The river valley: Tornedalen
Torneälven in Swedish
Tornionjoki in Finnish
The vast river
At the center of two lands
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, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
Charles Willard Olson III
Passed on now
But made of Swedish stock
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