Skiing the Torne — Headwaters

There—

A beginning

A jagged line

Of earth pining for sky

Granite range

Rolling off the forest

Heavenbound and Earthheld

A cloudcradle

Ever so slowly

Tumbling down

In blue ice and sand

Carried by skyfall

That floods all

White

Skiing from Nikkaluokta, looking up at the black granite cliffs and the wind waves of snow and ice that cross the nearly vertical faces lining the valley, I was fixated. Something inside of me felt at once exhilarated and unrestrained, the kilometers melted into the snow beneath my skis, numbers and language felt to mean nothing, effervescent reminders of how I learned to understand the world only one of an infinity of ways. The mountains breathed fresh air into my lungs and set my mind afire.


The first day I made it early to Kebnekaise Fjëllstation, a beautiful mountain lodge built into a fold of mountain birch just below Kebnekaise Mountain, the tallest peak in Sweden, just breaching 2,000 meters. Looking at the lodge from a distance, I was surprised that it hadn’t been carried off by an avalanche, but the birch grove suggested that this might be a safe(er) place. Kebnekaise was the first STF establishment where I stayed. STF is the Swedish Tourism Federation, and they maintain the huts and stations along Kungsleden as it is a popular ski and trekking route. People flock from all over the world in March to ski the good conditions and spend some time in the immensity, letting their minds and bodies expand through the open air and the newly long days.
I considered leaving Kebnekaise to continue to the next hut when in walked Örjan Pekka, the editor of the Haparanda Bladet newspaper who I met the day I started. Örjan and his friend Berth Widmark, a mechanic and retired firefighter, had driven snowmobiles from Kalix (just west of Haparanda) north, and we happened to arrive here at the same time. Örjan introduced me to Nisse Andersson who was at the Fjëllstation working as electrician. Not a bad day on the job. We got to talking and hit it off, sharing a love for skiing and travel.


In the evening when Nisse, Berth, and Örjan went for dinner, I was sitting with a young guy named Matti Rapila Andersson, a photographer and skier who was also up for work. Matti got to stay 11 days in the mountains, the lucky dog. Both feeling high on life, we got to talking. He showed me his photographs and told me stories about from where they came. One of an island of forest in the Moroccan desert burst from the page, an ode to the force of life in hostile environments. It can be seen here in his collection (t)here is (ho)me: http://www.rapila.se/there-is-home/. Our conversation rambled through nature, work, and whatever emerged. After dinner the men returned and we talked and had beers until late at night. There I was in the afternoon expecting a quiet early night in, and instead I was welcomed by a party!
The generosity and kindred spirits of these people left me feeling so good. I am no loner in the way of thought, there are so many people on the life-train I’m riding, and I am always grateful to meet them, to invigorate the senses and the intellect with stories and debate, and then to carry on, new lessons breaching my consciousness.


In the morning, after a delicious breakfast thanks to Nisse, I was off. Skiing on, I thought if the himalaya, over four times the size of these scandinavian titans. No matter about size, here the peaks rise right off the atlantic coast and the grace of mountains swimming in snow from floor to summit is overwhelming to me, an earthbound amoeba on plastic planks towing my life in a sled.
The morning brought me up and over a small pass with beautiful blue ice that glinted when the mountain mist parted for the sun. This blue on the crest of the pass is the headwaters of Kalix River, meandering arm-in-arm with Torne to the sea, but at the moment in a winter stasis.
In the afternoon I took a shortcut over a low ridge that promised some fresh powder on the downslope. At Kebnekaise I was made aware that avalanche danger was high because of warm days in February and high winds making solid crusts that can break and slide. Staying low and on southwestern slopes was best, but I could see a few places where slides had happened. Nonetheless I made it over the ridge and descended into a wonderland of a valley, rimmed by the kebnekaise massif on one side and a long wall of mountains with rolls of cliff dropping to valley bottom.
The turns going down felt the height of living, as though I was enveloped in the immensity of granite and snow upon which the friction that had caused my legs such expenditure of effort no longer had the power to keep me in place. Skiing downhill is as close as I’ve ever been to flying on my own two legs, and too fleeting it is. As I came to a stop in the rolling flats, I laughed at myself for skiing a 500km approach to make these sweet turns. It was all worth it.


The next three days are a blur of white, rolling billows of mountain snow, saunas and evening conversations with tourists, meeting  the kind people who mind the mountain huts, and a sensory experience of walking on winter that submersed my mind in a peace of enormity.
The mid-section between Nikkaluokta and Abisko is a complete desert in winter. Between the pass from Kebnekaise through the awe inspiring expanse around Sälka hut and until Alesjaure, over 50km of skiing, I didn’t see any plants, nor animals, even birds. Yet life never felt so ripe with essence as in an environment such as this: the high peaks, ceaseless desert—just like the rolling ocean.


