The great forests and rivers in the Swedish North have for a long time been tremendously important for the whole region and for Sweden as a country. The exploration of the forest resources led to the transformation of the agrarian Swedish society into a rapidly developing industrialized nation. The rivers made great transport routes in a region with very little roads.
Today, the track of the Nordenskiöldsrace follows roughly the Lilla Lule Älv (small Lule River), which is a good reason to look into northern river history!
Hundreds of sawmills driven by steam and built at the Swedish coast in the 19th century cried for more and more timber. The forest in the inland could deliver what was needed, but this was only possible through the strenuous work of the ratsmen and the power of the rivers.
Jokkmokk honours its history with a statue of a ratsmen right in the the middle of the town and as well with signs at the route 45. Felix Åkerlund, a real raftsmen from Jokkmokk, was the model for Runo Lette (1908-1981).
In 1873, the Luleå Sawmill was entitled to harvest 1.1 million trees in Jokkmokk for 108 öre per tree. But they had to fullfill a condition: the river had to be cleaned and streamlined. This was only the beginning of a period of extensive cleaning in the whole county in the next years. The Swedish state took charge of the responsibility and the cost.
The work with the timber was heavy and tiresome and demanded a lot of skills. But it was a free man’s work. And for many who lumbered in the forest in winter it was an important contribution to the economy. Often, young boys started already at the age of 10 to work with rafting timber, but it needed years of training before becoming a ”real” raftsman. Only the most experienced and skillfull would work with the big agglomeration of twisted timber, which sometimes blocked the river. Sometimes one could cut some trees to get rid of the blockade but sometimes oe would adapt an explosive charge to blow up the entire mess. Often the raftsmen had to run on the swinging timberstocks to get back to the boat and to quickly row away so that the boat was not pulled out of the timber.
In Västerbotten: Pål-Nils Nilsson [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In small streams, dams have been built to give the timber a kick downwards. Often, they were combined with a mill to produce some flour. In 1984, a replica of an old damn has been built in Jokkmokk. You find it on the end of the small villages Mattisudden when coming from Luleå on the left hand. Look for the sign ”Flottningsdamm” and follow the unpaved road a bit into the forest.
Flottningsdamm at Mattisudden
Rafting timber has been going on until the 70’ies (actually, in the Pite river rafting happend until 1982!). A new conflict is now arising: while it is an important part of the history of this part of the country, it also changed the rivers and waterways. Nowadays, rivers shall be re-naturised to enable fishes to wander, to live and to spawn. It will be an interesting task to try to both preserve the historical relicts and to give the rivers and streams back as much as possible of their natural shape.
Timber rafting in Storuman/Västerbotten in the 70th. Pål-Nils Nilsson [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
More reading in Swedish: https://kulturmiljonorrbotten.com/2017/03/24/flottning-en-forfluten-del-av-norrbottens-historia/