In Essays/ Europe/ Food

Kukkolaforsen: Exploring Swedish Fishing Culture


It’s the first sunny morning of my trip to Swedish Lapland. This time I’m with Inger, who’s driving me back to the Tornio River that etches out the border between Sweden and Finland. Her English is so-so, the kind where sometimes I ask “either or” type questions and she responds, “Yes, mhmm” without elaborating. Having struggled with languages myself, I know that move.

But she’s sweet, pulling over on the highway at one point to show me Instagram photos taken by, I want to say, a local photographer. As we near the Finnish border, she asks me if I’ve ever been to Finland. When I say that I have not, she makes the executive decision to drive me over the border and back around the next roundabout where you can see IKEA welcoming travelers into Sweden.

“Now you’ve been to Finland,” she smiles.

Fishing at Kukkolaforsen

Fishing at Kukkolaforsen

At Kukkolaforsen, I’m handed over to Mathias who co-owns the hotel and camping site with his sister. It’s historically been a net fishing site with their family going back five generations. Mathias briefly walks me around the restaurant before we head outside. I notice what looks to my untrained eye like a haphazardly constructed wooden bridge reaching out over the river like a broken arm. Looking at it and at it alone, you’d think you were whisked alway to the Middle Ages. But that’s because this style of bridge has been around since about that time.

Looking at the bridge at Kukkolaforsen

Come to think of it, bridge isn’t even the right word. It’s not meant to walk across anything. It’s meant to get the fisherman to the middle or so of the river. They tie their boat to it and lay a step ladder over the back of the boat and up to the wooden structure. Meanwhile, the fisherman gracefully runs their net at the end of a long pole underwater in a circular motion until they catch something, placing the fish in a small box aboard the boat.

There’s a warning sign at the edge of the bridge. It’s in Swedish, but I can understand the Michelin Man-looking figure with their hand out and a red diagonal across their body. “STOP” is clearly the message. Mathias swings his leg around it without hesitation. So, I follow suit, summoning everything I can to keep calm and casually walk across the floppy boards without allowing myself to succumb to panic. When I say “floppy,” that’s because the boards very clearly wobble. They aren’t nailed down because, as it was explained to me, a screw would grind away the wood anytime someone stepped on it.

Lunch on the Bridge

Lunch at the Bridge of Kukkolaforsen

Later in the day, I trotted back out over the planks with Mathias’ sister Johannah for lunch. I noticed earlier they had a small table set out on the structure. They host multi-course dinners for couples. But since I wasn’t going to be there for dinner, Johannah kindly treated me to lunch.

“Did Mathias tell you the trick of walking across?” she asked.

Trick? There’s a trick? I’m just now finding out about the trick? I asked myself in a George Costanzian tizzy.

“No,” I said. “No, he did not.”

Apparently the trick is to take a big step whenever you approach the edge of a particular board, so it doesn’t bend as much. Seems like a relatively important tip to get this late in the game. But I’m grateful to have gotten it at all.

Lunch was a bit of a struggle with the wind desperately trying to pull our table cloth off and take it to the river. We hold it down with a couple of locally produced matcha bottles. Two servers come out and I feel bad for them, though they’re probably balance beam pros by now. We’re served a couple of dishes from Johannah’s mother’s cookbook (sold in the bookshop), which I inhale. They’re good, but I’m mostly eager to get off this damn thing before the current picks up even more and sweeps us all away––something the small corner of my rational brain understands is very unlikely considering they’ve been doing this for generations without issue.

Avoiding the Sauna

Kukkolaforsen and the Tornio River

After lunch I’m taken over to the saunas. They have a series of them. One smokes, one steams, another… I lost track, and if I’m honest, didn’t care. I was too busy figuring out a way to get out of it. My itinerary read “sauna experience.” What that neglected to include was that three hours were allotted for me to sauna. It also neglected to note that the owners open the saunas to the local public every Thursday in July.

This was a Thursday in July. Everyone was there. Mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, and children. I had no desire to squeeze myself in between these bodies huddling outside the various sauna doors and outside of the hot tubs. I came to appreciate my forced sauna experience at Huuva Hideaway earlier on the trip. I’d even welcome the opportunity to do it again––either alone or at least with the safety blanket of my wife. I’m usually a “yes” to anything when I travel, but I have zero qualms with admitting that I shut this down.

Eating Good Energy Only

Chef Tony Blom
Chef Tony Blom

Instead, I hung out with Chef Tony Blom who was cooking up moose and veggie burgers. He setup his outdoor grill in the shape of a viking boat, something he’s known for around these parts. Along with a photographer taking photos and videos of the event, we chatted for a good hour or so.

Chef Blom does a little bit of everything. He acts, he an adventure guide, something with coffee in the woods, and he’s an outdoor chef who’s competed in national events. His philosophy is that he doesn’t want to consume anything that has bad energy. What he meant was that he wouldn’t eat something like big agro beef because they live a shitty life, are killed in a shitty way, and that’s reflected in the meat. Instead, he says he’s about 80 percent vegetarian. The rest is fresh fish and wild game that’s hunted.

So essentially he‘ll eat what he can trace back to its roots. Although I’d rather look at a moose than shoot and slaughter one, I respect the philosophy.

Veggie burger wrap with blueberries

The crowds were slow to gather at Tony’s setup, so he graciously offered to whip something up for me. I went with the veggie burger, which he heated up over the coals before placing it on a large flour tortilla––not something I’d seen before with a burger. Then, he added some pickled onions, a little sauce, and blueberries. Yes, blueberries. Again, not what you’d expect, but it’s nice to get something unexpected––especially when it comes to veggie burgers, a dish usually reserved as the fallback option for vegetarians on a preposterously meaty menu.

Eventually business picked up and I left Tony to it. I plopped myself onto a large rock to sit back under the sun and enjoy the view of the churning Tornio River, imaging the centuries that have flowed by.

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