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

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:

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