Kalixälven – Sweden, North of the Artic Circle


Welcome to the first of a series of articles of my adventure through Finland, Sweden and Norway. If you’re looking for something other than the usual crazy stories and wild pictures of slides and huge drops then you’re at the right place. This is a recollection of a simple man’s trip through some of Scandinavia.

In these articles I will try to share with you my experiences and also supply enough photos to give you, the reader, a clearer picture of what is was like. I personally find most websites have too few photos and only of the same old things you tend to find everywhere else. Hopefully my articles will be a little different and set a different scene. All photographs were taken with a Nikon D80 with a standard 18-135mm lens, unless otherwise noted. I paddled with this big SLR between my legs in a Pelican 1300 case. Not exactly the safest thing to do and I’m sure it affected my balance a little as it could rock from side to side, bumping into my calves. I was going to take another smaller camera but decided against it as I would have had to take another Pelican box with and space was limited.


Reindeer are fairly common in many areas of Scandinavia.


First off I’d like to relay my experience of flying with a creek boat, a frightening proposition at first but one which turned out to be almost effortless. This is obviously only my opinion and based on this trip. If this bores you, skip down a little.


“My initial choice of airlines was British Airways, due to their reputation with being a very kayak friendly airline. Various forums and websites revealed what I was hoping for, so before buying the tickets I called them up and asked if flying with the boat would be ok. First off, I was met with resistance from the people at reservations. Then I spoke to someone at unaccompanied baggage, then cargo and then finally the load controller himself. (The person who apparently loads all luggage onto the planes). All I got was a no. Well, I guess that’s our friendly South African’s at their best so I left it at that and bought the tickets anyway, in January. It would be BA from Johannesburg to Heathrow (London) and then Finnair to Helsinki on my first ticket and then also Finnair from Helsinki to Rovaniemi on my second ticket.


According to Finnairs website they allow 3 x 32kg bags for domestic flights. This sounded great. Tuomas said they were fine with loads of skiing equipment so I thought that it should work out fine.


I decided not to warn British Airways about the kayak in case they refused again. Their website clearly states that you are allowed an extra sporting bag with dimensions not more than 2.5 x 1 x 0.8 m and less than 32 kg and I printed out these rules. My large Fluid Solo happened to be 245cm so it just made the cut. With Finnair, I e-mailed them a week before the time and warned them and they asked a few additional questions, like exact dimensions and weight and nothing else really. Of course I down played the weight a little. It seemed they were not too bothered.


On the 20th of June I left my house at 17:30 and arrived at the airport which was a hive of activity! Luckily the trolleys there have a sort of a lip on the end of them and you can put the bow or stern in here and rest the boat on the handle of the trolley. You then end up having to walk alongside the trolley and also watch out for anything above you because the boat is then higher than your head. I stood in the queue and they weighed my trolley with ALL the gear on it. The lady asked if I was business class, I said no. She noted the luggage as 22 kg and crossed out the overweight check box. What a nice lady! The boat alone was about 22, my checked luggage (one bag) about 15 and my hand luggage another 5 or so. My paddles where waiting in Finland so I didn’t have to worry about them then.


As I walked to the check-in counter I removed the checked baggage and my hand luggage and without saying a word, a dude took my kayak to the side. The gentlemen behind the counter asked him if it would fit and he said, for sure. He wasn’t convinced and called someone. Still no one said anything to me, I just stood there and smiled. Two blokes arrived and had a brief discussion. The one spread his hands out with one hand on the tail of the kayak. He looked at what length remained and nodded his head. True professionals these guys! Ha ha. The boat went on without any problems, not even a question from the clerk at the check-in counter about it. I would meet up with my luggage in Helsinki. Looking back, I should have tried to book everything through right to my final destination.


London was the usual nonsense. If you had more than one piece of hand luggage, you were removed from the queue and I actually don’t know what they do. It’s a shame for those people and security was pretty high. X-ray bags, they search you, remove shoes, belts etc.


In Helsinki, it was super easy. An American sounding guy at immigration asked what my purpose of the visit was and he responded with a clichéd ‘right on’ after I told him I would be kayaking there. I waited at the conveyors for my bag and was amazed to see my kayak suddenly appear on there too. No such thing as over sized luggage collection. It just appeared with every one else’s stuff. The trolleys in Helsinki were pretty crap. They didn’t have the lip at the end so I decided to put the kayak on side ways. This worked fine until I had to go through a long corridor. I jammed the nose of the boat into the trolley near to where your feet would be when you push. The boat then sits at a rough forty five degree angle and protrudes forwards and upwards. Just watch out for things above you. My big bag sat underneath the boat, near the front, and my hand luggage on top in that basket.


