Starting the Journey — Haparanda/Tornio to Kukkola
A thousand suns
Look at the map of northern Sweden and Finland. Find the point the where the border meets the sea, then look closer still and you will see the borderline do a wild squiggle between the towns of Tornio and Haparanda. For the most part, this border was drawn through the Torne or Tornio River and above it the Munio River along the line of deepest flow, but the town of Tornio, west of the main river channel was taken by Russia as a strategic trading point when it annexed what is now Finland from the Swedish Kingdom in 1809. In 1917, during the Russian Revolution, Finland gained its independence, this year celebrating 100.
This border in many ways is as fluid as the rivers that mark it. I crossed many times in the last days, never noticing until in a shop or looking at the time. On one side of the river there are Swedish Krona and on the other, the Euro. On the Finnish side it is one hour later. But people on either side of the line usually speak both languages well, and often Miän Kieli (meaning “our language”) is spoken, a tongue that resembles old Finnish with lots of Swedish mixed in.
Along this borderland, I have relinquished my own borders, and I am taking on the role of wandering story-collector. What a wonderful way to get to know the snowy north of Lapland, traveling by skis and meeting the locals to share stories.
To do such a trip requires much equipment, some good contacts, and also some wits about the woods. I was very fortunate to get in touch with Lars Munk, of the Heart of Lapland, an organization that coordinates tourism and adventure travel throughout Swedish Lapland. Lars is an outdoorsperson himself, an avid fisherman, and he is interested in storytelling about the people and the landscape as a means to bring tourists to this place and support the locals. Lars generously offered help and guidance on my journey including occasional stays in some of the lodges along the route.
The day before I was set to leave, Lars recalled a man named Per Johansson, who has an intimate knowledge of bushcraft and the Lapland nature. I was camping outside of Haparanda/Tornio testing my gear, and arranged to meet Per in town on Sunday. I skied into town with a bit of equipment, ready to get the final few items necessary for my journey. I was just getting to Natur Kompaniet, a nice outdoors store that helped much with my outfitting, when Per pulled up in his car. I guess he knew where to find me.
Per stands very tall, perhaps 6’3’’, and has the burl of a woodsman. We stood in the parking lot for a while discussing my equipment and the journey, and which maps to use. He then took me down to Riekkola just south of Haparanda to show me around the woods. Per has worked for many years in the Swedish Military and teaches winter warfare to trainees. He now he runs his own adventure company, Rimfrost Adventures, where he takes people out into the wilderness to learn skills and experience this place.
His knowledge, clearly abundant, would take years to learn, but none the less, he gave me good tips about how to warm up in serious cold, a nice model for my winter bivvy setup, and advice on what firewood and tinder is best here in winter. We also spoke about travelling on ice, which is far and away the biggest risk of my adventure. River ice is not consistent, and extremely dangerous because a plunge through could sweep you under the ice sheet. Per informed me about the snowmobile roads, which are my most likely option of safe travel through the Torne Valley, and I left feeling at once grateful and glad that there are people who are so dedicated to learning and sharing the hard skills of life in the woods.
The next morning I awoke at dawn after a night of fresh snow, my thermometer read -23 Celsius. Seven inches of the fluffiest snow imaginable blanketed the birch stand where I was camped north of Haparanda on the riverbank. I packed up my camp and set off to go back to Riekkola to see the mouth of the Torne River where it enters the Bay of Bothnia, before heading back up towards my pulka (sled) and on into the north.
On the way back from Riekkola, feeling elated at having begun my journey, I stopped in at the Haparanda Bladet, the local newspaper. Lars told me that it would be a good idea to see about a story in the paper, and that way, people in the valley could know that I’m coming and what I’m doing. Perhaps this would lead to some nice meetings, and it did, immediately. The journalist Pirita Jaako who speaks the best English wasn’t in the office, so Örjan Pekka, the editor invited me to lunch.
Over a big meal we spoke about his job as editor and also his new part time occupation guiding people aboard a real icebreaker ship with the company Nordic Lapland. He showed me some photos of the big red boat and people swimming in the sea in immersion suits. Then he showed me a photo of an Israeli man drinking the seawater (yes, it is that fresh and not salty that you can drink it!), and how this man was astounded at the abundance since Israel is fighting over water. This story touched a nerve with me, because it reminded why I am on this journey in the first place, to get acquainted with our water world. To learn about relationships just like this one on our blue planet.
After lunch Pirita Jaako and I did a short interview and I went on my way back into the woods.
I had left my pulka full of equipment behind near my camp. Skiing without the pulka is really quite easy and free and the woods are no problem. But with the 80 lb pulka in tow, the woods are another story. Imagine drift racing a car in mud with a laden trailer hitched on.
