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–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-Övertorneå to Pajala

What about the old time traveler

The wayfarer

Easy as she goes

In the woods

On the river road
I wonder

Is that me?

At home, houseless?
Resting and eating

In a new friend’s kitchen?
Carry on

Carry on
Easy as she goes

I have so much to tell you. The last days were sweet as the creamed coffee in my mug this morning. I witnessed a glimpse of humanity that fills the deepest gullies of my mind with the comfort of home, I know that may sound strange being only a few weeks in this northern land. 

I started out at noon from Övertorneå after meeting Lars Munk. Lars started out in Denmark with a fisherman father and made his way to Lapland to become a fishing guide after studying at the Övertorneå Folkhögskola, the folk school, where he later taught. He worked in Iceland for three years and then returned to Sweden and started a fishing outfitter in Lapland with his wife. A few years back he sold the company and started working for Heart of Lapland helping businesses in the area hone in on the tourism market, which, after mining, is the major economic force at work in the Swedish north.
After Övertorneå I continued up to Svanstein, a small town between the banks of Torne and a jumble of hills that hosts a little alpine ski resort. On the way, I skied through Juoksengi, a town that sits right on the polar circle. From the trail I could see flags flying in the distance –Russia, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, USA, Canada — a thread of light, a seam upon the north. There I found the Polarcirkelhuset, a house beneath the flags that is also a restaurant and hotel.


The place was closed, but a nice man with little english came up and told me to”wait wait” and sure enough, five minutes later Yvonne Kangas and her son arrived and let me in. We spoke a bit, and they put on coffee as I dug into my lunch. A moment later Tomas arrived and I learned that the place is a community managed restaurant and hotel. Tomas brought me a certificate saying that I had crossed the circle and also gave me a hat, a shirt, and a nice little cup. 


After lunch I made a jump across the arctic circle, and I was on my way again, this time skiing cautiously along the highway because I wanted to make it to Svanstein. I was cold and wet and went to the place in town to stay, Svanstein Lodge. Lotta who recently bought the place with her husband kindly offered to let me stay for free, and showed me around the beautiful big place. I got to stay in my own little cabin with a fireplace and a warm bed, sauna in the evening. 
In Övertorneå Lars and Max told me about a woman who runs a restaurant whose popularity outpaces population growth, whose menu is myth, and whose view is good as that from Mount Olympus, only over Tornedalen. As I skied north towards Svanstein, I thought about how nice it would be to meet Pia Huuva, the queen of Restaurang Utblick Luppioberget, the mountaintop eating house. 
Lars’ colleague at Heart of Lapland, Linnea Sidenmark, offered to put me in touch with Pia. Since I had already passed Restaurang Utblick, and it would have taken me a full two day detour to visit, but Pia offered to come and see me in Svanstein, only an hours drive for them.
Pia came with her daughter Maja and dog Benna, and we took a walk through the sunny, cold afternoon. Pia told me about the restaurant on the mountain. She talked about her food philosophy, how she wants to attain schyst (pronounced sch-ust) in everything she does. Schyst is like “sustainable, ecological, and like really good,” Pia told me emphatically. The restaurant serves mostly local produce and meats, and in the three months that it’s open they feed something like 18,000 people. 


As our talk wandered on, we got onto the subject of Sami people. Sami have been in this area called Lapland for thousands of years. In Sami languages, Lapland is actually called Sapmi, and like in the Americas, Sami have been living off lands for a long, long time that were absorbed by nations, and as the land became privatized, the people were acculturated and treated with little or no respect for their traditional lifeways.
Today many Sami still work herding reindeer and making a life from the forest, rivers, and valleys, but Sami kids, along with the rest of the young population of Tornedalen (who spoke mostly Finnish) in the mid 20th century were forced into residential schools where they had to speak Swedish and speaking Sami languages, Finnish, or Meänkieli was banned and cause for punishment. 
Despite this trying history, Pia said that Sami people still practice a very particular way of stewarding nature and have a unique and deep understanding of the land and forest here. But in society, Sami still face severe prejudice in some regions. Pia’s husband is a Sami man, and Pia works helping Sami entrepreneurs with their businesses.
As we spoke, Pia’s daughter Maja, with the beautiful full name of Kaisa Maja Elvi Huuva Kavat, chosen by Maja herself and inspired by a beloved childhood story, listened patiently and intently. I thought, how great for this girl to have a mom like Pia, so engaged, so humble, so active. 
We closed as Pia, with reverence, spoke of the way that all the world is made of energy, literally, matter is energy. The way we live is dictated by our own energy. Physics tells us this is true, that matter is a form of energy and different particles can affect one another’s behavior depending on their energy states. So can humans act like positive ions too, spreading positive energy to the world around?
Two nights after I met Pia, I was staying in a little cabin on the Finnish side of the river, a place called Naamivaara. At about 10 PM I walked outside and was stopped dead in my tracks. Above me, a purple spire danced over the forest, became a wave of bright green and swirled away past the horizon. Then another spire jumped out of nowhere and filled the void between me and the heavens before evaporating again into darkness.


