A Geopoetic Pilgrim — Quarterly Letter 3

In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.-Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams


Dear Readers,
I am in between river journeys now, a perfect time to write about what these last months in the wintery north have held.
The Torne River flows in a landscape of taiga forest marked by the Baltic Sea to the south and the pitched mountains along the Norwegian coast to the north, a region dramatically affected by glaciation from Earth’s most recent ice age and is today frozen half the year. When I met Kjell Kangas who grew up in the region, he told me that he thinks of Tornedalen, Torne Valley, more as archipelago than river valley. Over the heaths and bogs of land still upwelling, lightened from the weight of billions of tons of ice, flow five large rivers — Torne, Kalix, Lainio, Tarendo, and Muonio. Each river is connected to the four others as if the water is weaving a web around the taiga forest, and most impressively, none of these rivers has a dam. 
In winter, Torne is a 550 km blanket of snow covering a foundation of blue, crystal ice that in many places will support the weight of a tractor. Elsewhere, long tumbling rapids prohibit the ice from forming, and the black river bursts through its icy ceiling, raging white over stones and reminding the traveler of caution, that this is indeed a lively river. 
For 200 km, Torne marks the boundary between Sweden and Finland, and many of the Tornedaleners who generously invited me into their homes and shared stories of the place, told of the compelling history that entwines itself through the borderland. Linguistically, Tornedalen is home to Swedish, Sámish, Finnish, Miënkieli, and most recently English. Miënkieli literally means “our language,” and it is a form of antiquated Finnish that has absorbed some Swedish over the years. It is the living, breathing reminder that just over 200 years ago, there was no boundary in Tornedalen, and the residents were northern Finns, Sámi, and Kvener, not Swedish speakers, living within the Swedish Kingdom that maintained sovereignty over the region since the middle ages. 


Then suddenly in 1809 Russia annexed Finland from the Swedish Crown, maintaining influence until the Russian Revolution when Finland took the opportunity to become a sovereign nation in 1917. Through the Great Wars and the rest of the last century, Tornedalen evolved under the auspices of neighboring nation states, at once being torn apart and maintaining a quiet unity across the water, probably aided by the fact that the river becomes lined with ice roads from bank to bank for six months of the year when ice dominates its surface.
My experience in this region cannot be summarized easily, and the reflections will last a lifetime. I was confronted with fragments of nature, myself, and human society around every corner. The fundamental state of this river — a clean, damfree, fishfull, peaceful boundary water — is an uncommon circumstance, and it hosts the largest salmon run in western Europe. It is truly a sanctuary for life. 
After I finished skiing, I taught in the Pajala school, midway along the river’s course, grades 4-9, thanks to Kjell who works there. When speaking with the students, telling them about the dire situation along the Ganges River and its tributaries in Nepal, I asked them to consider what it would be like if the Swedish city upstream, Kiruna, was home to 10,000,000 people instead of 20,000 and had no proper sewage treatment. This gained some exasperated reactions, especially when I showed them an aerial view of Varanasi and one of the sewage drains into the Ganges. But in that moment it occurred to me that it doesn’t take 10,000,000 to pollute a river. Kiruna’s 20,000 people could make Torne’s waters ripe with harmful bacteria and protozoa, at least enough to make the water not potable, while now it is. 
A thorough and regulated mode of processing sewage and strict regulations for pollution and on damming can maintain the abundance of life in a river and keep it pure enough to drink right out of the flow. For many of the Swedish born students in Pajala, the reality of Torne River’s purity was an unimpressive fact. But in the school are many refugees, and the students from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not believe the bounty of fresh water when they arrived. 
A river is not unlike a person; if confined by artificial boundaries, literal like prison bars or figurative like debt, one is stifled even to a tragic degree; if overwhelmed with toxins — sugar, alcohol, drugs, chemicals — the body will unravel dispelling potential for life, especially without modern medical convenience. If one attains the nebulous yet rich heart of freedom, there is opportunity to flourish and to carry others in the wake. I am not trying to say that a dirty river cannot be free, or for that matter a person who takes drugs or is in prison cannot be free, but that perhaps we can form an ideology that places the very land, water, and resources that sustain us in a position of power, with rights, as a gift to ourselves.


Is not freedom the heart of worldly attainment, the foundational goal of so many of our collective ideologies? Is freedom just for us, or can a river be free, a forest, a mountain? Freedom is not achieved alone, but as part of a web of life. Can we work our way in a global world to at once engage our hunger for technology and imbue ourselves with morals embedded in nature, imbue the landscape with its own rights and economy? In a world fissuring at the folds of religion and polarized by nationalism, there is one place that human spirit lies which is common to all of us, in nature.
These journeys are showing me how to rewild myself, my vocabulary, my interactions; how to unlearn the manicured social contracts, lawns of the imagination, that I have with the earth in order to see with fresh eyes that there are bountiful opportunities for us humans to reconnect with one another and our shared landscapes. It’s a matter of revaluing “sense not cents” and thinking like a river, like a bed of soil, to think of gardeners as the aristocracy of connectedness, those who understand the relationships that enable life.
I’ve recognized something about my project that is fitting to close this letter. In many ways I am a pilgrim, searching for everything and nothing, partial only to the path of the river and nature, and the people who happen into my life as a result. I am not trying to unearth anything in particular, to inform a literal map of any area, but rather I will my conscious effort into a rivercentric perambulation that is trying to get at the poetry of land that Barry Lopez writes about, at the heart of nature, that strives so intently to pursue a natural flow, a force among forces. 
As I move about, letting the ineffability of the landscape and other people fill this time, I cannot express the gratitude I feel for the opportunity. Thank you.
From the flow,

