Skiing the Torne River — Jukkasjarvi to Nikkaluokta

The birds arrive

Little characters

They flit about

Pecking at frozen pine nuts

Doing nothing much

I am still skiing

Eating, talking, sleeping

Listening

Floating through resting lands

Doing not so much

But doing

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

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


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


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



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

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


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


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


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

Spruce and fir

Fade to gnarled birch

Old trees

Watching time pass

Feeling the mountains move

Skiing the Torne River–Junosuando to Jukkasjarvi

The satellites

They tumble overhead

Dancers in the night

On a one track mind

To document earth

Mapping space and time

So that it fits into

A pocket

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

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



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


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


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


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


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


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

Nearly to Kuoksu

River right, good ice 

It looks like

Testing, testing

Craaaaaaaaackk

Nope, not good ice
Heart thumping

Into the forest

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

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

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


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

Nearly to mountains

Forests rising as if waves

On a sea of white

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