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–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

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

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