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–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, Arthotel Tornedalen to Övertorneå 

It’s midday

The snow is fresh

Heavy before the sled

As if to say

Slow down

Be here

Be here

I was greeted by falling snow in the morning the day I skied towards Risudden. I passed along the river just after noon, and it was open water gushing down into a section of heavy rapids where the river enters a small gorge. 
On the old railway line were tracks, not rail tracks, but some kind of cleft-hoofed creatures’, a pair of them wandering in and out of step. In the distance I could see something, a shape moving on the trail, a brown smudge. Snow is remarkable for following tracks, the impressions like a intaglio print documenting the movement of the world, and so impermanent it is, impressed upon frozen water only.


The tracks left the trail towards the river, and looking into the woods that way I saw a moose. I think it was a moose. A yearling, probably born last spring. I didn’t stick around, knowing that moose mothers can be volatile. What a magnificent creature, so huge.
Into Risudden I went, a town of big old houses overlooking a wide stretch of river from a hillside that was daunting to me with my heavy sled down below. I had a rough idea of where the Arthotel Tornedalen might be. Lars really wanted me to stay there and I was excited, I had heard about the place’s character, difficult for anyone to describe.
In front of me, a sort of white directional sign reading “Konsthall” pointed at an empty field of snow. Strange, I thought. On the hill a cluster of houses, one white, one red, a sauna, and another higher up house with a shed and what looked like a ceramic sculpture in front. Crossing the road, the mailbox read, “Stensmyr,” that’s the name! No other signage.


I was feeling hunger heavy on my gut, and as I pulled up the drive, I saw a woman bustling about in the big red house. She saw me and came out. This was Maria, a very kindly woman from Överkalix who works for Gunhild keeping house. Gunhild wasn’t yet home from a place down south. Maria ushered me into the house, and I suddenly entered a dream.
Outside, 

Flakes laden the ground

Each one unique

A life of its own

A geometry of the environment
Inside,

Flakes laden every surface

Flakes of the mind

Composed of glass

Rubber, canvas, ceramic, wood

Paint, weasels, wax, corc

A life, each one

A geometry of being

Drawn into nothing

But the world
I didn’t understand

The house is a menagerie of works by artists unknown to me, forms unencountered. At that very moment, honestly, the identity of the art, anything more than my lucid first impression, was not so important as food, and food there was. Maria started me on knäckebröd, a sort of brown bread cracker with butter, then came a salad, lamb sausages, potatoes and vegetables. My stomach was singing. After food we had coffee and fika, some vanilla rolls.
As I ate I learned about Maria, how her husband inherited a house in Risudden, and from the front windows she can see clear up the Torne River nearly to Övertorneå some 30 Km away. She moved here after losing her job and Gunhild took her on to work. We talked about saunas and beer and how the two are like peas in a pod; the sauna is the pod, and the human, beer in hand and belly is the pea. 
At that lunch was over and I went out to light the sauna fire. Maria had to go, so I took some beers and enjoyed the warm room by myself for some hours. Eventually I turned more baked potato than human (two beers didn’t help), and I wandered across the frozen driveway to the glowing red house full of mindfood.


I sat down to read at the long table before a big photograph of a poodle face and a human hand protruding from a black fur coat. The coat blended perfectly into the poodle’s own coat… human and dog made one. Just then Gunhild (pronounced goon-hill-dh) arrived. I immediately felt her radiance, her passion, and her clean but immaculate style suited her home and hotel perfectly. She whizzed about asking me question on question as we warmed up another of Maria’s amazing preparations–moose meat hunted by Gunhild’s brother wrapped in bacon and baked in a nice sauce with potatoes, peas, and brussel sprouts. Thank you moose.
Over dinner I learned a bit about Gunhild: she studied anthropology, ethnology, and art history in school. She grew up just north of Risudden in Hedenäset, and then was married and moved to the south of Sweden and worked directing various konsthalls, “galleries” is the closest translation, but it seems to be more than a gallery, verging on museum. Her husband passed away and she moved back north to reestablish life in Tornedalen, and as a speaker of Meänkieli and a local born, she is reassociating with her roots and undertaking a big new project.
It started as Guesthouse Tornedalen and recently changed names to Arthotel Tornedalen. As Gunhild said, the place is full of “the finest contemporary Swedish art,” and while absolutely baffling to enter such a sophisticated and challenging art collection out of the quiet woods of Norbotten county, her curation is brilliant. And she is going big.
Gunhild is just working to finish the financing of Konsthall Tornedalen, what is to be a huge cultural center and gallery in Risudden right on the banks of Torne. After hearing about her master plan, I drifted off to sleep with visions of the konsthall dancing in my head.