My next and final flight was still a long way away and I decided to kill some time reading. I found a bench and removed my hand luggage first. I turned to place it on the bench and this was obviously balancing my whole rig and the kayak and trolley toppled over and crashed to the ground with a huge bang. Ah, so this is how to draw extra attention to yourself…


Eventually it was time to check in and I decided no more trolleys for me. I put both bags on one shoulder and carried the kayak by the cockpit rim. By the way, I had nothing inside of the boat. Only a sponge in the water bottle holder area and I had then sealed the boat with an old spray deck and also duct taped it closed. At the check in counter I casually told the lady there that I also wanted to book in this surfing equipment. She flashed a huge smile and said I was the first person she had ever seen bring a surf board to Lapland! I didn’t want to use the word kayak or boat as this confuses people and they are more used to surfboards. After all, some surfing equipment is far lighter than a kayak anyway and they would never know the difference. Everything on again, no more questions, no problems at all. In Rovaniemi the boat came onto the conveyors again and again I found this quite unusual.


On my return journey I booked all the equipment on from Rovaniemi all the way to Johannesburg. This was far smarter. This time I had two paddles taped together and the shafts covered in newspaper. My boat went up empty but on the return journey I decided to leave both float bags inside the boat and also put my spray deck inside the one bag and my wetsuit shorts and two water bottles in the other. Again I left the sponge in the same place. I have a theory. Someone opens the boat because they are curious. They find the Fluid sponge in the shape of Africa, are stoked about their find and take that, not bothering to investigate further. Not sure if that would work but it turned out that my boat was never opened. Initially everything was fine but then 5 minutes before boarding I was called to the check-in counter. Oh no, I thought. The same lady asked if I had paid overweight baggage and I said no. I told her it was no problem coming in with it and she called some people and also radioed some more and luckily Tuomas was still with me as she was rattling off in Finnish and he could understand. He explained to her the rules and she checked them on a sort of an internal regulations chart. Eventually she flashed a smile, said she was wrong and immediately said “bye, bye.” Well that was over very quickly.


In Helsinki I took the Finnair bus into the city and explored a little because I had more than 6 hours to kill. From the airport to town is a 30 minute bus trip and cost 5.20 Euros, one way. Eventually, in South Africa, the luggage appeared on the conveyor and the boat and paddles came through to the oversized baggage area. No problems at all. British Airways and Finnair all the way!”


Tuomas Vaarala.


His younger brother, Juho Vaarala.


And Sami of course!


Right, back to the story: So at about ten o’clock that evening I arrived in Rovaniemi and met Tuomas, the person I had spent so much time talking to on MSN, through e-mail and a little via Skype. The sun was still shining and we headed down to his flat, had a beer, a sauna session and went to bed after midnight. It never got dark at all and at it’s darkest you could read a newspaper outside, throughout the whole trip. Tomorrow the road trip would begin. We got on very well and I think everyone else, but me, were worried that Tuomas and I wouldn’t get along.


From Rovaniemi we drove west to Pello, crossing the mighty Tornio River. It is usually referred to as the Torneälven. I will try my best to stick to the correct spellings, although they do vary. [The ‘älven’ part means river, so the river that will be shown in this article in actually the Kalix River or Kalixälven.] Then north-west through Pajala, a little more west and then south-west onto the 133 towards the Kalix. We turned north before the river and drove upstream on the river left bank towards the infamous Pahakurkkio Rapids.


The Kalix River Valley starts in the high mountains of the north-west of Sweden to the Gulf of Bothnia in the south-east. The river has large numbers of grayling, salmon trout, whitefish and salmon. The Pahakurkkio has some of the best fishing on the Kalix and the salmon living in these large rapids will put your angling skills to the test. Although the volume can vary a fair amount, it flows year round with a peak of around 1000 m³/s in the spring and much lower in winter. In winter, the pools would all be frozen solid with the water flowing beneath. We had around 300 m³/s of water and this provided a fun and exciting run.


Tuomas and I met up with his brother Juho and their mutual friend, Sami. They had camped there the night before and joined us for the run. On arrival I was immediately aware of the vast numbers of mosquitoes. Let me take a moment to let this sink in. There are billions of mosquitoes both in Norway, Sweden and Finland! BILLIONS. If you do not like them, don’t go. You’ll be sorry. Luckily they are only annoying and don’t carry the dreaded malaria like our mozzies back home do. (In certain areas only)


At the put-in, the river looked far wider and bigger than what I was used to.


I stood at the put-in and gazed across at the far side of the river. It seemed very far indeed. If I said I wasn’t more than a little nervous, I would be lying. For this stretch I would leave the Solo and be using the Bliss Stick Flip Stick. A friend of Tuomas’ hadn’t been using the boat for a long time and I would use it for playing until we finally left it at Sjoa. The Flip Stick is quite a cool boat, just very uncomfortable, which takes away a certain amount of coolness. The squashed bow can dig into the shins and the thigh braces are from hell. A brilliant plastic set-up around the knees ensures you will leave the boat with bruised knees. I was wearing shorts (the river was not very cold) and put my spare spray deck between my knees and the boat. This helped a little.


