The snow is fresh
Heavy before the sled
As if to say
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.
Flakes laden the ground
Each one unique
A life of its own
A geometry of the environment
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
Whether I stand
On ground or water
And like that