My struggles through the woods relented when I pitched camp just a small distance from some houses, remembering Per’s words that the law in Sweden allows you to be anywhere in the woods as long as it’s not a personal garden or some restricted area. The night was bitter cold, and in the morning I awoke ready to move to get blood back into my feet and hands.
Lars arranged for me to stay at a place called Kukkolaforsen 10 or 15 kilometers upriver, so I hitched up and started hauling my way north. Along the way I saw a magpie, loads of snowshoe hare tracks and their light colored droppings that I initially mistook for dogfood. I felt immense awe for the creatures that winter here, how tough they are to survive such long cold without a pulka full of equipment.
I skied along the willow banks of the river, at times trying to make way through the forest only to be astounded by the difficulty of hauling the pulka there. I passed through a little hamlet of which I don’t know the name where I saw many charming houses on a long meander. A kind man was out front of the last house and though he didn’t speak English, we communicated with sign language, and he showed me where the river ahead would be safe to ski.
Just after the hamlet, the river ice got very rough in the middle of the channel and began to deteriorate in broken sheets, an odd chaotic geometry. Soon enough the middle of the river was open water, warning of what was to come.
The water in the opening was fast moving and rough, a reminder of the living seething power of the water under the ice. The open channel got wider and wider as the rush of whitewater began to sound from above. Soon enough, Kukkolaforsen, the Kukkola Rapids came into view, a beautiful descending torrent of water surrounded by thick ice. On the western bank sat the lodge that shares its name, my destination for the night.
Kukkolaforsen — Rooster Rapids
Outside the window
A torrent of water
White as the ice of the bank
Steaming fury in the winter cold
Inside the smell of coffee
And cloudberries over muesli
Cool music of morning
And hushed chatter
Skiing through Kukkolaforsen, I was feeling very good. The small red huts looked warm and cozy and there were many saunas. At that I nearly melted with happiness having slept at -28 C the night before. There was also a museum, two old flour mills, and a smokehouse for fish.
The reception area is warm and overlooks a beautifully set restaurant with a full on view of the whiterapids out the front window, bright against the black river sailing away below.
On entering the warmth of the main hall, I sat down for a cup of tea with Kevin, a fellow traveller. He came to Lapland to see the northern lights. Here the Aurora Borealis is as strong as it gets, home of what people call the “dancing lights.” I have yet to see them, but my hopes are high with so many days of my trip ahead. Before dinner I went to my little cabin room, and unpacked some gear to dry.
Back in the main hall I was greeted by a plate of beautiful crackers topped with a diversity of spreads. Local salmon cuts and whitefish salad and roe to name a few. Before digging in, Johannah, a daughter of the Spolander family that started this place came over to the table and introduced the appetizers and the main meal to follow which was an extraordinary plate of local salmon. She agreed to meet with me in the morning to tell me more about the place. Before sleep I took the treat of a woodfired sauna and then sailed off in a warm bed.
In the morning after breakfast Johannah and I sat down to talk. She told me that her family has lived in this area for five generations, and she and her brother Mathias now work the family business that was started by their parents. Kukkolaforsen means Rooster Rapid and the rapids outside the window define this place in many ways, and they sure do sing. Just up from the building are two old flour mills, both originally run by waterpower, and then there is a fish museum, smokehouse, and processing area where remains were found from people fishing here as long as 400 years ago.
Kukkolaforsen is known for a peculiar and unique style of fishing, where the villagers build wooden bridges over the rapids held together by gravity and lashings, and not a single nail because the shaking of the fast water would tear the iron from the timber. They then build steps down to the water where boats are tied, and the fishing happens with a six meter long pole that has a net on the end. As much as 8,000 Kg of whitefish are caught in the Kukkolaforsen each year, and Johannah told me proudly that 5,000 Kg are used right in the kitchen at the lodge.
As much as for fishing Kukkolaforsen is known for its saunas (here pronounced sa-oo-nuh in a singsong way). There are 15 saunas right here at the lodge including smoke saunas, an enormous community sauna, a round sauna, a tiny sauna, woodfired saunas, traditional sweat houses, and electric saunas. One local man told me that this is the sauna academy, and Johannah says that there are ten more being planned. The most brilliant part is that there is a sauna museum, but instead of just looking at an exposition, the sauna education comes with real experience in one of these heavenly hot rooms.
In the back of the museum is a small display about the lifecycle in the sauna. It consists of three ceramic scenes displaying a birth in the sauna, a young man coming of age by going to the sauna with the men of his family for the first time (a real scene about Johannah’s father), and a death of an elder in the sauna. Leaving I was so moved with the importance the people here place on saunas. In the bitter northern winter, it makes sense that a place of such warmth would inspire such reverence.
On the door was a poem about the sauna as a meeting place for the four elements, a place of inner fulfillment to inspire warmth in the nordic winter:
On I go up the river. Follow my ski at https://share.garmin.com/GalenHecht