The Kultsjöån – Swedish Beast


From our roadside camp we drove south towards Jokkmokk, further south through Moskosel and to Arvidsjaur. From there we headed west to Sorsele and took a smaller road further west to Gardjönäs, south to Dikanäs and shortly after that came to the mighty Kultsjöån.

The road took us along the rivers edge and I pressed my face close to the window to catch a glimpse of this beautiful river. Between the trees I caught scenes of rushing water, slow moving water then more white again as Tuomas drove on. Every now and then we would get a full look at the river as it flowed steadily in the opposite direction. The water was a dark tannin colour and looked rather ominous as we arrived at the take-out. A quick inspection of the level revealed nothing unusual and Tuomas said it had always been roughly at this level. The Kultsjöån flows through some lakes upstream and this, combined with the fact that the catchment is rather large makes for a mostly predictable flow.


Seeing as though we were short handed we would leave the bicycle at the take-out and use that to collect the car some 8 km up the road. There were about three caravans at the take-out and safety in Scandinavia is almost never an issue. Very much unlike South Africa! I couldn’t believe that we would just be leaving the bicycle there unattended and that it would still be there complete with wheels, when we got back. Back home I would often wonder if the radio would be stolen or have visions of returning back to a car sitting on bricks (with no wheels) or not even there at all.


The Kultsjöån looks like a rather lazy river for most of its way when you drive past but as we got to the put-in I saw some bigger drops. It is very broad in places and this affords the paddler with a variety of interesting lines. You can run anything from two to maybe five or six smaller channels if you’re up to it. There was another small camp type area at the put-in and we ate some food before we put onto the river. We had driven all day and had not eaten too much. The mosquitoes were out in full force (as they usually were) and long pants were often a very good idea. The time then was around about half past eight in the evening.


The lead in to the drop below. Photo by Tuomas Vaarala.


Adrian running it first. Photos by Tuomas Vaarala.


Classic Swedish scenery. Photo by Tuomas Vaarala.


Tuomas on the lead in to the drop.


Tuomas running it a little left but still styling it easily.


The first couple of drops were small until we got to the first real drop. This involved a small hole to punch, some fast moving water and then straight over a roughly three meter drop. The line to run was round about the middle. Right was a rock about a meter from the base of the drop that you would piton into and then probably be taken into the hole at the base. Left is not as clean although it’s an option. To Tuomas’ surprise I opted to go first. I was feeling confident that day and eager to paddle.


My line was sweet and no problems. Tuomas had some difficulties and ended up running the drop on the far left but still had a dry run. When the high spring waters come he paddles his play boat all of the time and by the time the annual trip comes round he is out of touch of his creek boat. Remember, the poor guy is surrounded by snow and ice for almost half of the year and cannot paddle then. It is quite surprising then that the level of paddling with which these guys paddle is very high. I guess when it’s good its good and some of the best whitewater in the world is just down the road from them.


Tuomas running a small slide and punching a sticky hole at the bottom.


Some smaller rapids followed and also a nice little slide which we quickly scouted and I took a few photos. Moving down with only two of us was a real pleasure and even though it is not ideal from a safety point of view, I actually prefer to only paddle with one other person. We came to an awesome four to five meter drop and Tuomas decided to go first. There is a small lateral type hole above the lip feeding to the left and he ran it a little too far left. I left my perch on the rock where I was taking photos and moved back towards my boat. Feeling excited about this one I decided to hit the hole a little more right than what I had planned when first scouting it. My line felt spot on although the boof I had planned was not as flat as I would have liked even though the landing was sweet. Surprisingly my head didn’t even get wet. Wow, I was really loving this river. Tuomas decided to run it again and I clambered back onto the rock and prepared to take some stills. His line was far better this time although he wasn’t satisfied with the take-off from the lip.


Tuomas showing how it's done.


Adrian running the same drop. Good fun! Photos by Tuomas Vaarala.


Unhappy with his fist line, Tuomas went back to run it again.


Further downstream we came to a fairly serious rapid. The line is fairly technical and not really one you want to mess up. Let me stop to explain. The rocks on the Kultsjöån are like knives. The sharpest rocks I have ever come across and they are really hard on the boat. In fact, many of the rivers in Sweden and Norway have very sharp rocks in them. Apart from the type of rock it actually is, there is another reason. There is no sediment in the water. In South Africa most of the rivers are heavy in sediment and this sediment acts as a sort of grinding paste on the rocks, smoothing them quite a bit. (not all rocks, it depends) Because the waters in Scandinavia are so crystal clear, there is nothing to really smooth these rocks. I had seen a video of Sami going upside down on this rapid and he rolled with blood gushing from his head. The thought of that happening made me extra worried and I had serious doubts about running this one.