Galen

Skiing the Torne River, Early Days

Starting the Journey — Haparanda/Tornio to Kukkola



Morning

A thousand suns

Of Ice

Glinting

All about

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

 

 

Fireworks & Toilet College

Thick with boom and bang

Fireworks paint the town

Light

Marigolds dance in storefronts

Children shout 

As one chucks his little ball of paper

Which erupts in a dazzling flash

The center of the universe
The vigor peels shyness

From the passerby

Surprised by foreigners

Doing just as the kids do

The atmosphere filled with smoke

Prayers of the town floating up

Incense of black powder

An offering

For a good year to come


I arrived in India as the rain ended. The river was outstepping its banks, washing beligerantly through villages, bathing the feet of enormous statues of Shiva, sweeping over the ghats of Varanasi and into the city streets. Now the clouds are evaporated, the moisture of the air lingers as vapor and fog, turning the afternoon sun blood red, the rice paddies are picked and cleared, the sugarcane is in harvest, and the next planting begins soon, potatoes and tomatoes, radishes and herbs, things no longer at risk of being washed away in the floods.
Diwali is a celebration in cultures all around South Asia and the Pacific, recognized broadly by Hindus as well as Jains, Sikhs, and some sects of Buddhism. It is the festival of light, the festival for Lakshmi the Hindu goddess of success and wealth. Diwali is celebrated according to the Bikram Sambat calendar, the calendar that Hindus follow, on the darkest moon of the month of Karitka.
To celebrate here, people clean house, place garlands of marigolds all over, give gifts to family and friends, buy new clothes, eat a feast, and in the evening steps and roofs are lined with candles and cities and villages alight with fireworks. All through the day fireworks are blown off, but when night falls they are blown by the heap, crescendoing to a heavy roar, continuing in a steady chorus all through the night.


We got off the river the day before Diwali in the small town of Narora, host to a nuclear power plant and a barrage. Not a glorious village, this place was full of working people with a massive military complex that looked trim, proper and quiet as a 1950s middle America suburban oasis. Only outside the gates did I feel comfortable again, like I was in India. 
The first night in Narora we went out ravaged with hunger for dinner after a long day on the river. Finding no promising restaurants, we walked through a market brimming with Diwali goods, candles, posters, nic-nacs. Sweetshops selling Mitai had burst from their storefronts, and piles of sugary lumps, balls, and bricks were stacked under tents and sat in vats of sugar water. A firework mall had been erected in the center of town, and everyone seemed eager and happy. Finally we found the foodcarts and chowed–momos (like sumplings), masala omelets, aloo tiki (fried potato mash with chickpeas and sauce), and the ubiquitous Indo-Chinese Chowmein.


This festive time was a rest time for us to get off the river, get clean and enjoy good food. It also gave me time to reflect on the space upriver….
Back in Devprayag

We walked across a suspension footbridge 

crowded with cows

We walked past shopkeepers and school kids

All looking at us, alienlike in our riverwear
We walked down and down the steps

Painted red and lined with Ram Ram

Small altars

Incense air

Down to the confluence

Where the Ganges begins
All around

People, curious people

Crowded around and wanted to talk

We greeted them and smiled

Orange-robed Saddhus meditated
Bathers in the river moved aside

As we walked to waters edge

Ready to launch into the wild river

Rolling with waves and rapids
BOOOOOOOOSH
Everyone flinched

The sound deafening as

The seam of my board 

Burst open
The sinking
Downtrodden,

I watched the others

Paddle off into the rapids

Bummed with the burden

Of material things
Then a man sitting by the water

Grinned wide at me

And I grinned 

And walked the bank downriver



In the morning before our launch onto the Ganges, Kumaran M “Geopaddler” arrived to our hotel. Kumaran is a man in his 30s with a bright moonslice smile, a contagious high pitched laugh, a friendly youthful nature, and a magnetic affinity for stand up paddleboarding. He also carries a thermos of chai onto the river everyday which has gained him many friends among us. 