As I approached Abisko National Park from Alesjaure, I could sense closure on the horizon. The knowing that this ski trip was nearly over sat very well with me. A brief reflection helped me see that what Nan Shepherd referred to as a “geopoetic quest” had just unfolded before my ski tips, and the lessons were at once present and deepening, but inexplicable to my rational mind. There was not time for extraversion in those mountains, the peaks are not concerned with my journey, but realizing my privilege to be there, I understood that I could introvert myself into the belly of the peaks.
In a narrow valley between Gárddenvárri and Šiellanjunni, beautiful Sámi-named peaks, I dug into a snow ridge to build a home for myself for the night. The exercise was not as quick as I imagined, and after four hours of steady digging, and soaking myself to the bone to recreate the blueprint I had in mind, I had a wonky but functional snow cave where I could intern myself into the mountain for the night, but not before catching some turns.
To dry off, I skied up the nice powder blanket of the lee-slope and caught some telemark turns in the powder, looking down the valley towards Abisko and the gnarled birch forest. Up there it became apparent to me that I was was really truly standing on the headwaters, that the stream flowing below the heaps of snow in this little valley soon connects to Kamjåjakka, then becomes Ábeskojávri—Abisko Lake, then Abiskojåkka—the Abisko River, a principle headwater tributary of Torne that meets the river’s flow in the great depths of Torne Trask.


Returning to my cave, dry and happy after my ski, I cooked up some dinner. Moments after digging in, a helicopter nearly shaved my head, and flew out of sight over the windridge, but the deafening sound told me it was landing. Like a nervous rat I scurried up the wind ridge to ensure that my house didn’t cave in, and the heli was just a hundred feet away. Then I looked up and saw some dots flying down Šiellanjunni—heli skiers.


As the flew off waving to me eating my dinner, I was flabbergasted at this wild world. Feeling full I crawled into my cave and sealed the door and with it, sealed out the noise of the world. The quiet of that cave resounded and a fugue of mountain winter entered my consciousness, a symphony of a wilded mind—here I was, sleeping in the river, submerged.

This journey has no end. As rivers have no end, no beginning, but are a fluid fabric holding the world in a trance of movement and wild choreography.
“The river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future…”
-Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

Skiing the Torne River — Jukkasjarvi to Nikkaluokta

The birds arrive

Little characters

They flit about

Pecking at frozen pine nuts

Doing nothing much

I am still skiing

Eating, talking, sleeping

Listening

Floating through resting lands

Doing not so much

But doing

Jukkasjarvi’s 90cm thick ice quickly thins as Torne passes a narrow place before leading to another wide wandering lake before Kurravaara. I did not make it that far because I veered west towards Kiruna. 

Climbing out of the valley was hard work, but as I made my way up, I could see the clouds bursting from the iron mine’s towers next to the mountains in the distance. Max Hensler, Yasmine, and their boys, the family from Övertorneå, were on their way north to see the ice hotel, so we agreed to have lunch in Kiruna… a deadline! I had to be in town by 2:00 so I skied hard up the hills. The apartment buildings of Kiruna looking so alien to me in the distance. I haven’t seen buildings like that since Haparanda.


Finally making over the crest into town, I found Max and Yasmine at Empes, a classic style burger and milkshake stand in town. My burger, the signature, had mashed potatoes, bacon, two patties, and cheese, and I had a chocolate milkshake. That is all I will say. And it was great to see my friends from Övertorneå.
Feeling full, I went off to find the apartment of Sanne and Isak. Sanne is Kjell Kangas from Pajala’s daughter and Isak is her boyfriend. I found the place pretty easily, and Isak was cooking up some food, a Swedish stroganoff . Fortunately, having skied a lot, I am able to eat anything anytime, so I happily lunched a second time with them.
Sanne works in a watch shop in town and is a painter. I got to stay in the studio room which was nice. Isak is a chef and he grew up in the very far north near the point where Sweden, Norway, and Finland meet. His family are Sámi and his father carves beautiful knife handles and figures out of reindeer bones. He told me stories about going berry picking in the summer with his mother and selling the harvest to people in Norway.


The first night I arrived, Isak, Sanne, and David, Isak’s cousin, sat around with beers, talking and listening to music. They showed me some yoik, which is a type of Sámi singing without works, but with amazing wandering melodies. Listening, I couldn’t keep from noticing how these sounds remind me of the landscape here, music woven into and from the surroundings. 
Isak and Sanne also have a number for pets: a very friendly and excited dog named Yolandi and two rats, Ninja and Nalta. The dog and the rats get along pretty well, I was surprised to see, though Sanne and Isak think Yolandi secretly wants to eat them. For safety and comfort, the rats have a four story apartment building with a balcony that somewhat resembles Isak and Sanne’s apartment building.



I spent two days with them relaxing and cooking with Isak. It was good to rest and plan my route north. I’ve heard that the ice on Tornetrask, the big W shaped lake at the head of Torne, didn’t freeze until very late this year. A colleague of my father, a climate scientist named Jim Overland, recently published research that early winter temperatures in the arctic this year and last year have been around 6°C warmer than usual. That is an astonishing number, about 11°F, and people here have noticed. 