In the morning over breakfast, Gunhild talked to me more deeply about her collection, about living with this art. She put it so beautifully, “When you don’t understand something, it’s art,” she beamed, “it’s completely impractical, it’s for the brain,” “it’s social, that’s what’s so interesting.”
I skied away from the menagerie in the woods and from Gunhild in her fur coat and aviator cap. I was in awe. Passing the Konsthall sign in the empty field, I understood now, and I went on my way anticipating a good future.

Spending the night under open sky

Hoping to see a magnetic green light

But not heartset
Locals came by me on snowmobiles

“Who the hell is this crazy man?”

They thought in Swedish, Finnish, or Mäenkieli

Well my name is actually “crazy”

Nice to meet you
We shared conversations under the heavens

Warm as the stars 

In the winter night

Skiing was easy from Hedenäset where I had camped. It was Sunday and all the locals had been out playing with their snowmobiles the day before, so I had a good firm track to follow. The way was along rolling hills, and I even saw a little rope tow ski lift a few kilometers before Övertorneå. 
Just before the hill I skied by an amazing scene. Some moose tracks that were spaced far apart, a running moose, entered the trail and then swerved left and right. What looked like dog tracks came bounding from the forest. Then the moose stifled and skidded, perhaps trying to defend itself a bit before accelerating down the trail.
Then a pattern began; every few meters a dog appeared on the side of the path indicating a planned attack on the moose which swerved each time and then carried on full bore. This lasted about 100 meters then the moose dove into the woods. 
There was no blood, no sound. What a silent scene to encounter.
Skiing into Övertorneå many people were out for a sunday walk, the bridge to the sister village in Finland, Ylitornio, was the first bridge I had since Haparanda/Tornio. The church tower stood above the town which is set in a donut around a little hill covered in forest. Lars told me to stay at a place called Övertorneå Camping that had recently changed owners. A Swiss man named Max bought it and moved up with his family. Others had spoken of the new Swiss man in Tornedalen, and I was eager to hear his story.
When I arrived, I saw on the riverbank a cluster of red cabins and an area for tent or caravan camping. There was a restaurant and a sauna house with a wooden hot tub that looks like an enormous whiskey barrel cut in two filled with water with a woodstove dropped in. 


A nice man named Håkan greeted me. Håkan seemed a bit flustered, and explained that he had run this place for 18 years, and now was helping Max transition in as owner. The sale proper was to happen this week. Just then a big bloodhound on a leash came sniffing around Håkan’s car. “That’s Brian, he’s nice,” came the voice of Max trailing Brian the Bloodhound. 
After greetings, Max walked me over to my cabin, and in the short moments between I learned that he had been working in IT for supply chains with big companies in Switzerland before his mind and body gave him an overhaul a few years back, crashing from high stress and being overworked. So, he came to the north, a lover of Scandinavia.
Thinking about that, I unpacked my things into the warm cabin, again grateful for the space to dry my stuff and thaw my bones. Max invited me for dinner at his place, Swiss fondue, he said, in the big yellow mansion on the property called the “priest’s house.”
I arrived at seven to the bustle of a family home, boxes still being unpacked–they arrived here just 12 days ago. Max’s wife Yasmine was preparing the fondue, and I learned that she speaks French, Italian, and Swiss German, a little English, and they are all learning Swedish. Their two boys, Janne, 4, and Kimi, 2, were playing with wild excitement, and Brian the Bloodhound lounged on his very own leather armchair.