The stretch is about 4 km long and comprises some big volume class III and IV rapids. We got to a sweet rapid and there was a wave on river right and a very meaty and sticky hole on river left. Unfortunately the level was such that it was too high for the wave and too low for some other features further downstream. Well, that’s what Tuomas said to me but I thought it was great either way. The hole was a little intimidating at first and I played very carefully. Once you got out of control a beating would ensue and you would typically not flush. The usual way to get out was to gain control and surf out the sides. Luckily I didn’t make any major mistakes but I enjoyed watching the others take the occasional pounding as they went for some bigger moves.


Sami cartwheeling in the sticky hole.


The first spot we played at.


Adrian T enjoying the hole too. Photo from Tuomas' camera.


There are loads of waves and holes on the entire stretch, many of which have eddy service. A play boaters dream I’d say. Further down was another large rapid with two huge waves. I missed the eddy on the left and found myself on the right. Luckily there was a wave here too and I tried to surf it. I was super fast but way too flushy and doing any moves was incredibly difficult.


The next big rapid starts with an island, left of centre. We hugged the islands right bank and skirted a few really nasty pourover holes before making our way very quickly to the right. This was the first rapid we scouted. Let me add that if you are running this stretch without anyone who knows the section, you will probably have to scout a lot more. There are some dodgy holes and spots you really don’t want to be in. The lines looked relatively simple and Juho and Sami went up to demonstrate while Tuomas took some video footage and I took some stills. Our run was fine too and we missed the two really bad keeper holes. If you swim here, you better get to the bank very fast. The next rapid (there is no pool between them) starts with a slide and goes into a large and fairly long rapid. We proceeded through the wave train and made our way to the left bank and got out to scout the final rapid.


The first rapid we scouted; to make sure we didn't end up in any bad holes.


Juho (foreground) and Sami (background) missing the holes.


This one starts off with a slide on the left and a keeper hole on the far right. You do not want to go there. The line is very wide and simple initially and keeping upright is the name of the game. There is a calmer section of a few meters and then you miss a hole which is on your left and head up onto a curling wave to your right to ride down between two more holes. At high levels, the line stays the same, but at really high water theres a monster of a hole on the left, but the pour-overs are washed away so you pretty much run it down the middle. They have had swims on this section and they chased one boat for more than 5 km downstream before finally getting it to the bank!


The entry to the final rapid starts off very gently.


Juho just managing to keep it together and right on line through the final rapid.


Adrian T (left) and Tuomas (right; red boat) running the final rapid together. Photos by Sami.


The big water was quite new to me and my big water experience is quite limited. Running rapids that are one hundred meters wide and you don’t ever scrape the bottom are something fairly new to me! But I loved every minute of it. The water is fairly clear too and in the shallower section in the start of the run you can see the scenery whipping on by below your boat. Even though this is a large river and also a very long one, you can drink the water straight. In fact I drank the water from every single river without any hassles except that of the Sjoa. I was advised not to because of farming upstream. My stomach is very sensitive and I was nervous at first drinking the water but throughout the trip I never carried a water bottle.


Adrian T. Photo by Sami.


Juho’s car was at the take-out and the four of us drove back up to the camp. Tuomas cooked up a sweet pasta dish and we chilled for a little while. Unfortunately Juho and Sami had to return home and we bid them farewell as they drove down our car to the take-out. We had decided to run the section again, scouting nothing. This time, I used my Fluid Solo (large) to get a feel as to how it would handle the big water and Tuomas stayed in his play boat.


The first big wave came up on the right and I enjoyed a short front surf there in the creek boat. The river took us further down and Tuomas and I paddled down. We arrived at the rapid with the two big waves and he tried to punch the wave on the left but could not. I was far too close to him and hit his boat with my chest. The wave grabbed us both and I slipped backwards down its face, turned and surfed off. Woo hoo, good times for us both. The rapid with the slide was a breeze and we had completed the run already. Wow, that was great fun. The first day, the first river, with many more to come.


That afternoon we drove off and continued west to Gällivare, then south-west a little and then south towards Jokkmokk. But before we got to Jokkmokk we found a sweet camping spot high above a dry river bed. A dam just upstream at Harsprånget ensured that the river was not flowing. We gazed down at the beautiful gorge and at the mighty river bed. One can only imagine huge masses of water thundering through this special place.  This happened to be the night of the 22nd of June, the longest day of the year and also the biggest party of the year for all Finns. Our party consisted of having a half a dozen beers each, on our own, with only nature supplying the music and eventually at 02:30 sleeping outside under the dimmed sky. With some hills around us we would get a little extra ‘darkness’.


Our camp site on the first night. This was the maximum darkness we could find.


Splendid view the following morning.


We awoke to the sun beating down onto our dehydrated brains and another day of driving and paddling. This was the life.






Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated. Thanks to Tuomas for his photo.

Words by: Adrian Tregoning.


Next article: Kultsjöån (Sweden)