in the form of a lower sea tide, and possibly God himself (and in acknowledging this I suppose I am supporting his divine existence), I would not be penning this post today. I write this because a few days ago I was reminded by an Icelandic writer colleague that a female German tourist had in fact died on the very same beach where I had planned to carry out my dastardly and imbecilic sea stunt last year. On that eventful mid-summer's day, I found myself in South Iceland, my favorite country in the world, a country I have visited often before, and a place that I plan to call home one day.
Being the ardent adventurer, I was determined to do in Iceland what I was unable to do when visiting the winter before, take a short swim and dip in the North Atlantic ocean just to say 'I had.' You may wonder what in God's name would compel a person of robust intelligence to do such a thing. Growing up in Canada, I have long been obsessed with doing what our idol and countryman, Terry Fox, had done in running from sea to sea (or in our case, ocean to ocean) and dipping his foot in both during a cross-country marathon to raise awareness for cancer research. As I had only ever taken a dip in the Pacific Ocean during various trips to Vancouver, I was possessed by the idea of doing the same in the Atlantic Ocean in the parts of it which touch the maritime regions of Canada, where I had never swam before. In terms of the Atlantic itself, I had only swam in the portions of it which correspond with the American states of New York, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, however the water is quite warm south of the Canadian border, so for argument's sake we can state that those experiences do not exactly count.
That brings me back to that fateful day and my state of mind, or lack of it. I profess I was one of those stupid people who ran out to the sea in South Iceland (Suðurland) with great delight. It was a very windy but beautiful June day, and I was visiting Reynisfarja beach with an Icelandic Photographer and Tour Guide friend, Thorsten Henn. If it were not for his repeated and angry warnings during the entire car ride down from Reykjavik, I tell you I would have rushed into the sea for a long and leisurely dip. No joke. In fact I tried the very first chance I got. The waves were not even high that day. Thorsten was becoming more and more agitated with me as he had warned me numerous times while still in the car not to stray too far away from him, that the weather conditions change quite quickly in Iceland. He was also highly irritated by my constant demands to view and play with a puffin up close. Looking back, I have no idea how he didn't throttle me with his bare hands, but being ever the gentleman he just kept politely reminding me in his own way that the nature and animals were not there to be touched and petted like a domestic house cat. Of course I did not listen to him. I prided myself on my camping and portaging experiences in Canada and treks across the Alps and South East Europe, not comprehending that he was talking about one of the most volatile and geologically active countries on the entire planet. When we arrived at the beach we separated for a few minutes as Thorsten made his way to the only hospitality cafe located further up on the dunes. Once I was out of his site, I made a bold dash for the water. I was about three or five metres from the shoreline -- shoes and socks off -- when I was grabbed by another Icelandic tour guide, a tall and burly man who scolded me for my stupidity and reiterated that I was endangering my life. I had ran past this tour guide who stopped mid-way through a speech to his own group when he yelled after me, "Where the hell do you think you are going (in English)?" and I had completely ignored him, obsessed with the idea of swimming in the ocean and seeing a puffin up close. My feet were already wet and sinking into the sand, completely drenched in water. I imagine the entire episode lasted only a few seconds but all I can really recall was the approaching wave and the bizarre feeling of sticking to the sand, something I hadn't felt on the Atlantic seaboard of North America. It felt like quicksand and the water seemed to be coming in fast, not to mention it was so icy cold that it felt like a million sharp daggers left in a freezer overnight. The other tour guide dragged me a few metres away from the shoreline, which by this point kept receding but coming back in at lightening speed. By this point, the Germans he was with could hear the yelling in English and probably understand what it was he was saying. The tour guides all know one another and I got a royal and well-deserved 'telling-off.' In my own defense there was really nothing I could say. Looking around I was surprised to see others on the beach who had also taken off their socks and shoes furtively putting them back on and moving further away from the water and the waves which suddenly seemed to be getting bigger and bigger and coming in faster. Back at the cafe, feet drenched, wet, and shaken, I was terrified of telling Thorsten what had transpired but figured I had better before he heard about it from the others. Of course he exploded on me and unleashed his full fury and wrath (and if you think I have a German temper, let me tell you I had finally met my match in this world|!), and the entire day was ruined. Even my noble attempts to drown our misery out in the hearty Icelandic lamb soup and my notorious attempts at dismissing the entire episode through a light-hearted story did not lighten Thorsten's mood. Between slurps of the soup and generous portions of delicious Icelandic brown bread, he kept repeating how I was not off the hook. I tried to ignore him by pretending to be ensconced in a book of ballads and saga tales by a Montenegrin Prince Bishop that I had sandwiched into my backpack, which only angered him more. I deserved every expletive directed at me and instead of my usual angry pout, I decided to be the bigger person and apologize for my inconsiderate actions.
During the car ride back to Reykjavik I was remorseful and after a while so was Thorsten. If nothing else can make people reconcile, a pit stop for a warm coffee and a mouth watering croissant always does the trick. It was in the long silence of that road trip back that he began to tell me of some of the horrible things he had witnessed in Iceland because of people's foolishness, during a long period of time working as a pro photographer and Tour Guide industry insider. He explained he was angry because with 10+ years of experience leading groups across the entire country, people of all shapes and sizes believed they were stronger than the elements and Mother Nature, until catastrophe struck. I argued I was originally from Croatia and a very strong swimmer. He just shook his head and told me over and over again, "No Katarina. This is not the Adriatic Sea but the North Atlantic Ocean for God's sake! The currents are so strong here and a sneaker wave can suck in even a world champion swimmer and wash him out to sea like a cork. You are endangering not just your own life but that of rescue crews as well!"
Of course he was right and of course I was impulsive and utterly foolish. Looking back, I shudder to think what would have happened if the other tour guide had not picked me up and plucked me out of that knee-deep water and well away from harm. I will never forget that split second moment of fear which the Balkaner in me would never readily admit and which I had never told anyone about before,. The thought of the ocean sucking me in and dragging me out towards a near certain death had never even entered my mind. Once long ago, I had seen a movie called Amistad about an actual slave ship which was transporting some of the first Africans to the New World. An ex-boyfrind and I would often spend fitful nights haunted by one memorable scene in which a group of sick and beaten slaves are chained one to another and then thrown overboard in the dangerous waters of the mid-Atlantic, which sucked in and drowned each of these helpless people while the one bound next to them watched on in horror awaiting their turn. That image of certain death by drowning was running through my mind as Thorsten drove back toward the capital. The day passed on in silence and we eventually went out for dinner and forgot about the incident, putting it behind us. To this day however, I am so thankful for the wonderful network of seasoned Icelandic friends who have inspired me with their wisdom, tenacity, and veneration for their homeland, a country that in a geological sense, is constantly evolving. Now, whenever I visit Iceland I am thoroughly conscientious and respectful of all the do's and dont's in this volcanic and fissure-strewn, wonderland of a state. It is with this in mind that I implore you, friends and visitors alike, when planning a trip or sojourn to Iceland, please respect all the signs as a courtesy and ensure that Mother Nature stays untouched by our human footprint and selfish selfie-obsessed tactics. If you don't its just too high a price to pay.