Over the delicious meal, we spoke about their choice to come north with the family. Max explained to me that the emphasis on performance, professional performance, caused him to overwork, and eventually he crashed. This midlife meltdown was devastating with young kids and compromised his existence in the milieux of a wealth crazed professional culture. What to do?
After a trip to Lapland, Max returned to Switzerland with new life, refreshed by the quiet light and different pace of the north woods. But at 48 years old, even with 25 years experience and success, it was difficult to find work in the Swiss economy. With over 350 job applications sent, Max got only a handful of interviews. Yasmine told him if he didn’t change course things were not bright. 
So they began to look for a place in Lapland, and after months of searching and negotiating, Yasmine found Övertorneå, and Max agreed, this was the place.
The vision for their future is to create a lodge and retreat where people can come from rushed and relentless professional lives to find connection, fun, and peace along the Torne’s bank with their families and friends. It will be called Norrsken Lodge, meaning Northern Lights Lodge in Swedish. Max wants to help people avoid the meltdown that happened to him, what happens to scores of working people. 
This passion and empathy, motivation to engage rooted in personal experience is blazing a meaningful trail into the future for Max and Yasmine and their boys. I wish them the best, and Brian is happy as a dog who thinks he is in heaven, where snow is drifting cloud and the forest is full of good scent trails.

The next morning I woke up to go meet Stig Kerttu and his colleague David Mäki who work for the Övertorneå Municipality in business development. On the way I stopped at the hardware shop, the Övertorneå Järnhandel, to get some better gloves for skiing because my light gloves are too light and my big gloves too warm. The guys there were friendly and welcoming and they offered to give me the gloves as a sponsor. What generous folks, Ingemar Björnfot, Lars-Eric Sandstrom, and Ingvar Sandstrom.


As I walked to meet Stig, I recalled how he reached out to me after I wrote an email to the Övertorneå Kumun, and he offered to show me around town and teach me about the histor. Stig is in his early sixties with bright eyes and an inquisitive way about him. His warmth is matched by a strong intellect a very thorough education, focused in economics. In the 1980s he helped Övertorneå establish itself as the first “Ecological Society” in Sweden, working to have a neutral footprint with responsible resource management. 
He brought a brilliant conversation to the table, first teaching me some about the region prompted by a map of the area from north western Russia and into northern Scandinavia. Our talk was magnetized towards migration, a touchy topic throughout Europe. Sweden took in more refugees over the last two years than any other European country. 250,000 people were allowed to come here, and recently the country closed its borders. The influx presents economic and political challenges, but also opportunities if it is well managed. That is easier said than done. 
David and Stig seemed disappointed and frustrated at other EU countries including their Finnish neighbors who refused to open borders despite having histories of emigration themselves after war and unrest. 
How we humans become entangled with the nuances of culture and prejudice and reject one another when what we share and the ways in which we can support each other are much more profound than religion or language or skin tone. These days we are all neighbors, we have condensed space and time in both physical and virtual spheres, the Earth even fits into Google. If you live in Vanuatu, and I am in Finland, I could be at your doorstep tomorrow. Will you take me in? We are on one planet, we are an organism blossoming across its surface wildly in the flow of time, how can we gain perspective? 


Finishing our morning on an unsettled, but thoughtful note, none of us had a single answer. Stig and I went for lunch with the mayor of Övertorneå, Tomas Mörtberg, a farmer by trade who now is both principal of the local Folk School and mayor. He was an earnest guy and I was glad to know that people honor farmers around here so. We spoke about the region and about the Folk School which provides education to adults and those in need of opportunities. It is free for everyone, including non-Swedes.
Now I will stay in Övertorneå one more day to meet Lars here tomorrow before heading out again towards the arctic circle and then on to Pajala.

Tied to the bounty of self

I don’t know if I go in

Or go out
Perhaps the plain of winter

Is what expels the certainty

Never knowing

Whether I stand

On ground or water
And like that

Are we all

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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