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The Tornio River Valley – Part II

 Author’s note: One doesn’t tend to think of Finland and Sweden as a hot-bed of multiculturalism. Think again. The culture of the Fenno-Swedish border is a fascinating mix of peoples that came from all over the region. In Part I, I explored the ancient settlement history of an area travellers should put on thier TO DO list. Part II dives into some of the … peculiarities … of the Valley. I walked the length of the TornioValley in the summer of 2003.

I left from Kemi late in the morning. A cracked bike path led from the concrete-box town center into a rundown suburb, past the church at Paattio and into a giant strip mall where I became lost. I wandered for over an hour between the highways, gas stations, super-stores, car sales lots, and roadside restaurants. The air was filled with the roar of cars and trucks and stank of exhaust fumes. The sky was heavy with clouds and the temperature had dropped ten degrees from the day before.tornio

I struck out on a highway to cross the Kemijoki as there was no footpath. The bridge was under construction and the asphalt was fresh and hot. A steam-roller moved back and forth with a bleary-eyed teenager at the helm. The cars fell into a single line and I joined the fray, forcing dozens of drivers to creep along behind me. The other side of the river was more of the same big-box retail: the Wal-Marts of Finland. More giant food stores, RV and auto sales, roadside cafeterias, hardware super-centers and vast parking lots. Eventually, I found a bike path that took me all the way to Tornio, a border town that had been, in medieval days, the home base for the infamous Pirkka tax collectors. Across the Tornionjoki was Haparanda, the Swedish border town. Tornio was rather ugly, a collection of junked cars, stained carpets, broken windows and trash piled in alleyways. The people, however, were exceedingly friendly.


This Tornio, a miniscule and distant town, tucked up tight to the edge of the world, was somehow a major international crossroads when it came to travelers. Not only were there the Italians Bellotti and Acerbi in 1799 but also of Jean Franc Regnard who came to Tornio in 1681. Regnard, a rather self-satisfied aristocrat, was one of the first known Frenchmen to travel this far north and claimed, from Jukasjervi, that he had arrived at the end of the world.

Jukasjervi is a little over two hundred miles of forest and river south of the Arctic Ocean.

Regnard was roundly criticized upon publication of his journals. He claimed to have met men whose hands were calloused so that they could hold molten steel in their palms. He also claimed to have seen young reindeer carried away by eagles, a claim that Acerbi ridiculed but that we now know to be a common occurrence. Somewhere in Lapland, Regnard met a Frenchman who lived and worked among the Sámi as a blacksmith. The man assured Regnard that the only other southern European that had come through Lapland had been an Italian.

That Italian could only have been Francesco Negri, a priest from Ravenna who travelled to Stockholm in 1661, then on to Norway by way of Copenhagen, and to Tornio and the Tornio Valley to the North Cape in 1663. He was born of a wealthy and highly respected family. He had been expected join the priesthood and did so out of deference and respect for his family. But like many young men, Negri hadFrancesco Negri already fallen in love with a book of maps.

In 1539 the Swedish priest Olaus Magnus published his Carta Marina in Venice. It became an instant success throughout the Italian city-states. Although the maps adequately represented Fennoscandanavia, the Arctic Ocean remained the mysterious and mercurial body of legends and monsters reported by Ottar the Viking, Adam of Brendan, The Old English Orosuis and the Arab mariners. The empty spaces of the Arctic Ocean were filled with killer whales, fire-breathing sea serpents that could take down an entire ship and, of course, the Kraken: a huge, many-armed, creature that could reach as high as the top of a sailing ship’s main mast. The Kraken would attack a ship by wrapping its arms around the hull of the vessel and capsize it, picking the crew from the water and crushing them one by one with a cruel beak.

Negri related his travels in a series of eight letters, all published after his death in 1698. Upon his return from Lapland, he served as an advisor on the North to the likes of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, and to his secretary and librarian, Antonio Magliabechi. About the North he corresponded with Count Lorenzo Magalotti and the Florentine Academicians. It may have been from Negri that Lapland and the idea of Lapland began its own journey through the presses of Italian exoticism and fantasy to become something that even Scandinavians couldn’t possibly recognize – and may have been a driving force behind the journeys of both Regnard and Acerbi.

Then there was the rabble of astronomers and scientists that passed through Tornio: the relentless Aubris de la Motraye came through the town on May 19th, 1718, the twenty-second year of his twenty-six year journey around the world. He wrote that it was a very hot day and the wreckage the Russians had left were still smoldering. He ascended the river in a stubby boat and proceeded through Lapland to Russia. Sweden’s pre-eminent botanist Carolus Linnaeus, on the lead of his mentor Olof Rudbeck, passed through Tornio to Lapland in the summer of 1732. Linnaeus fell in love with the Sámi people and their culture.

