Over 4,000 people have successfully climbed Mount Everest. Nearly 400 have summitted K2, the world’s second highest peak, which is dramatically more difficult and dangerous than Everest. And barely over a dozen people have successfully circumnavigated Iceland in a kayak, even fewer have made it around the sub-arctic island nation kayaking without a partner.
Attempts at that feat are rare thanks to a combination of unpredictable weather, the short summer season, and the unforgiving North Atlantic ocean that surrounds the island on all sides. Many previous attempts have ended in tragedy.
The new documentary, Against the Current, chronicles the efforts of an Icelandic woman, Veiga Grétarsdóttir, as she attempts to become the first person in history to solo circumnavigate her native land in a kayak while paddling against the current. She happens to be transgender.
The comparison with summitting one of the world’s highest peaks isn’t just hyperbole. One of the few Icelandic kayakers who has successfully circled the island, Guðni Páll Voktorsson,appears in the film. He calls Grétarsdóttir’s attempt to paddle 1,300 miles around Iceland, while battling the current, the equivalent of summiting K2. Just keeping up with the calories burned in long days of paddling can be a constant fight. He recalls having Snickers candy bars along for the trip, he said that you would burn between 5-7,000 calories per day and that would be like eating 100 Snickers bars in a day.
Grétarsdóttir admits she was attempting something significantly more difficult. It is not a journey for the faint of heart.
Covering the story, one newscaster says, “Of course, there will be a boat following you, in case something happens.”
“No,” Grétarsdóttir says in her usual, almost brusque manner. She is a woman of few words. “I’ll be on my own.”
And so she was alone, except for a friend who accompanies her for a few days, and the filmmaker Óskar Páll Sveinsson who followed her journey, sometimes tracking her GPS, other times literally driving along the coast to follow her path and gather drone footage.
“He just followed me,” Grétarsdóttir recalls. “Day after day, sometimes he had a boat, but mostly he was just doing interviews on land and using his drone.”
There’s a point in the film where Grétarsdóttir is centered on the screen. She talks about kayaking alongside Látrabjarg, the largest seabird cliff in Iceland and one of Europe's biggest. It is home to millions of birds (many of them puffins). The camera zooms out and the drone flies farther and farther out to sea. Grétarsdóttir becomes nothing but a tiny spec in the frame — and still we cannot see the top of the cliff. It’s a very powerful scene, even when viewed on a small screen. Like viewers of the best adventure documentaries, we are humbled by the majesty of nature.
This is Iceland’s South Coast. While the beauty of the cliffs is undeniable, so is its danger. Few beaches exist along the unscalable cliffs, and most of those are easily consumed by tides. Reaching one of the few precious spots to pull ashore requires battling ferocious winds and pounding surf.
It is on the South Coast that Grétarsdóttir’s unflagging confidence slips for a moment and she feels genuine fear.
“There was one moment, yeah,” she admits. “I never thought I would not make it, but it was a time I was just paddling around cliffs and there was no place to land because this is just rocks. It’s [7-foot-high] waves. It was foggy out. I couldn’t see anything. I was just paddling off the GPS. And I started thinking, What the fuck are you doing here alone?”
She says that as soon as she had that thought, “I got scared. So, I had to take a break. Start breathing deeply. Doing a little bit of meditation. Talking to myself: You can do this. I just calmed myself down, and after about 15 minutes, I was just fine.”
As the days go by in the film, and she continues to face and overcome difficult challenges alone, her confidence thoroughly returns. To pass one particularly difficult section of coastland, she must paddle something like 30 miles across open ocean, far from land. Her longest day is 13 hours of dipping paddles into water, over and over. Thirteen long hours alone with her thoughts, and the omnipresent landmass of Iceland which, with its dramatic scenery, is the other big star in this documentary film.
Time is compressed in Against the Current and the venture’s 103 days pass quickly, especially interspersed with the story of Grétarsdóttir’s own coming out gender transition. It was bittersweet for the athlete, as her marriage did not survive.