Tuomas went first and somehow fluffed the line and ended up on river left. He finished off the rapid scraping through the some shallow stuff on the left. I was thinking about portaging but then decided to give it a bash. I walked back to my boat and nervously climbed in.


I lined up on a reference point and headed towards the rapid. There are two drops straight after each other and you don’t want to get caught in either of the holes that form beneath these drops. Luckily it’s not too hard and you’ve just got to stay upright. Then paddle hard towards another hole and make sure you exit on the right, changing direction about sixty degrees. There is a big rooster tail on the left and you want to be right of this as you punch the diagonal next to it and ride on top of it, changing direction 90 degrees to the left. If you mess this up you will end up in the hole after the rooster tail and this can be a little tricky. The hole is quite sticky but at least it has an exit to river right as the main flow is right of the hole itself. Mission complete, I managed to run the line perfectly. What a huge relief!


Adrian on tricky rapid. Photos by Tuomas Vaarala.


There are many, many rapids on this section and far too many to describe. Rated as a class IV and V run, you will have to scout quite a bit if you’re running with someone who hasn’t paddled this section before. Luckily Tuomas has done this section before and knew most of the lines and hazards. He would explain a few things to me and then charge ahead. I would try and remember what he said and half follow his line, half boat scout, half survive. Ok, ok, so it’s thirds then to be precise! With this method we ran some fairly big rapids and I definitely had my heart in my throat on more than one occasion.


Running through a narrower section Tuomas warned of the roughly two meter drop at the end with a bad hole. The lead in is totally blind and a feisty rapid precedes this with some small but sticky holes. One of the holes almost flipped me and I aggressively regained control and made hard to the left as the rapid took a turn to the left and towards the final drop. No problems here and we finished this one. I looked back and thought to myself that these are the type of rapids I usually scout.


The following rapid was a real winner. We got out early and walked down the bank. I looked at the lead in and it looked simple. Then it ended abruptly. When I finally got to the end I stood there and laughed excitedly. The first thing that came into my mind (I’m not sure why) was Kalagala on the White Nile. I decided this one would be called Mini-Kalagala and that was that. I remembered this drop from the video and the fact that no one had run it upright. Excitedly, I handed over the camera to Tuomas and he set up his video camera on the rocks too. My plan was to get some left to right momentum, boof the lip and land, clear of the hole. I made my way gingerly down the entry and tried to get my bearings. Initially I wasn’t certain of my line but as I came closer I got right on to where I planned. The strokes went perfectly but I did not really clear the hole. On the right is a sort of a seam with a huge boil next to it. I landed on top of that seam and got pulled right back. From the photos you can see how it almost flips me over to my right, but through luck I stay upright. It turned my boat through one hundred and eighty degrees and I pushed back with my paddle. The hole itself is actually not too retentive just really powerful and wild.


Tuomas went next, followed a similar line to mine but maybe a little more left and boofed smartly, only to disappear for a while and then rocket up to the surface in a sweet back loop. The Mini-Kalagala is really a fun rapid and impossible to finish without a smile.


Adrian almost eating it on the rapid we call 'The Mini-Kalagala'. Photos by Tuomas Vaarala.


Tuomas emerging from the river bottom with speed!


Next up came a large river wide drop. We scouted from the right and I remembered, again from the video, that they had run an awesome line on the left. This line is fairly tricky and if you go too left, you will probably die. The water rushes strongly across the top of the drop and into a waterfall. The base looks really bad with huge boils and some rocks can even be seen. This is not the kind of place to you want to go. The next option was a clean drop that looked around about eight or so meters. I decided I’d take that one as it had probably never been run. In fact, this river is very rarely run. It is too off the beaten path for most people. Later on in the trip I was telling some Swedish guys about the river and they had never even heard of it before… Tuomas was not having a good day at all and decided he would portage, but not without taking some photos first. He had run the line left of my one before in any case.


I climbed into my boat and looked back to the lip. Now was it left of the second or third rock, damn! There were two rocks and three drops. All of a sudden I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see Tuomas as he was high up on the right bank with the camera. The only logical thing to do was to climb out and confirm the line. Idiot I thought to myself. I checked it out quickly and hurried back to the boat. The black water above the drop moved with an indifferent determination and I lined up to the left of the second rock. Right on line but I didn’t run it too well. I was nervous to stroke too hard on the lip as I didn’t want to boof this one and ended up not stroking at all. A flat landing might have resulted in a broken back and paddlers have broken theirs on far smaller drops. I melted the drop and landed vertically, but leaning back. Not exactly ideal. The landing was very hard and I thought my paddle had snapped but I rolled, easily only to find the paddle still in tact and myself between two jets of water and behind them. My heart was pumping and the adrenalin flowing strongly. I paddled hard forwards but could not get out. Again, I tried to skirt the main flow of the drop to the left of me but I could not get out at all. I drifted back behind the drops again and remained calm. When you’re in a situation like that you are totally on your own and no one can help you then. Of course I knew that and I never run a drop to rely on somebody else saving me. Perhaps I am a little over cautious at times. The only option was to paddle under the curtain of the drop to my left. With my body leaning forward to protect my deck and head down I went into it easily and out the other side. Not home free yet I had to ferry across the main flow from the left. The water pushed strongly onto some horrible rocks and the stroked powerfully on my right, again and again. As I emerged on the other side I only then realised my heart was beating and my right triceps were killing me. I looked back at the drop again and felt alive. That is what kayaking is about.


