Volunteering for a WorkAway week at Norrsken Lodge in Overtorneå.
We drove north on the Finland side of the river Torne, until we reached Overtorneå. After a quick look around the town, we moved on and parked up at Norrsken Lodge, quietly admiring the scale of it all. It was a long, thin site, with over 300m of prime riverside frontage, with a small forested area to one end and a cycle path back to town on the other. We parked up and wandered a little around the site’s pretty location and timber buildings, where we ran into the owners Max and Yasmine, along with their two boys and their huge slobbering bloodhound Brian.
They had moved their lives from Switzerland to build a new, more relaxing, lifestyle. Over many years of visiting they had fallen in love with winter in the north of Scandinavia; the crisp nights under the Northern Lights, the outdoors lifestyle around a crackling campfire, from learning simple survival and bush craft skills, to the thriving cultures of supportive friendship, reindeer herding and smoke saunas. Max had once been a global supply-chain manager, but suffered from burnout and was seeking a new, much less stressful and much more rewarding, path in life. His long-term plans included the possibility of setting up a high-end burnout treatment centre on this quiet stretch of river, to help introduce those in a similar situation to the enduring qualities of peaceful reflection. In the shorter term the goal was simpler – to ensure all visitors here had a ‘Fantastic Time’, the chosen strap-line for his Norrsken Lodge re-branding.
We picked out a spot to base ourselves for the week, at the far edge of the site and right on the banks of the river, and settled in. Later we met some of the other WorkAwayers – there were six other volunteers on site presently. One girl, Akiko, arrived directly from Japan on the same day as we did, to make a total of nine WorkAwayers on site. Many others were volunteering for a month or more, but we had only one week to spare. We all had a beautiful salmon dinner and a local beer in the site restaurant as we chatted to each other and learned a little of the history of Norrsken Lodge and that of the new owners. Max and Yasmine had bought the lodge only four months ago and this was to be their first summer in charge. The ice and snows had receded only in late May and its transformative disappearance had highlighted the extent of the maintenance work required in order to ‘bring back the shine’, our motto for the week.
Our first evening, around 10.30pm, we took a small wooden rowing boat out on the river, under the slowly setting but not quite managing to set sun. We took turns rowing up the river and back, slowly relaxing and soaking up the idyllic setting and enjoying the late sunshine. The water was clear and still, reflecting the campsite frontage and nearby tree-line with exceptional clarity. We returned to Benny and stayed up until nearly 1am watching out our window as the mirror-calm water glowed with the redness of the midnight sun. It was quite difficult to finally close the privacy blinds and make ourselves go to sleep, although we really needed to; we were to start work at 8am.
On our second evening we drove Benny, with two other WorkAwayers on board, an hour north and east, to visit a local reindeer farm. We had been invited to watch the herding and collating of new births on the site where the reindeer were seasonally penned, numbered and tagged. The last 5km of road was a tight single-width gravel track with huge bumps and ruts, making our progress very slow, with the constant worry of grounding on our minds. We finally made it to the small car-park and walked the last few hundred metres to where the timber corral was positioned. There were lots of cars in attendance; all locals holding interests in the herd were here to check on their investment and count the new generation of herd members.
Soon the silence of the forest was disrupted by the incoming herd. It was wild, chaotic and very noisy with the deep bleating and echoing low grunts of the stampeding reindeer. Temporary fencing and many volunteers shepherded the deer along the required path to the pen. Many hundreds were finally gathered up, with a few lost stragglers running wild around the corral, feeling obvious separation anxiety. The reindeer were in the process of losing their thick winter fur and looked rather mangy and ragged, patchy and mottled. The blotches of lost hair looked, from a distance, a lot like areas of rotted flesh. They seemed were like how a horror movie might imagine undead zombie reindeers to look, the white ones especially having a ghostly, unreal presence.
Whilst the tagging of the new-borns took place, we toggled between watching the myriad reindeer herd scatter and regroup within the corral and sitting around the nearby birchwood campfire, cooking sausages on sticks for dinner. We enjoyed the process of cooking over an open fire, searching out the best glowing embers to evenly cook our meat. We were joined by the locals who cooked salmon and large chunks of thick sausage as they chatted animatedly in Swedish. We enjoyed setting our own fires and learning how best to strip bark thinly to provide suitable kindling that would take under a single flint spark. The evening in the forest was a small but powerful introduction into the collaborative, sociable lifestyle that had so intoxicated Max to move to these Northern Wilds.
We were both drafted onto a beach project, where a slightly sad stretch of sand was to be expanded and tidied up to provide a focal point for the site. Nicky was given the task of researching SUPs, kayaks and canoes, weighing up which would be most suitable for the business to offer for paying clients on this river. She produced detailed spreadsheets, price comparisons and contacted suppliers to set up ordering accounts. She created sign-out sheets for hired equipment, standardised liability forms and other essential items for management to consider, allowing them to get started on offering water sports services for the summer months.
Although I was much happier being left to brushing up, raking sand and digging out stones, I inevitably got dragged into providing professional services for various larger projects around the site. I attended meetings with building suppliers, redesigned layouts for future cottages, and directed builders on site, providing them with basic drawings and setting-out dimensions. I had to double check their built foundation levels, ensuring the site was set up and properly prepared to receive the soon-to-be relocated timber sauna buildings. I was architect, site engineer, foreman, labourer and general dogsbody all in one. But it was all very interesting, helping out and being a small part of the far-reaching vision Max had for the future of his business.
Away from our daily work responsibilities, we had a few long swims in the pretty side-branch of the river Torne facing Benny. One late evening, under a reddening sky, we got suited and booted and swam up stream in totally still water, the glassy reflection just stunningly beautiful. The water was warm, around 17 degrees, so we were in no hurry to return, and dawdled a slow mile up and down the river. Another day we swam a 2km loop out to the main Torne river, around an island on the junction where our small branch met the main flow, and back. We swam around 5km in total in the few days we were camped on the grassy banks. We mentioned our upcoming Arctic Circle swim to the group and two young Frenchman, David and Alex, were both very keen to see if they could attend the event, so we helped where we could to make it happen for them.
Our final work day brought the moving of the smoke sauna. I removed the old timber boards from the external porch that would later be replaced by a new decking area. This allowed the 3m long forks on the digger to slide in under the concrete base and lift it entirely whole to its new position. Two side strips of concrete, essential for supporting the timber roof, were strapped up around the roof for additional support as only the internal rebar was stopping then from snapping off when lifted. The slow, careful move went well, two separate diggers nudging the sauna around, with only minor tweaks to the pre-prepared gravel base required to level up the smoke sauna in its new position.
It was a good finish to our WorkAway week efforts, seeing the first of several big changes that would happen in the coming weeks after we’ve moved on. The final morning there was torrential rain as we packed up and said our sad goodbyes to Max, and to Norrsken Lodge. We had only a short journey north, to the village of Juoksengi, where our next adventure was to swim back in time, across the Arctic Circle from Finland to Sweden.