Håkan Lundstrom in Vittangi told me that when he was a kid it would remain below -30°C for weeks on end. This year it rarely dropped below that. The record low there is -53°C, and this year it only got to -37°C. Things are warming up.
Since above Kurravaara there are no towns along Torne, and the word is that ice is thin, I decided to ski west to Torne’s sister, Kalix River and the town of Nikkaluokta, where one of the main routes along the famous Kungsleden trail begins. 
Skiing out of Kiruna was industrial. I had to ski around the mine, and as I went, I could hear the sounds of heavy machines. I skied along north of the mine and around a windfarm, and I noticed how much dust was on the snow near the mine, and the sound of the machines could be heard for a few hours, until I was at least 10km off.


Then I was in beautiful stunted birch forests with the mountains not far off. I descended into the Kalix Valley, which, from above, looks remarkably similar to the Torne Valley as it approaches the headwaters. Coming out of the mountains, the river goes through a number of large lakes separated by narrows, on the lakes the ice is thick and blue, but in the narrows it thins and even disappeared. I stayed one night between lakes before heading over Paitasjarvi, the biggest of the Kalix lakes.
Paitasjarvi is about 20km end to end, and as I skied, the tail end of a storm was heading east, that meant heavy head winds, occasional flurries, and a slow, difficult ski to Nikkaluokta. The winds erased the snowmobile trails, so I was really working. In the distance, I could make out the black granite face that a man at the head of the lake had pointed to saying “Nikkaluokta,” but the more I skied, the further away it seemed.


Suddenly out of the wind appeared a figure on the lake. Closer, I could tell it was a man. Closer still and I saw five big piles of snow and ice, and he was working. Fishing. He was catching pike and char, and I later found out this was Arne, a Sámi reindeer herder from a village along the lake. We had a nice, broken conversation in Swedish-English and he told me “Nikkaluoka, half mile!” In Sweden this means 5km, a Swedish mile being 10. I later learned that in Sámish, though I can’t remember the words, the translation of a swedish mile is literally, “how far a dog can hear.”


Soon I was in Nikkaluokta, totally beat from the long day, and I skied/tumbled into the Nikkaluokta Sarri AB, a hotel/camping at the gateway to the mountains. Flying outside was the Sámish flag in front of the snowy peaks, and inside I met Anna Sarri, the woman who runs the hotel there. Nikkaluokta is on one end of a very popular ski route that runs through the high mountains from Abisko to the north, my final destination on the banks of Tornetrask. Part of the route follows Kungsleden, or King’s Way, a long hut-to-hut trail through Sweden’s northern peaks.
In Nikkaluokta, I met Anna’s son PärHenrik, Ellen, and Mårten, young reindeer herders working in the winter season driving tourists on snowmobiles through the mountains. They were good fun, and told me some about how the reindeer work. This time of year is calving season, and so they don’t want to disturb their animals, but in the summertime, they will gather them up and take them to camps where they count them and take some to slaughter, making sure they keep the herd in good shape and proper numbers. There are regions of Sámi herding territory where different families get to keep their animals. I asked Ellen how many reindeer her family had, and she said, “oh, you don’t ask that, it’s like asking how much money someone has.” Alright, I thought, how cool, it’s not about money. 
Ellen showed me a map of the herding regions, and they are really different from the Swedish map, with long regions running from the northwest in a usually southeasterly direction, mostly following the rivers… you know me, I liked this logic of space. I went to sleep grateful for knowing new friends who work on the land and water, and eager for the days to come, out of the Torne Valley and into the mountains.
From the valley

Spruce and fir

Fade to gnarled birch

Old trees

Watching time pass

Feeling the mountains move

Skiing the Torne River–Junosuando to Jukkasjarvi

The satellites

They tumble overhead

Dancers in the night

On a one track mind

To document earth

Mapping space and time

So that it fits into

A pocket

The last days brought spring, good friends, connections with ice, critical help from satellite imagery, wonderings about life and death, and hotel suites carved of Torne Ice. 

Summertime in Junosuando was blueberries, fishing in the slow river, mushroom picking, and row boating. It was a time of light and natural bounty, and it will be so again soon. If you have been reading since August, you will remember that I have been this way before. 



I skied into Junosuando looking at the first familiar sight I have seen during the journey — a hill with a communications tower on top, the landmark that Mikael pointed me to months ago, to find my direction. I followed the hill towards the river since I was coming from Kangos, and pretty soon I saw the big white house surrounded by birch trees. Now there were ice carts and skis instead of bicycles. I left my skis and pulka and took a cart up the road past the church and school to Mikael and Maya’s little red house.
Mikael and Maya and their three girls live on the corner just 300 meters from the place where Mikael’s father was born. Maya is from Ontario with an Indian father from Karnataka, and she and Mikael met while traveling in India. After settling in Sweden, they started their business, Aurora Retreat, to make a living and support the family. 
Both have a breadth of knowledge about crafts, the outdoors, and nature, so for their retreat they run a wilderness camp, The Three Rivers Camp. The camp is a cluster of octagonal wooden houses on a point where Tarendo River leaves Torne with more than half of Torne’s water. Tarendo links to Kalix River and at the point where the rivers bifurcate, the vast space of water looks like a lake.


