Welcome Home

Walking on the green grass

A buzz overhead

A plane flying by

With a large banner.

I read it:

$3000 Dollar Breast Implants

But no phone number

What if I want breast implants?

I remember another sign

That I saw in the morning:

Welcome to the United States

Welcome Home.

Wonder

I awake in the morning

Sleep shuddering in my legs

The weight of hand spun wool warm

Against the rise and fall of my navel

 

I wonder what we will do today

What new textures my hands will encounter

Which animals will need attention

If the sandy soil will be warm or cold

 

I wonder when I leave the turquoise door

If I will smell the blossom of damp desert

Or the ripe manure of the sheep

Or the lanolin

 

I can hear the soft tune of the wind

Walloping the cracks of the house

The silent hiss of the kettle boiling

The shuffle of Doña Maria and Antonio

 

I hear the birdsong outside

The pattering of water in the canal

The tremors of warming metal

Absorbing sunshine stretching

A Geopoetic Pilgrim — Quarterly Letter 3

In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.-Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams


Dear Readers,
I am in between river journeys now, a perfect time to write about what these last months in the wintery north have held.
The Torne River flows in a landscape of taiga forest marked by the Baltic Sea to the south and the pitched mountains along the Norwegian coast to the north, a region dramatically affected by glaciation from Earth’s most recent ice age and is today frozen half the year. When I met Kjell Kangas who grew up in the region, he told me that he thinks of Tornedalen, Torne Valley, more as archipelago than river valley. Over the heaths and bogs of land still upwelling, lightened from the weight of billions of tons of ice, flow five large rivers — Torne, Kalix, Lainio, Tarendo, and Muonio. Each river is connected to the four others as if the water is weaving a web around the taiga forest, and most impressively, none of these rivers has a dam. 
In winter, Torne is a 550 km blanket of snow covering a foundation of blue, crystal ice that in many places will support the weight of a tractor. Elsewhere, long tumbling rapids prohibit the ice from forming, and the black river bursts through its icy ceiling, raging white over stones and reminding the traveler of caution, that this is indeed a lively river. 
For 200 km, Torne marks the boundary between Sweden and Finland, and many of the Tornedaleners who generously invited me into their homes and shared stories of the place, told of the compelling history that entwines itself through the borderland. Linguistically, Tornedalen is home to Swedish, Sámish, Finnish, Miënkieli, and most recently English. Miënkieli literally means “our language,” and it is a form of antiquated Finnish that has absorbed some Swedish over the years. It is the living, breathing reminder that just over 200 years ago, there was no boundary in Tornedalen, and the residents were northern Finns, Sámi, and Kvener, not Swedish speakers, living within the Swedish Kingdom that maintained sovereignty over the region since the middle ages. 


Then suddenly in 1809 Russia annexed Finland from the Swedish Crown, maintaining influence until the Russian Revolution when Finland took the opportunity to become a sovereign nation in 1917. Through the Great Wars and the rest of the last century, Tornedalen evolved under the auspices of neighboring nation states, at once being torn apart and maintaining a quiet unity across the water, probably aided by the fact that the river becomes lined with ice roads from bank to bank for six months of the year when ice dominates its surface.
My experience in this region cannot be summarized easily, and the reflections will last a lifetime. I was confronted with fragments of nature, myself, and human society around every corner. The fundamental state of this river — a clean, damfree, fishfull, peaceful boundary water — is an uncommon circumstance, and it hosts the largest salmon run in western Europe. It is truly a sanctuary for life. 
After I finished skiing, I taught in the Pajala school, midway along the river’s course, grades 4-9, thanks to Kjell who works there. When speaking with the students, telling them about the dire situation along the Ganges River and its tributaries in Nepal, I asked them to consider what it would be like if the Swedish city upstream, Kiruna, was home to 10,000,000 people instead of 20,000 and had no proper sewage treatment. This gained some exasperated reactions, especially when I showed them an aerial view of Varanasi and one of the sewage drains into the Ganges. But in that moment it occurred to me that it doesn’t take 10,000,000 to pollute a river. Kiruna’s 20,000 people could make Torne’s waters ripe with harmful bacteria and protozoa, at least enough to make the water not potable, while now it is. 
A thorough and regulated mode of processing sewage and strict regulations for pollution and on damming can maintain the abundance of life in a river and keep it pure enough to drink right out of the flow. For many of the Swedish born students in Pajala, the reality of Torne River’s purity was an unimpressive fact. But in the school are many refugees, and the students from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not believe the bounty of fresh water when they arrived. 
A river is not unlike a person; if confined by artificial boundaries, literal like prison bars or figurative like debt, one is stifled even to a tragic degree; if overwhelmed with toxins — sugar, alcohol, drugs, chemicals — the body will unravel dispelling potential for life, especially without modern medical convenience. If one attains the nebulous yet rich heart of freedom, there is opportunity to flourish and to carry others in the wake. I am not trying to say that a dirty river cannot be free, or for that matter a person who takes drugs or is in prison cannot be free, but that perhaps we can form an ideology that places the very land, water, and resources that sustain us in a position of power, with rights, as a gift to ourselves.


Is not freedom the heart of worldly attainment, the foundational goal of so many of our collective ideologies? Is freedom just for us, or can a river be free, a forest, a mountain? Freedom is not achieved alone, but as part of a web of life. Can we work our way in a global world to at once engage our hunger for technology and imbue ourselves with morals embedded in nature, imbue the landscape with its own rights and economy? In a world fissuring at the folds of religion and polarized by nationalism, there is one place that human spirit lies which is common to all of us, in nature.
These journeys are showing me how to rewild myself, my vocabulary, my interactions; how to unlearn the manicured social contracts, lawns of the imagination, that I have with the earth in order to see with fresh eyes that there are bountiful opportunities for us humans to reconnect with one another and our shared landscapes. It’s a matter of revaluing “sense not cents” and thinking like a river, like a bed of soil, to think of gardeners as the aristocracy of connectedness, those who understand the relationships that enable life.
I’ve recognized something about my project that is fitting to close this letter. In many ways I am a pilgrim, searching for everything and nothing, partial only to the path of the river and nature, and the people who happen into my life as a result. I am not trying to unearth anything in particular, to inform a literal map of any area, but rather I will my conscious effort into a rivercentric perambulation that is trying to get at the poetry of land that Barry Lopez writes about, at the heart of nature, that strives so intently to pursue a natural flow, a force among forces. 
As I move about, letting the ineffability of the landscape and other people fill this time, I cannot express the gratitude I feel for the opportunity. Thank you.
From the flow,

Galen

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

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