The trilingual book Vatnagarpar (‘Water Heroes’) by Jens Einarsson documents the journey of eight riders and their horses in words and photos, crossing 17 glacial rivers while following in the footsteps of Icelandic mailmen of times past.
Featuring a long forgotten and dramatic chapter in Icelandic history, photographer and journalist Jens Einarsson has dedicated his latest book Vatnagarpar (‘Water Heroes’) to the missions of Icelandic postmen at times when neither roads nor bridges connected different parts of the country.
In the early summer of 2009, eight experienced modern-era horsemen followed in their ancestors’ footsteps, taking the most famous postmen’s route from Höfn in Hornafjörður in Southeast Iceland, westwards to Selfoss in South Iceland. Along the way, 17 big glacial rivers had to be crossed, some of which, such as Jökulsá á Breiðamerkursandi and Kúðafljót, are still dangerous today due to their strong current, quicksand and the unpredictable water depth.
In earlier times, postmen were obliged to go on three mail delivery tours per year. Many of them gave up but a few brave men served for as many 30 years. A strange mixture of prudence and ambition, in addition to the incredible courage and independence of their horses, helped them tackle ice floes and floods. Also simple peasants from the rough regions under the glaciers demonstrated enormous courage, such as when they escorted castaways to Reykjavík and on the way home lost horses and a man among the drifting ice floes of Kúðafljót.
The water heroes of the 21st century’s, however, had vehicles transporting their baggage for their convenience, and a chronicler followed them to document their experiences.
In silent forcefulness, Jens’ photographs reflect drama as well as relief and tactfully cherish intense moments without ever being intrusive. His horse pictures masterly portray the Icelandic horse as courageous, not always beautiful, but as the unbroken hero of the moment throughout. With a keen eye he catches the irrepressible will that appears through exhaustion. With text and images he paints a picture of these horses’ legendary strength.
The book reveals to the reader a string of exciting stories of times past and pays tribute to the modern heroes who learned, while covering daily distances of up to 90 kilometers (55 miles), to respect Iceland’s wild nature, and also to develop a close relationship with their brave horses.
The main characters of the book: eight men, cheerful riders who set out to seek adventure, and eight roaring glacial rivers, are portrayed interchangeably in the 16 chapters. They have to face each other, and the rivers end up as the riders' unrelenting masters with awe-inspiring stories from the past playing in the background.
A touching read, the inconsistent layout and the author’s name being missing from the cover, can be forgiven. The German translation by Pétur Behrens and Marietta Maissen sensitively transforms the peculiar Icelandic language melodically without ever being tedious, whereas the English translation lacks this melody. In my opinion, the three languages could have been separated more clearly and a uniform translation of the captions and titles would have contributed to better readability.
Those who have tried riding on horseback through a raging river will read Vatnagarpar from a special perspective and gratefully remember their little horse’s determination while carrying them through any kind of hazard.
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Author Dagmar Trodler is a contributor to the German version of Iceland Review Online.