I stayed for a few days at the guesthouse/youth hostel that Mikael and Maya run in Junosuando. The days there were full of nice conversations, baking, and hanging out with Sonia, their youngest daughter, who is a unique character; she is blind and has a mind that works differently than most. Her memory for detail is astonishing and she can tell you every flavour in food she eats or the smells in the cabinet. Her senses are strong and her presence stronger. Sonia likes to bake, so we did that together, and I got to pick her up from school some days. 
Sita, the middle girl, is quiet and determined. By herself she is training to be a gymnast, and upstairs in their little house they have a mat and a small beam where she can practice. She is quite good and has started to compete in Kiruna, a bigger town to the north. Uma, the eldest at 13, is a classical pianist and she plays lots of music, filling the house with Chopin in the evening.
The day I left, Mikael and I set out with Uma towards the wilderness camp. The red cabins lit up with candles and a warm fire raging in the stove, the place is an arctic dream, an escape to a world of snow, pine and spruce, and the quiet of winter birds. He and I stayed the night and Uma skied back. We had a sauna and ate reindeer soup, preparing for the next day.


In the morning it was snowing, and as Mikael and I set out, the fear of falling through the river that has haunted me since Haparanda was on my mind. 
The feeling of floating atop a powerful current of water is one of transcendence for me, death feels close, lurking under thin ice. However with Mikael, I was calm. He knows the river near Junosuando very well, and he could point out to me all of the features of the ice and the movements of water. Through wind and snow we went as he showed me how to test the ice, to find where it is thin and thick and how to understand the flow and ebb of the currents. 
I started to think, if one had grown up treading on river ice all their life, but had not experienced driving a car, what would it be like to drive a vehicle on the interstate? Probably terrifying, the risk of getting pummeled by heavy machinery uncomfortably high. So perspective, experience, and a rational understanding began to soothe my nerves.
In the afternoon the sky began to clear as we arrived in Kurkkio, a village at the foot of a big rapid in the river, with people living on either bank. Mikael knew a couple there, Hans and Marina who run a charcoal business called Kolektivet which translates to Coalective, a clever name.
We came to the house, which was apparent because of the twin oven enormous charcoal cooker in the yard. Hans came right out and welcomed us in for a plate of delicious bar-b-que and coffee. The charcoal they make is done with birch, and the food has a most amazing flavour unlike any I’ve had before. Hans’ brother and business partner Pär was also in for the weekend as well as an Estonian named Kalev.


They graciously invited Mikael and I to stay the night and have a sauna, which we happily accepted. While they did a bit of afternoon work, we went back out skiing to explore the river. In the awe inspiring slow sunset we saw the Kurkkioforsen, the rapids, and also the other side of town on the other bank of the river. We skied some nice hills and I took a few face plants skiing down on Mikael’s long wooden skis. We got ourselves hungry for dinner.


On return the sauna was nearly ready as was the food, bar-b-que again! So we all sat and ate and drank nice Estonian beers complements of Kalev. After dinner, full and sleepy we all made our own ways to bed. 
In the morning, Mikael and I helped load the charcoal ovens with birch before setting out, Mikael back to Junosuando, and I up to Kuoksu. This was the first time I had really skied the river by myself and without a well marked snowmobile trail because the main track veered far overland to the southwest. So cautiously, remembering what I had learned from Mikael, I made my way. 


River ice is not to be taken lightly, but rather respected, it can be understood much like the ocean or an interstate. When the river is wide and the flow is slow, the ice will be thick, and the areas of greatest risk will be near the bank where there is a dynamic between land and ice that can cause cracks or holes. When the water is fast and especially steep the ice will open in the middle and one must travel cautiously by the bank, better yet on land. Where there are inlets, there will be open water, and it can be that these openings are covered with snow, dangerous places. Also on the banks there can be springs, natural upwellings that create thin ice where one might not expect.
Satellite maps have helped me very much to see in advance where there is white water, where the river is narrow and fast, and where there are inlets ahead so that I can find myself on the proper bank.
The place names here also indicate the speed of the river. Kukkolaforsen means “Kukkola rapid,” fast water. Junosuando means “Juno slow water,” and Jukkasjarvi means “Jukkas lake.” When the river gets really wide, it’s considered a lake. These names also reflect the heritage of tornedalen– forsen is Swedish, jarvi is Finnish.