Adrian running an excellent drop but getting a little stuck behind the curtain. Photos by Tuomas Vaarala.


Within two hundred meters there is another big rapid. Quite a long one and it would be great to run but right at the end there are some very dodgy rocks that the final slide finishes off into. If you weren’t accurate, and you’d probably have to have more luck than anything else, you could have ankles/legs or boat broken. Tuomas walked from the previous drop and I wondered where he was. The vegetation is fairly thick and typical Scandinavian style; trees, trees and more trees. The ground is super soft and spongy and your feet usually sink in as you walk on the lush undergrowth. As I heaved the boat around the rapid the sweat built up on my face. The hotter I became, the more mozzies would home in and try their best to make a meal of me.


Below the portage, and this was the only rapid we portaged, the river continued broad and fairly swift moving. I had never seen that many midges (small bugs, more annoying than mozzies) in my life before. They were like some sort of a plague as if we were being punished for being in this sacred place. Luckily the Sweet Strutter has a peak on it and I put my head down, paddled forward and parted the insects like Moses the Red Sea.


The view downstream of the portage rapid.


There were some smaller rapids and then we came to a large horizon line. Tuomas said it was an easy slide and that I shouldn’t have any problems. He asked if we should scout and I said no we’ll just do it and see what happens. Sitting in an eddy above the drop I leaned over the rocks to try and get a better look. It looked intimidating. Tuomas went down and I watched him accelerate very quickly. No problems for him until he suddenly got caught in a sticky ledge hole right at the end. I watched from my boat for about two or three seconds and then popped my deck, jumped out, grabbed my throw rope and sprinted down on the left bank. The slide is around fifty meters long and from the time he got caught until I got down to him was quite some time! As I got there he had jumped ship and somehow made it to an island on the right. Once the slide ends there is a pool of about ten meters and then another smaller, very nasty and rocky slide which he luckily didn’t go down. His boat was recirculating in the eddy in front of me and I grabbed it. With the help of a throw bag we managed to get his boat to him, on the island, and he gingerly climbed back in from his position.


Next up was me. The slide drops just more than two meters and into a big curler/wave/diagonal thing which you disappeared into and then fairly straight forward as it turns to the right and ends with the hole. The entry is about four meters broad and then narrows up a touch and then broadens out within a few meters. I gave it horns and couldn’t believe how fast and wild the ride was. The hole at the end didn’t appeal to me and I made sure that I gave it a wide berth. During the trip down I managed to put a small chip into the right blade of my paddle, but at least remained upright and intact. I was pretty disappointed about the paddle though. But I guess that's life and these things happen.


From here on the rapids were a little smaller. There was the odd exception and again, if you hadn’t paddled the section before you would have to occasionally jump out to get a better view from the bank before carrying on. The last two or three rapids had some stickier holes and required a good boof to get through. Then sadly, we arrived at the take-out.


After our long walk we eventually get going again.


It had been one of the best days I had ever had. One which I will remember for the rest of my days. Sometimes you just have one of those days when everything goes right. That day was one of those days. Your strokes find the correct position, your boat listens to your every wish (well, almost) and things just go right. The bicycle was still where we left it and we took off our gear. The time then was 23:40! It was then that Tuomas broke the spell. He had a lock through the rear spokes of the wheel and had left the key at the car, some eight kilometers up the road… The walk back was long and uphill. One car passed in our direction but did not stop at out my outstretched thumb. The only company we had was the mozzies. With one hand on my Pelican case (carrying the camera) the other hand was kept permanently busy swatting the annoying bugs.


Perfect lakes abound in Sweden. Pity I didn't have a tripod with me!


Our equipment was hung out to dry everytime we made camp.


Tuomas decided not to camp in this area and to carry on driving a little further. Soon we came across a spectacular lake. After some good photos and a hot meal we retired for the day. It was after two in the morning by then and the end of a really great day. A day that I will never forget!


The perfect camping spot!!!






Photography by: Adrian Tregoning unless otherwise stated; same camera (Nikon D80)

Words by: Adrian Tregoning.


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