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

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-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

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