Nearly to Kuoksu

River right, good ice 

It looks like

Testing, testing

Craaaaaaaaackk

Nope, not good ice
Heart thumping

Into the forest

I arrived in Kuoksu late, and after asking at one house about a public cabin, I was sent to find Frederick. He was in a huge tractor moving snow, and he and his wife

Mia offered to let me stay in their place which they are building themselves. It was still a bit of a construction site, but I got to talk to them and help put in baseboards. The next morning I was off heading to Vittangi. 
There I met Håkan Lundstrom, an old fixture of these woods, an artist, outdoorsman, carpenter, filmmaker, and firefighter. A jack of all trades, he offered to help me pick a route upriver and fed and coffeed me.
The river between Vittangi and Jukkasjarvi is mostly narrow with lots of long rolling houses. It’s about 55 kilometers without a town, just cabins by the river. I saw lots of life–moose, caribou, and plenty of spring birds. The birdsong reminded me of the equinox, spring is here, summer is near.
I stayed two nights on the leg–one in a wind shelter and one in an open public cabin with a sauna and woodstove. It was so good to happen upon that place after a long day of skiing, to find dry wood and a bed.

At Jukkasjarvi the river opens up as though taking a deep breath. The banks are a kilometer apart, and as I would soon find out, the ice is very thick and strong.
From a long way, I could see machines on the ice, it’s real, I thought, knowing that these belonged to the Ice Hotel. On the google earth image, Jukkasjarvi still has ice on it, and the ice hotel is a white pile of melting snow surrounded by the green pixels of spring. An hour of skiing after I first saw the machines, I was standing by the giant tractor forklift pulling two tonne blocks of 3 foot thick blue ice out of Torne. I talked to the guys working out there for a while and they pointed me to where I would stay the night.
I was invited to stay with Carina Henrikkson, the opera singer and theater director who I met in Pajala, and her husband Arne Bergh, the art director and part owner at ice hotel. Arne and Carina live in a beautiful home subtly bedded into the riverbank across from Jukkasjarvi in Poikkijarvi, which literally means “the other side of the lake.” The house is decorated with beautiful wood carvings done by Arne who is a sculptor, and there are photos on the wall of Carina singing in the Ice Globe, a replica of the globe theater that was built here in Torne ice some years ago. The dynamism between these two artists is strong and after a nice dinner Arne and I spoke for hours.


I learned that the Ice Hotel was born as an igloo art gallery housing paintings, but after Arne arrived the idea shifted so that the ice itself became the art, “ephemeral art,” as Arne put it. The ice represents just the most minute sliver of water from Torne and because the hotel rests on the riverbank, in the spring, the water returns to the river.
This morning after breakfast I got toured around, and, well, I will let the photos speak for themselves.

Nearly to mountains

Forests rising as if waves

On a sea of white

Skiing the Torne River–Pajala to Junosuando

Örjan is getting cows

I hear that the farmers of this valley

All the herdsmen are selling out

Moving on from dirt and udders

Grass and hustling dairy 

Because the pay’s no living wage

But Örjan, he’s getting cows
When I left Örjan Päjäärvi’s house, I had a few directions to Kjell Kangas’ (pronounced “shell’s”) place in Pajala, just past the bridge by the river, the red house. Kjell is the older brother of Mikael from Junosuando just upriver who I stayed with in the summer. The red house, I thought, he must be mad, we’re in Sweden, nearly every house I’ve seen is red and by the river.
Pajala is a relatively big town with an indoor hockey arena, a theater, two groceries, a great little cafe, and at the center is a sundial built with enormous timbers. On the south end is a big modern looking bridge over the river, and Torne is gridded with snowmobile tracks up and down and across. 
As I skied in I saw the tower belonging to the yellow church rising above the trees, and there by the river, the red house in all its glory, Kjell’s place. There are neighbors with red houses, but something about this place was magnetic, and sure enough, it was the home of Kjell and Regina and their two kids, Helmi and Malte. I saw Kjell in the window as I skied up, and he welcomed me in for coffee and to dry my gear.

Photo by Kjell Kangas (I promise it’s red)

Kjell works in the school in Pajala as a special teacher in classes that need assistance and he delivers lessons to classes when he gets the chance. We talked a lot about the refugees, and how he tries to help the Swedish students understand where their new classmates are coming from, cities like Aleppo and Mosul, cities that are battlegrounds at this very moment. A long way from Pajala. 
Kjell is also on the board of the local hockey association. This work comes after many years of running his own company helping other businesses make promotional material. He is a photographer, and in the house is a nice collection of old cameras and 16mm film projectors.
Regina works at the local theater, which is a community cultural project happening all through Tornedalen. They even do some performances in Mienkieli, and they try to focus on local material, folklore and stories based here to help keep the spirit of this place alive. A writer among other things, Regina just finished a play that will be on stage in April, and rehearsals were just beginning when I was there. Catty corner to Kjell’s camera collection is a nice library of books, many about this place, and I felt so glad to be in the home of people with kindred interests in the arts.
Kjell and Regina’s two kids,Helmi and Malte, were on school break. Helmi is, I think, 9, and though she does not speak a lot of English, we got on well, especially when I became the breakfast chef for a few days. The first night I arrived, Kjell and Helmi went to play ping pong at the recreation hall and the next day we three played a bit of hockey. It was nice to see Kjell being such a good dad. Malte is a classic case of 15. I didn’t see him much except for eating, passing through the kitchen to retrieve food, or when I went to see one of his hockey games. All the same, it was good to hang out with the family and have such a nice welcome into their lives.