The geographical expedition of Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis followed Linnaeus in January 1736. Maupertuis had been charged by L’Académie Française des sciences with taking a series of measurements from the Arctic Circle that would help determine the true shape of the planet Earth. It is via the Abbé Réginald Outhier through whose publication Journal of a Voyage to the North in the Years 1736-1737, we know about the details of the expedition and a great deal about the details of life in the Tornio Valley at the time.

There were still other travelers to the Tornio: the Marquis Paul Arconti Visconti in 1783 and Le Chevalier Statella, a knight of Malta, soon after. Two Americans, a John Stewart and William Langhorn passed several days in Tornio in 1787. Langhorn was well-known for his walking achievements, having walked up the coast and then into the Norwegian mountains during the summer. In the fall he returned to Tornio and then walked on to Archangel and boarded a ship bound for England that foundered on the north coast of Ireland. None of the passengers drowned, but the experience left Langhorn with the need to set his prints on Irish soil and so he walked to Dublin, hopped a ferry to England, and then walked to Plymouth where he boarded a vessel to New York and home.

At the time of Acerbi’s visit, two Englishman, Mr. Clark and Mr. Cripps, were resting up on their File:PierreLouisMaupertuis.jpgjourney into Russia. There was also Jöns Svanberg, who was taking observations for the Swedish Academy of Sciences. 1827 found Arthur de Capell Brooke in Tornio and Lönnrot arrived in the summer of 1842.

I left Tornio the morning of August 5th. The river was wide and the land flat. In the blue of the haze and the clouds, it was difficult to distinguish between the sea, the river and the land. I followed a paved bike path for over six miles then walked along the highway again.

The land slowly rose as I went north and, little by little, the river narrowed. At Kukkola rapids it dropped forty-five feet in just over two miles and men with long nets stood out on planks of wood that hovered over the whitewater. They took trout, salmon, char and whitefish and sold them to a pretty blond girl who smoked the fish and sold them in greasy chunks from the café. I ate three chunks of whitefish and waved to the tourists on the Swedish side.

All the houses were neat and lovely and painted deep red.

The nights became longer and around midnight on August 6th I could see Venus, the first star I had seen in several months. In Kemi the day time temperature had been 68 F. By Karunki it was 60F in the day and at night it dropped to 40F. Heavy dew formed on my tent, my shoes and my pack leaving me soaked and shivering in the morning.

tornioBy Yli-Tornio there were hills. The valley was lush. The hay had been cut and bundled into massive, white plastic rolls. There were houses all along the Swedish side and cell phone towers on nearly every hill.

The clouds were low, puffy and white against a purple storm; sunlight touched the green hill tops.


On my thirty-fourth birthday I walked several miles along a highway to the foot of the Aavasaksa fell. It rose eight hundred feet above the sea and six hundred and forty feet above the Tornionlaakso. The morning was hot and the traffic rather heavy.

It was very windy and the air was full of the cotton that comes from the horsma plant.

The Aavasaksa fell sloped up evenly from the southwest then dropped precipitously to the North. The top was relatively flat and covered in a thick stand of pine. There were no walking trails until nearly the top so I walked along a road until I grew tired of the noise and then cut into the forest. The fell, nothing more than a small hill, has been designated as a “Nature Protection Area”, but protected from what? There was a wide paved road to the top, a huge vacation village, a ski-slope, a cafe, a theatre, two parking lots, observation tower, museum and cell phone tower.

The observation tower, a red-brick structure glassed in on top, rose several dozen feet from a rocky point near Alexander II’s Imperial lodge. To the west were the towns of Aavasaksa and Övertorneå, divided by a wide blue ribbon of river. There was a smattering of farms on the Swedish side and square clear-cuts in the distance. To the north the fells rolled away along the banks of the river, growing in size to the north. Heavy grey rain clouds lashed the forest with tendrils of water. To the east and south lay a series of farms, the fields striped in dozens of shades of green. The Tengeliönjoki flowed from what seemed to be an artificial lake, through a hydropower station and into a channel that took it along the north side of the Aavasaksa fell where it dumped into the Tornionjoki. The rain washed down over the fells and onto Aavasaksa, catching me before I could make it down to the village where I sat and drank beer in a luke-warm sauna with a massive, tattooed man from Tampere who worked in a nearby cement factory. The kiuas were too small to adequately heat the sauna and the floor didn’t have a proper drain. The water gathered around our shins. We complained to each other on end but we didn’t leave.

North of Turtola, I came upon a funeral.


