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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The River Torne: 522 km of Astonishing Beauty

Article by: Amelia Simmons

The Longest of its Kind

Defining the Finno-Swedish border for much of its length, the Torne River (in Swedish), also known as the Tornio River in Finnish, is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in all of Europe. Departing from Lake Torne, the river winds its way southeast for an impressive 522 km before flowing into the Gulf of Bothnia. Maybe surprisingly to some, the river holds a long history whilst also deeply shaping the cultures of the communities who live around it. And perhaps its most attractive feature is the unique fishing experiences which can be had along it. Forgive us the pun, but this topic seems worth diving into.

A Fascinating History: The Borderlands

The year 1809 marked the year that Sweden lost the areas we now call Finland to Imperial Russia. Prompted by the Treaty of Fredrikshamn, the river was chosen as a border between Sweden and the new Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, splitting the provinces of Lappland and Västerbotten. The treaty stated that the border should follow the deepest part of the River Torne. Near the Haparanda-Tornio border, a city which lies in both Sweden and Finland, the treaty was fixed partly on land, meaning the city of Tornio would belong to Russia. Today, as we know, the river is a border between present-day Sweden and Finland. Every 25 years, a commission of Finnish and Swedish representatives reviews the border. Naturally, rivers change their shapes as they erode and deposit sediments in different areas. So in 2006, a border change was undertaken accordingly. Essentially, the River Torne plays a considerable role in defining geographic boundaries.

The Cultural Impact

It is hard to understate the role languages play in developing and distinguishing cultures. But what role can a river play in? Historically, Finnish was the language used on both sides of the River Torne. However, this changed in the late 19th century when schools opened on either side in both Sweden and Finland. This marked the time for a critical decision to be made. Should the Swedish part of the area teach Swedish to school children, making all lessons written and spoken in Swedish only? The decision was yes. Resultantly, during the second half of the 20th century, Swedish was the dominant language on the Swedish side. Finnish speakers became a minority here, with the language mainly being used in informal conversations on both sides of the Torne. Today, most residents are multilingual as speaking both languages benefits social and economic transactions. And to support the traditional language on the Swedish side, a new written language has been devised, Meänkieli. Who knew a river could play such a role in dividing everyday speaking?

A Unique Fishing Experience

Aside from the River Torne shaping history and cultures, people now visit it for a special fishing experience. First, we have dipnet fishing: using a large-diameter net to scoop fish out of the river. Then in winter, we have ice fishing: the practice of catching fish with hooks, lines, or even spears, through an opening in the ice of a frozen body of water. Both are unique ways of fishing. Far different from fish trawlers sweeping the seabed or the people lazing around a still lake in the English countryside with their rods sat for hours under the sun. So, what does the River Torne have to do with dipnet and ice fishing practices?

Dipnet Fishing in Kukkolankoski

The Finnish fishing village of Kukkolankoski, which is currently seeking UNESCO Heritage status, offers the traditional way of fishing known as dipnetting. In the summer months, salmon and whitefish are typically caught in the rapids. It's a centuries-old tradition. Then, as the sun begins to set and shards of red and orange paint the sky, the catches are shared among those in the area. As the clock strikes 6 pm, a ceremony is held at the rapids field, and people gather to take their share of fresh fish. An open fire is ignited as the fish are cooked on a skewer and the simple yet culinary delight is then feasted upon. The Kukkolankoski rapids are a crown jewel of the River Torne. But what happens in the winter when the water is far less alive and flowing?

Where Can This Be Enjoyed?

HaparandaTornio, the Finno-Swedish city separated by the River Torne, is home to some top-class ice fishing. Located an 18-minute drive from the village of Kukkolankoski, the winter season marks a vast freeze in the area. As icicles become a predominant feature of most window ledges, snow falls from the chilling skies, and the hats and gloves are dug from the bottom of each person's wardrobe, ice fishers dust off their equipment, ready for use. Wintertime does not faze fishermen here. Instead, a hole is drilled into the ice of the river. Then, the waiting game begins as slowly but surely, fish are pulled to the surface, each one a reward for your patience. Many locals describe the practice as a way to find your zen. Peaceful yet captivating, this unique experience is one of the many ways to enjoy HaparandaTornio and the River Torne.

A Force to Be Reckoned With

From defining physical borders to providing unique outdoor activities, the influence a river can have on a region is truly unique. The river cuts between Sweden and Finland, creating and defining much of the border. And its dynamic nature means that every 25 years, this border could be changed. But aside from its geography, the River Torne can be enjoyed by people in all seasons. Whether taking a short drive out of HaparandaTornio in the summer to experience a wholesome time of dipnet fishing or braving the winter chills with ice fishing in the Finno-Swedish city itself. Fancy finding your zen? Simply visit one of the region's many fishing organisations and clubs, such as 'Nordic Safari', where you can grab a guide and be taught to fish the Nordic way.

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