It also turns out that Lars Munk and his wife Evelyn are raising their two kids in a house just 100 feet from Kjell’s place, so I got to hang out with them for dinner one night. We had wild Moose stew and potatoes, wine and a bit of whiskey to put us out after a long night of great talk, everything from coffee to global affairs, fish to statistics professors (if you don’t know about Hans Rosling, google him, watch some lectures).
At first I was surprised by how much wild meat I was eating here, but now it is more matter of fact. This region is quite big with few people and lots of wildlife. Eating moose and fish, this is how people can survive with what’s around them, especially considering how farmers all through northern Sweden have been disenfranchised by EU subsidies and agricultural pricing standards. 
Evelyn comes from what she called a “trapper family,” and Lars as you know by now is a keen fisherman. Between them, they have so much knowledge about the woods and waters, I think they could survive up here without international trade. The same can’t be said for many people, but there probably more able forest folk in Tornedalen than your average place. Kjell told me he used to go hunting in the morning before school.
There a theme that has come up in many conversations along the journey; how the lives of working people who produce food and essentials could and should be more honored and valued. Shouldn’t the first thing a society values and honors be the growers and the carpenters? The ones who make life possible? If they aren’t the first ones, they might be the last!
Farmers here have had to close up because the economy doesn’t price their goods well enough, it’s not a living wage. With a few exceptions, reindeer herders are the ones working these days, and that’s because Tornedalen is one of the few places in the world reindeer husbandry is legal. Örjan getting cows is really a neat anomaly, and he is the talk of town for it, bringing the food back, closer to home.
So if the milk, meat, and vegetable production are being exported, what jobs does that leave for the working class? Well an iron mine opened up by Kaunisvaara just north of Pajala a few years back promising jobs, and well paying ones, but it closed down because prices were low and iron is cheaper from mines in Brazil. How can Swedish mines compete while there are high taxes, expensive pay for labor and strict regulations for companies? Shouldn’t that be a global norm? What about mining for milk? Prospecting for potatoes?
As I skied away from Pajala I had these thoughts in mind and my eyes on Kangos, a village a ways up the Lainio River, a tributary of Torne that enters from the north. I was going there to meet Johan Stenevad and Eva, a pair that run the Lapland Guesthouse in Kangos. But first I had to cross Teravuoma, the largest bog in Western Europe. 


For a skier who’s been chugging through forest and over hills, down gullies and up hillocks, Teravuoma was like a superhighway. Flat as flat can be for 50 kilometers. Bogs don’t really freeze even in Lapland winter, so one has to be careful to avoid holes, but I was on a snowmobile road, so the kilometers melted away over the flat wetland, the sphagnum pancake.

Markers on the snowmobile trails

Arriving to Kangos I was impressed at the size of Lainio River, nearly as wide as Torne. I recalled when Kjell told me that he calls Tornedalen Sweden’s largest island because it is surrounded by rivers. Here is Lainio, it flows into Torne soon, which above Junosuando loses 56% of its water to Tarendo River which then flows into Kalix River. Below Pajala, Torne receives Muonio. Just there are five huge rivers all linked through this valley. 
After a quick coffee at the Kangas grocery store, I skied up the road to Lapland Guesthouse, a cluster of old homes that were moved to the site by Johan and Eva and restored and decorated to become a cozy getaway by Lainio. Lars wanted me to come and meet Johan and Eva, to see their antiques collection and the knives that Johan makes. 


I was greeted by a quiet house. Johan was out and about with some guests and I don’t know where Eva was, but one of the staff, Petter, showed me to my room, the Birch room, themed by the trees. It was a little nook with low ceilings and a view from the window that showed the river and the other houses around. I spent the afternoon by the fire until the other guests, four friendly Belgians arrived with Johan. We got acquainted and Johan entertained all before Eva and Mia, a blacksmith and kitchen staff, brought out dinner–arctic char, green beans, and potatoes. Simple and delicious. 
I spoke with Johan for a bit after dinner, and the guy is honest as a lag bolt. He spoke about how he entertains a lot of people with wealth in his business and how it is a lot of work for Eva and him, dawn to dusk everyday, business is life is fun is hard is long is short is vision is life is fun is hard is food is dreams is work is life…. It reminded me of Yellow Birch Farm in Deer Isle Maine where I had the great privilege of spending a few weeks working and playing last summer. Honest work. Work for the mind and body. They don’t make millions, but he is able to build things and dream up new ideas. Now he is going to build a blacksmith shop there where Mia and others can make things. 