“I had a wife to die for,” she recalls. “And I was losing her.” It’s clear that that heartbreak still weighs heavily on Grétarsdóttir, but she has made peace with it. And with Iceland.
Just before she completes her journey, Grétarsdóttir talks about the feat she’s just accomplished, and compares it to transitioning. Both of these parallel journeys that felt so challenging, she faced on her own — persisting through an exhausting ordeal, but at the end there is a homecoming. Coming home to a body that authentically reflects her gender for the first time in her life, and returning from a long, arduous athletic challenge in the waters around her own country.
For Grétarsdóttir, home is once again the small fishing village of 2,500 people where she grew up, Ísafjörður.
After she came out as transgender, she recalls, she said, “goodbye to this hometown — where I was born and raised, and grew up — because I felt I would never be able to come here again because everybody would attack me. But now I live in this small town and it’s the best place for me to be in the world. I’m so happy here.”
Part of what changed was Grétarsdóttir herself. She stopped worrying so much about what other people would think. But the people of Iceland changed too.
When Grétarsdóttir starts off on her expedition, a handful of people gather at the shore to see her off. Her parents, a few friends, the filmmaker.
Her return draws a crowd of more than a hundred people who cheer her arrival. In her absence, she has become something of a national hero. Unbeknownst to her, Iceland TV news anchors have tracked her progress for the past three months.
“It was overwhelming,” Grétarsdóttir recalls. “I did not expect this. I didn't know how to act. All these people hugging me, giving me a kiss and flowers and champagne and everything! It was more than I expected.”
Recently, Grétarsdóttir was honored as the "mountain woman" of Ísafjörður. It is traditional for a woman to play the role of the Lady of the Mountain (the nation's personification, a little like the U.S.'s Lady Liberty) on Iceland's National Day (June 17, like our July 4th). Being chosen for the role is a reflection of the esteem in which the trans woman is now held by her neighbors. She is far more than simply accepted here. She is a hometown hero.
Grétarsdóttir says that her time alone in the kayak has also changed her.
“I’m more satisfied with what I have today than before,” she explains. “My life has never been so simple as on this expedition. The only thing I had to think about was paddling, camping, sleeping, and eating. No worries at all.”
Some trans viewers will undoubtably criticize the documentary for including what may seem like outdated tropes in the U.S. Friends and family talk about what a shock it was when Grétarsdóttir came out, her transition ends her relationship, her surgery is captured on screen, one childhood friend refers to her by her deadname and still misgenders her. For some, in American, this is trans 101.
But in her native Iceland, the film has left a lasting impact. After it played on Iceland TV over the winter holiday, she received dozens of emails and four hours of voice mails from people who were moved by it. One trans woman told Grétarsdóttir that her father said he was “going to do everything in his power to get her ‘off this nonsense,’” after the woman had come out. “But then he saw my film and he said, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to support you.’”
In some ways, Grétarsdóttir still discounts her feat of outdoor adventure and rugged athleticism. For her, transitioning was far more difficult than paddling more than three months and roughly the distance from New York to Oklahoma.
“Going around Iceland was easier than going through this transition,” she insists. “It’s much easier. Because everything changes in your life [with transition]. Your hormones, society, dating. You cannot make a bigger change in your life than this. It was easier, because on expedition like this…you can just make a decision. Okay. I'm going to take a break today. I'm just going to rest.But when you're going through a transition…you cannot just press pause and just, Okay, I'm going to take a break from this now.”
But she’s also gained a new purpose, and is poised to embark on another, even more challenging expedition. This one was sparked by what she saw and documented on her journey around Iceland.
“I got noticing all the trash on the beaches and in the water. In a way it changed me. I'm buying less stuff now because I don’t need it.”
Her next adventure involves kayaking around the whole of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark) to draw attention to plastic pollution in the ocean and along the coastlines of these Nordic countries. The new expedition will also be filmed, by a new production team that aims to create a documentary miniseries from the experience. This time she’ll have a traveling companion — Irish kayaker Ciara Harrington — but will once again be going against the current.
“The sheer amount of trash around Iceland was my wake-up call to do something,” Grétarsdóttir says.