Those smiling faces in the photo above belong to seven intrepid travelers who are straddling the line that marks the Arctic Circle. We crossed that boundary late yesterday afternoon (Sunday, June 6) after a long, but eventful day that began several hundred miles away in Umeå, and concluded (finally) in Jokkmokk, the small town where we'll be staying for the next 12 days, while the group takes part in a class on Indigenous Traditional Knowledge.
Once we had everything packed up in the van yesterday morning, we picked up Krister Stoor, who will be the instructor for the course here in Jokkmokk. While Krister's presence necessitated a bit of repacking and resettling in the van, any possible discomfort was immediately assuaged by his humor and knowledge of the region, which he dispensed in equal shares all day long. The promise of fresh rhubarb/raspberry pie, which Krister's wife, Karin, had sent along for the journey made him an even more welcome addition to the gang.
Our first stop brought the group face-to-face with evidence of the region's earliest inhabitants, in the form of petroglyphs that have been dated to 2400 BCE.
Over the last decades, more
than 300 of these rock carvings have been discovered just below a dam that
marks the confluence of the Ume and Vindeln rivers. Since the dam's construction, the area has been combed over
by archaeologists, seeking any indication of early settlements, presumably by
the forebears of the Sámi, who were clearly in the area before Indo-European
peoples moved in from the south.
Among the images are those depicting people, boats and above all, moose, which were not only abundant throughout the region, but played a significant role in the belief system of those who made the carvings.
This is how to make coffee...
Continuing our journey on a northwesterly trajectory, we soon encountered the Vindeln River, which is still dangerously close to flood stage, thanks in large part to a very heavy snowfall in the lower elevations last winter, and exacerbated by equally heavy rainfall this spring. Many of the convenient places to stop along the roadside, have a cup of coffee and admire the surroundings were either submerged or at least too wet from recent flooding. Leave it to our Sámi guide, however, to know the perfect spot for a brief lunchtime picnic: Mårdseleforsen, one of three major rapids along the Vindeln. We packed up the necessary food and headed down the path to the river, which was moving along at a frightening pace. When the gang realized Krister was heading for the suspension bridge that crossed over the rapids, one could sense more than a little trepidation, but that quickly evolved into excitement as we watched some older folks accomplish the crossing successfully.
Once on the other side, we found a conveniently placed, sturdy picnic table (those Swedish tax monies at work), and Krister proceeded to build a fire in the fire pit that adjoined our space. Out came his Sámi knife, sharp enough to shave paper-thin slices from a chunk of pine to serve as kindling, and in what seemed like seconds the fire was blazing away.
While this undoubtedly
delighted those who were feeling a bit chilled (the temp was hovering around
50F), the real purpose of this whole process was to brew up some real coffee, i.e., boiled in a coffeepot
directly over an open flame.
I must admit to being an unrepentant coffee snob, disdaining to drink virtually any coffee I don't make myself from beans I purchase directly from the roaster I used to work for, but Sámi coffee is the exception. It's strong, thick and has a slightly smoky quality, thanks to the open fire, and frankly is usually made from whatever ground coffee is at hand. Apparently, I'm not alone in this judgment, however, as the coffee drinkers amongst us all had seconds, particularly since the slightly tart character of the rhubarb-raspberry pie proved to be the perfect gustatory counterpart to the bitter brew.
Once back in the car, having successfully renegotiated the suspension bridge, this time with a little caffeine incentive roaring through our systems, we settled in for another long cruise through endless miles of woods along small, smoothly paved roads. I should probably clarify that these are not the dense forests those of you New Englanders are familiar with. One marked difference is the preponderance of birch and willow, intermixed with spruce and fir. Moreover, the ground vegetation primarily comprises low bushes, many of which produce edible berries, including lingon and blueberries. Visually, then, these forests have a transparent quality, enhanced by the shimmering birch leaves that reflect even the slightest light. The further north one travels, the birch and willow virtually take over, with fewer conifers to contend with; the species also change, as is evident by the size of the trees--given the harshness of arctic and subarctic climate, not surprisingly the trees are stunted, some of them reaching only a few feet in height when fully matured. Add this to the myriad mires and sudden rocky outcroppings, and this whole region has an otherworldly character that is very hard to describe.
Of "Lappstads" and other interesting sites
As the day waned, Krister and I realized we'd best stop to do a bit of grocery shopping, especially given the fact that it was a Sunday, and the stores in Jokkmokk would undoubtedly close early. This happily coincided with our arrival in Arvidsjaur, a lovely spot in its own right, but even more so because of its place in Sámi history. Until well into the 19th century, all Swedes were required to attend church regularly, including those Sámi who fell under the control of the Swedish crown. Yet it was clearly impractical to expect people who migrated constantly to show up every Sunday morning, well scrubbed and contrite, so a compromise was struck. On three or four occasions each year, Sámi populations were expected to converge on specific towns, where they would spend several days attending to church-related matters, ranging from weddings and christenings to simple church services. But what to do with these potentially large crowds of people in towns that clearly didn't have extra housing? The answer was simple: each affected town would set aside a specific space upon which the Sámi would erect simple, permanent huts and storage spaces, which would then serve as their accommodations whenever they came into the area for these specific church days.
Of course, this also played right into existing racist ideology when it came to Swedish-Sámi relations, for it clearly meant that the Sámi were segregated from the dominant Swedish population. What better way to reinforce the second-class status of the Sámi than to ensure that they wouldn't mix with the Swedes, but would remain in their own special, enclosed area? For the Sámi, however, these "Lappstads" (Lapp towns) provided an unparalleled opportunity to meet up with old friends and generally have a very good time with one another, despite the watchful eyes of their more properly repentant Swedish neighbors.
Arvidsjaur was one of these locations, dating back at least 200 years, and today its Lappstad has been declared a UNESCO historical heritage location, which means it is still in use and meticulously maintained according to traditional restrictions. There is no electricity or running water in any of the huts, although there is a convenient bathroom built to resemble the traditional structures, on the edge of the plot. Krister walked us through the Lappstad, stopping to explain how the interiors are built to resemble a traditional Sámi tent, and demonstrating the proper way one moves within this space, being careful not to cross over the area behind the hearth, for fear of disturbing the spiritual atmosphere that attains to this spot. While people are obviously no longer forced to attend church, this Lappstad still sees a fair amount of use, since it continues to provide an ideal location for gathering people who may be spread apart by the vicissitudes of modern living. At the very least, families who own a hut in this location, congregate at least once per year during August for a large celebration of their Sámi heritage, and a reminder of their shared past in this particular region.
After Arvidsjaur, it was basically just more driving, now heading almost directly due north as we approached the Circle. By the time we finally arrived, the temp had dropped rather significantly to the low 40s, but that didn't stop us from taking full advantage of the photo-op this moment provided.
As we settle into the daily routine here, I have to admit I'm not entirely sure how often I'll be adding to this blog, but I'll certainly make contributions whenever I feel there's something worth sharing. In the meantime, please rest assured we're all doing well and looking forward to the start of classes.