In Pello, I met a woman who carried a fishing pole, a frozen pizza and a small container full oftornio cloudberries.

“I didn’t expect it to be so hot at the Arctic Circle,” I said.

She offered to buy me a beer.

Pello was a long, strung-out town of several hundred homes, a strip-mall and a campground. The highway ran directly through the center.

“The weather is changing,” she said. “This is the third very hot summer in a row. But it’s been getting hotter every summer for several years now. Actually, as long as I can remember. Every year there are fewer mosquitoes which means less food for the birds. I’ve seen that the birds have smaller broods, one or two babies instead of three or four. There are less berries. The river is low. There are fewer fish and now that the water is so hot, the salmon can’t breathe and they are dying. Yesterday I saw several dozen dead salmon by the shore.”

She had been born in Finland but raised in Gothenburg. Later they moved to Oulu and finally to Pello when she was teenager. Now she was entering middle-age, slightly heavy with ridiculously large breasts and blue eyes that held a hint of insanity. I didn’t like the way she looked at me. She lived with her mother and sister on a remote farm east of Pello.

Making money was a struggle. “In the city you live in a narrow world. Out here you are forced to broaden your horizons.”

She worked at the Pello campground. The campground lounge was packed with local folk art. Most of the paintings were of landscapes or fish. They were, technically, rather impressive but completely tasteless and totally overpriced. She taught part time at two schools in Finland and one in Sweden. She also worked, part-time, as a secretary, and painted small portraits of trees and flowers that she sold at a tourist shop. Her mother passed the days fishing or hunting and her sister was an expert in collecting and preserving berries which they either sold or traded for the things they needed.

“I see animals every day. Wolverine, bear, eagles. If I don’t see a wild animal every day I get depressed. That’s why I live here.”

The winters were different too, she said. “The cold is much more severe. But it comes later and goes earlier and we hardly get any snow anymore.” During the winter of 2002-2003 the cold killed nearly a third of her strawberries and half her fruit trees. Some of her friends lost everything. “This is unknown up here.”

In the evening, Sweden was in shadow. The river was a cold blue, silent and glassy. The clouds were heavy. There were no boats and no fishermen and not another human being within sight. I sat on the grass, between my tent and the water, and studied my maps.


Suddenly, a man stood next to me. He carried a fishing pole and a cigarette that dangled loosely from his lips. He had a sad moustache and a tattoo on his left hand. He checked his watch, shuffled his feet then checked his watch again. I checked my watch. It was nearly 7pm. Then there was another man next to him, and a boy. They were gaunt and tired looking. Both wore knee-high rubber boots and orange life vests and they also carried fishing poles. All stood in silence, checking their watches. They were incredible caricatures of the hearty angler. I checked my watch again and looked around. Something was going to happen.

And then it was 7pm. The three dashed towards the river and then dozens of men and women in life vests, fishing vests, rubber boots and mosquito hats appeared from nowhere. Everyone was smoking and rushing to the river. Some jumped in boats that had been hidden in the reeds, others cast from the shore and still more boats appeared from both upstream and downstream. Everyone was yelling or talking and laughing. The hollow bump of wooden oars on wooden hulls echoed up and down the water. A motor didn’t start and a man began swearing “perkele, perkele” (fuck, fuck). Several bottles of Lapin Kulta beer appeared and then a boatload of boys passed by, trolling and drowning themselves in kossu. Someone fell in the river. Two women were shouting at each other down in the reeds and a shoe flew into the water. Absolutely everyone was smoking.

tornioA rather heavy-set woman with a mullet and black lycra biking shorts came and stood next to me, arms crossed. She wore a pair of hoop earrings that hung almost to her shoulders.

“What’s happening?” I asked her.

“Friday is August 15th. That’s the last day of fishing. They only allow fishing at night, Wednesday through Sunday, to let the salmon move upstream to spawn. It keeps the population healthy. After Friday, there’ll be no fishing until next June.”

I could hardly sleep that night for all the noise on the river.

In the morning, I climbed Kittisvaara. A hawk dove into a flock of sparrows then moved off and up the valley. The south-facing slope had recently been thinned and the slash lay in huge piles on the ground. It had dried and turned to a rust color, ensuring that the hill stood out against the surrounding green. On top, an eight-foot high stone and cement pyramid stood in the pines. It bore a plaque commemorating the Maupertuis expedition.

Besides the monument, there was nothing else to see.

Next to the road again, a giant truck full of food nearly ran me down. The traffic was relentless until Orajärvi, where a reindeer, smashed to a pulp by a car or truck, lay rotting in the horsma, leatherleaf and species of poa.

I kept going.

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