I am curious, what would happen if every high school student were required to spend two months working on a farm within 100 miles of home? We all eat, why not see how it’s done?
In the morning over breakfast I talked more with the Belgian folks and learned of their lives and work before setting out for Junosuando.
Skiing through the gray and glum 

March wind licking at my lashes

I had gratitude in my boots

Thanks in my old mitts

Thanks for working people

Earnest folk

Folk to whom it really makes sense

To give just a dime’s care for cents

A quarter’s care for work

A life’s savings spent

On the dreams that

Soothe the living soul

PS. Few photos in this one because my phone had some serious problems the other day… less is more!!!

Skiing the Torne River, Kukkolaforsen to Risudden

The river valley: Tornedalen
The waters: 

Torneälven in Swedish

Tornionjoki in Finnish
The vast river

At the center of two lands
Is it

Dedicated to an ancient king

A king made myth?
Is it Tor’s River?

I feel a rooting in this valley unfamiliar to my wandering feet. Today passing through the town of Korpikylä I visited Hulkoffgården/Butiken på Landet on the banks of a bay at the base of the rapid Matkakoski. 
I skied in on the old railway line and coming in from the back I saw a big farm with two yellow houses and two red barns laden with snow. I was hungry and had heard that there was a country store, so I went in search of coffee and food only to find out that things weren’t so open and maybe the owners were out of town.


I was heading back to the rail tracks when the reindeer caught my eye, four gentle creatures in a pen, and while I was saying hello, Pia, an older woman with bright blue eyes came down the way. She already knew who I was, word having spread of the skier named Galen (which means “crazy” in Swedish) coming up the Tornedalen, the Torne Valley.


We took up conversation fast and Pia said that the reindeer are new to their farm being that this area is one of the only areas in the country where it’s permitted having them domesticated. Here and the Kemi River area, mostly in Lapland where herding reindeer is a traditional way of life. Pia and her husband also keep cattle, and she voiced proudly that they feed them only real good food, grass grown on the farm and some extra barley for protein.
Pia said that the place has been farmed and lived on by their relatives since the 1700s and has been occupied and farmed longer still, perhaps much longer. This reminded me too of Kukkolaforsen, where the Spolanders have been for many generations.


Pia took me inside what I thought was a second cattle barn, but how wrong I was. The ground level used to be a cattle barn–it was built by the generation before who handmade the bricks. Now it is made gourmet eating house with beautiful settings and a wine bar.


 I asked Pia why the business had two signs and she said “you’ll have to see upstairs,” beaming. We went up, and I couldn’t believe my eyes, a proper fashion boutique in rural Norbotten County with beautiful wool coats and furs, hats, knives and scarves and boots. Of course!! “Butiken” read the sign.


I immediately thought of my grandfather, Charles Willard Olson III whose friends called him the Swede. Our family, as did many Swedes, emigrated to the US sometime around the turn of the 20th century. This movement recalls how dynamic our world is, how people everywhere at some point have moved, we are not trees, we are a fluid culture. Standing there in Butiken På Landet I felt the power of my ancestors who left these lands to go to America, “the promised land.” Charles, Grandpa Chuck to me, was a very fashionable fella, he would have loved this store and this country. I told this to Pia, and smiling she brought out a Swedish “fika,” coffee and sweets. 


As we spoke she talked entrancingly about Tornedalen, among many other things. She explained her son’s deep interest in the history and mythology here and of the potential links between this area and Celtic peoples who came here long ago, long enough to see the receding glacier from the ice age which shaped these lands and to meet King Tor and contribute to the myths that are so enchanting to my wayfaring mind. Tor’s River, Thor’s River?, I thought, feeling the weight of this incredible story forming landscapes upon my mind.
I am curious about the veritability of these stories and how they can be added to. If you know anything about it please write to me, ghecht@coa.edu.
As I said goodbye to Pia feeling a profound sense of belonging here, I got back on the trail, floating the kilometers towards Risudden, my destination for the night. 
I thought of another enthralling conversation yesterday that blossomed out of an act of great generosity in Karungi just beyond Kukkolaforsen. As I was skiing into town, a snowmobile, here “snowskooter,” pulled up behind me and a girl hopped off the back waving. This was Victoria and her step dad Lars, come to greet me and Victoria wanted to ski. Just what I was hoping!! On top of that they brought me oreos, a beer, and a Norbotten hat! Reminding me that I am still in Norbotten, not yet Lapland, I’ll be there soon though.