He showed up totally unprepared for whitewater paddling; no helmet, not a proper whitewater lifejacket, no wetsuit, none of that. But he was ready and undeterred. 
Kumaran is a geologist for oil and gas exploration. The company was once based in Chennai, his home city in Tamil Nadu near Sri Lanka in South India. Cairn moved to Gurgaon a few years back, an offshoot of Delhi, so now Kumaran weekly commutes back and forth North to South India between work and family. When he is home in Chennai, he volunteers his time to run a program called Bay of Life that takes kids out surfing and paddleboarding to learn about the local environment from fishermen and others who know the area deeply.
Often since we’ve gotten on the river I’ve seen Kumaran try and teach people how to paddle–a kid in a local village, the driver of our support car. This generosity of spirit showed early when he offered to let me use his board for many parts of the whitewater stretch after mine blew.
The whitewater was incredible fun. Imagine big, clean, green raging rapids in deep water through a gorge dug right out of the entrance to the himalayas. The gorge is an immense breadth of forest and the old pilgrimage routes snake along above the river. The place feels young, not as raw as the mountains above, but very lively. One morning a fisherman naked as the day he was born was casting his net right from our camp, tens of others were across the water on the other bank. The rush of water had lulled us all through the night as we slept under an open sky.


We were generously supported by Anvesh Singh Tapa, a NOLS instructor and founder of Expeditions India, an up-and-coming river outfitter based in Rishikesh. The three days on the river with these folks showed the power of recreation to shape people’s lives and the river’s. 
River guides live on and see rivers through good, bad, and ugly. Their love of the water and the earth around it is crafted by experience and time and is a tremendous force in keeping rivers all over the world healthy, from the Chama in New Mexico to the Salween in China. 
Anvesh runs a remarkable and responsible company, supporting others who wish to steward the river, keep the banks and waters clean, and make recreation possible for the future. Having run the Ganges and other nearby rivers constantly for 20 years, he knows their character and the changes they’ve confronted. He mentioned that the Ganges has changed dramatically since the Tehri Dam was erected in the early 2000s. This year was the first that the reservoir on the Alakananda River is full, so he has seen more changes, including a dry riverbed earlier in the season. The dramatic effect on the river and on the wildlife is unquestionable. 
Anvesh’s role in our journey and in the river community is invaluable. It is his knowledge and other people with such intimate sensibilities of the place and its patterns that could help those in power make responsible, informed decisions. We need more presence like his.
Hard to imagine here

Where the water is emerald

Magnificent as the sky

What is to come

Rushing by a sea of yellow and red robes, the Ganga, unwavering in its immensity, flows by crowds singing out to her, praising the river for all she gives, united in sound drawn out by the expanse of water passing the bottom of the ghat. Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh is not just religious, it is sensational.


Just before five o’clock every evening, hoards of people pack the small road separating the Ashram from the riverbank. Monks and young boys who study at Parmarth Niketan are closely flanked by tourists who have come to learn yoga, Indian women and men dressed well for an evening out, school and tour groups, maybe five hundred people, look onto the spectacle, in awe of Ma Ganga, the turquoise ray of water passing before the red hazy horizon.
Downriver on the right bank funeral pyres can be seen burning in the dusk, rafts of people wearing bright helmets paddle to land at a beach, happy after a day on the water, music and chanting from other ashrams echo through the crisp air, himalayan foothills folding into the city below. Ram Jhula, one of Rishikesh’s famous footbridges, is a ways upstream, cows lounging amidst the rush of traffic on the road behind the Aarti. The Ashram’s camera boy stands on a cement platform raised on pilings in the river, adding to the grandiosity and subtle oddity of the scene. 


This is the Aarti going on as it does every evening, a special ceremony just for the river designed by the Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj, the holy man, a sort of saint, who is the president of Parmarth Niketan. 

We had the opportunity to interview Pujya Swami as well as Swamini Sadhvi Saraswati Mishra, a holy woman who also lives at the ashram. The Swami limped into our interview, his foot having been damaged recently at an event at the Tehri Reservoir. 
The Swami has an explosion of brown frizzy hair and a beard, a curly mane, and he wore orange robes. He spoke in a very soft and gentle voice and answered just a few of our questions about the role of faith along the ganges. We wanted to know the real work, not just symbolic work, that faith groups are doing to steward the waters in India.


Basically he said that Hindu people must take care of the river, and the ashram has started a Toilet College to train professionals to work in communities to develop better sanitation. He also noted that the ashram is an important member of GIWA, the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, WASH meaning, Water Sanitation and Hygiene… yes an acronym inside an acronym. GIWA does work to provide sanitation services and facilities the world over. 
The short chat was a good prologue to the interview with the Swamini, an American woman who has taken on a powerful role as a Hindu leader. She explained to us that you can’t just say to people that they shouldn’t pollute the river and expect results. She explained that telling people to treat the river as their temple is much more effective. “You don’t defecate or throw garbage in your temple, right?” She asked. Her potent messaging was clear that India is in a time of transition, that these sensibilities about ecological stewardship are transforming from what they were here ages ago to an age of fast and furious economies, plastic, and a booming population. 

The river

It has only the logic of least resistance

This meandering 

It follows no pattern I can discern

But snow to sea

And in between

Flat flat flat

Bend and break

Sugarcane

Rice

Villages

Cities and people

Always becoming water

And…

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