The Aurora Borealis is a stunning revelation of the energy that Pia talked about, the dynamic magnetism that holds everything together revealing itself in a swirling green and purple aura, a silent unfolding of the sky. It is a phenomenon of particles excited by solar winds releasing their energy in the earth’s magnetosphere.
The way I arrived to this little cabin in the woods brings Kari Piipari into this story. I was skiing out of Pello, a town in Finland where I bought some groceries after crossing the river. My cell phone charging cable came unplugged from my solar panel, and I was struggling to put it back in when I saw a man skiing up behind me. 
I asked him for help and we got to talking about why I had a solar panel. I told him about the expedition up Torne, and he got very excited. He told me that he had moved to Lapland three years ago from Helsinki, and he wanted to do adventures also. We exchanged contact information and carried on our way. 
An hour later I got a text from Kari saying that he had returned from his ski and where was I going to sleep. I replied that I would camp somewhere on the snowmobile road heading north. No reply. 
About 5:15 I was looking for a campsite and to stop skiing for the day. Up comes a snowmobile and a man in a bright orange suit jumps off. It’s Kari. He greets me and asks if I want to go to a cabin not far away. I told him I wanted to ski, and he offered to tow my sled with his snowmobile and light a fire in the hut. Oh mylanta, a guy on skis towing a sled like an ox can’t turn down that offer. Then he showed me some things he brought for me. Winter dried moose meat and moose heart, a fillet of pike-perch, and some frozen berries he had picked himself. It was amazing, I felt so grateful. 


Kari took off in his snowmobile, my old sled in tow. I ate some moose heart and a snickers and started huffing onwards with the sunset. After about two hours more skiing at a fast click, I was still a ways from the cabin. It was further than we thought and the path led far in the wrong direction before winding slowly back towards the river. So at about 7:40, long after sundown, I jumped on Kari’s sled for a 5 minute ride that would have taken me 25. The cabin was a spacious hexagon and had a storeroom of dry wood next door. Kari had a fire going and we talked for a while over hot chocolate. He is a P.E. teacher in Pello and likes hunting and fishing. I enjoyed the company, but Kari had to go back home because he was leaving town in the morning. 
Then the aurora came. 


The next day still high on northern lights, I was invited for coffee and cookies with Salia Sirkkala, Tinna Norrman, and her husband before I crossed the river back to Sweden. Salia is also a teacher in Pello, but of English. She knows Kari, and was so happy to hear the story. It’s a small world up here.
I skied back into Sweden with the plan to stay in a cabin in Kassa, a town just 20 kilometers south of Pajala where I planned to make my next stop. I skied late again after getting bogged down in powder in the forest. I arrived to Kassa in the dark. I found the cabin after asking directions from two boys in a nice house with a barn up the hill from the river. A few minutes after I got to the cabin, their dad Örjan Pääjärvi came and invited back up to sleep on the couch. I was so happy, and we had a sauna and a long conversation about the world that night as the mercury dropped to -28° C outside. 


In the morning after porridge I skied onto Pajala where I am now, and perhaps tonight I get to play some hockey. 

Does a cold winter

Bolster a warm heart?
Like the woodstove

On a frigid night

Must be carefully attended

And fed well

With pitch sweet wood

So the flame

Can jump and leap

With blazing life

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