Lars laid down some ski trail with his skooter, an act he does for the community as well, laying ski track around an island in the river. Then he headed back to his duties as a firefighter for the town, but not before he told me that Karungi used to be a booming place because it hosted the post office where East and West met during and after World War two. Now it’s a quiet little place, but before tens of thousands of letters came through everyday.
Victoria and I skied away talking about all sorts of things like her wonder at how the USA is not going through upheaval and revolution (which I think we may be, and not just the USA, more on that later). She also told me about her work in Norway with the outdoors as a follower of “friluftsliv” which translates roughly to “fresh air life” and exists in conjunction with the “freedom to roam” laws in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and many other countries where wandering about the countryside is permitted pretty much anywhere that is not obviously private.
Friliftsliv is a way of living with nature and respecting it without exploiting it economically, and it is founded in outdoor recreation and exploration. I asked how she would describe it best, and she replied “basically what you are doing, living in nature.” I was moved to hear this, and hopeful that it is true, also very excited to know that this school of thought is vibrant here. In some ways friliftsliv and freedom to roam maintain the common lands and waters as commons to be explored and appreciated in the ways that they have been for centuries, and it thwarts land greed to some extent as well by providing equal access.
Victoria turned back after some kilometers and left me feeling pensive and alive, curious and calm, hopeful for something I cannot describe. I was so grateful to this place, and I felt at home, wading through snow. 
Galen Winchester Hecht

My name
Charles Willard Olson III

My grandfather

Passed on now

But made of Swedish stock

Northern blood 
In these the Norbotten woods

I feel as I am meant to feel

Wake as I am meant to wake

Brother of the frozen brooke

Son of the tireless snows

Wondrous with birch and fir
I think I will add to my name
Galen Winchester Olson Hecht

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

 

 

Peaks–Sand–Snow

Floating on cloud trail

The snowy peaks landmarks

On blank sky


Leaving Nepal I watched the Himalayas descend into the earth and the Karakoram burst up only to fall away again into the sea. Over Pakistan I thought about everything going on below and the Indus River, tumbling away to the south. I wondered if I would ever go there. 
As the Arabian Peninsula neared the plane, out the window a straight corridor of lights appeared. The road linking some of the United Arab Emirates blazed in the sandy night, giving an eerie, sci-fi quality to the earth below. 
A few cars danced their steady, linear choreography along the asphalt, and the plane went lower and lower to the ground.
A place forsaken by fresh water

Made inhabitable

By a ceaseless flow

Of gulf oil

Compressed dinosaurs

Rich as rich

Generous enough

To buy everything

In the Emirates
My trip to the UAE was surreal in many ways. My dearest friend Lucas Olscamp was offered study at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus four years ago. He was admitted as a theater student, and his prowess in this art amazes even his closest friends. One day I blurted out that I thought he extroverted himself well. Explaining my words with words, I said that he shapes the world around him in beautiful and inspiring ways, even the spaces of his friends minds. And this is true.
Studying at NYU Abu Dhabi means travelling the world and working with professors and practitioners at the edges of their fields, people doing truly extraordinary work. The campus is just outside of the city proper, and like everything in the UAE, it rises out of the sand and sea, a futuristic island of cement and glass, light and grass that punctuates the abyss around it. The Louvre is building a satellite museum nearby and the Gugenheim as well. Across the water the sky rises glisten in the Arabian sun and the turquoise water laps quietly.


We went with one of Lucas’ courses on a short kayak through a mangrove forest. The beauty of these seabound flora being their unique adaptation to saltwater environments. In the UAE they are some of the precious few spaces abundant with plant life and are increasingly threatened by rising salinity in the waters, for like nearly all of the gulf states, the UAE must desalinate its drinking water. Without need to augment the national income selling salt, they dump it back into the sea. Next to the salty mangrove rises immense smokestacks from a desalination plant.
The country has a vaguely Las Vegas like aura to it, with loads of lights and a spectacular presentation that ignites the hearts of visitors and stirs up a curiosity and foreboding that always accompanies me to the desert. Visiting Lucas, I saw how entangled are the arts, money, oil, environmentalism, and all sorts of institutions, even the most well meaning.


I recalled the many Nepalis I had met who worked in the gulf, in Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi, or the UAE. I thought about the irony that in the USA we call these countries oil rich, and in Nepal they call them rough countries.
I left from my four day layover elated at having seen an old friend and his good work, confused by the contradictions of the world and the value of wealth and resources.
I flew away over Iran, Kazakhstan, Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea to Finland. Arriving in the winter world of Oulu at 65 degrees North, I met another old friend, Sanni Kuutti, who is studying intercultural education at the University there. 


Sanni hosted me for five days of furious preparation for long my ski through Lapland as I gathered materials and made plans. Over meals and in the evenings we talked about education in Finland, about how the country is dealing with newcomers, people who need homes, who have left theirs out of necessity. How can the education system help weave them into society as welcome neighbors? How can childhood learning inspire dramatic changes in a whole nation? What is the power of experience and exploration in learning?
I ask these questions about my own journey to. Today I am on a bus with a sled full of food and supplies and ski equipment. I am heading to ski the Torne River, 500 kilometers of Lapland, from the Bay of Bothnia to the mountains that divide the Baltic watersheds from the Atlantic ones. In cooperation with the Heart of Lapland, a local office promoting this area, the ski will be an exercise in place based storytelling as I collect tales from people along the way to bring out the rich heart of this north country.


I am nervous for what lies ahead, and I find solace in the epigraph from the book I just finished, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen:

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