i recall the river was an artist
who painted dancing webs on keels
glittering like the trout on our hooks
and who played us songs in April nights
as the floes took leave
a scalpel cuts across our childhood lands
sharp as in Galileo’s lens
dissecting light from darkness
glaring sands drank in the river’s lustre
round the rubble of our homes
their stones cast breathless shadows
on banks whose grass once tickled
our feet around the midsummer pole
in stygian waters sometimes a shimmer
on parched ground sometimes a threshold
the naked piers of bridges
leading towards a past uprooted
the scattered letters of our story
They once called it the ‚River of Light‘.
On an ancient map it winds down from the Norwegian border down to the Baltic Sea. A curving line, embossed deeply into the paper, more than three centuries ago.
For the man who printed the map, ‚Ljusnan‘ was a revelation. In his Atlantica (1679), Olof Rudbeck declared the river with its lush banks and sun-lit forests the site which ancient poets had sung as the Elysian Fields.
Upstream, not far from its headwaters, near a town named Tännäs (Tannes on the map), the river widens into a lake.
It was a few years ago that I passed its shores by accident, hitching a ride through the loneliest region of Sweden.
The lake was unnamed on the ancient map. And I would have forgotten about it again – if it hadn’t been for an offhanded note.
„That’s Lossen,“ Olle had said, raising his index finger from the steering wheel.
For some kilometres, we followed its shoreline down the road. Birch trees in yellow leaves lined the slopes below.
Further on, an intake tower emerged in the middle of the lake.
„You know, there’s a village below“, Olle dropped as we approached the concrete wall that marked the end of the lake.
„They drowned it when they built the dam.“
My eyes followed a drift line of greyed branches where the waters had risen over that year.
„What was the name of the place“, I eventually asked?
„Valmåsen,“ Olle replied.
Nobody knows for sure if the Sámi or other settlers gave the village its name. But in all traditions, it refers to the waters that line the meadow on the western end of Lake Lossen. [Myrtennäs: p. 11].
Once a bridge led over the Ljusnan to Valmåsen. On the other side, the village inn awaited those travelling towards Norway.
Old books keep the name of the man who started the settlement. In 1751, Jon Jönsson and his wife Gölin build the first house on the lakeshore. Two centuries later, a dozen had followed.
TO DO: GET MAP LANTMÄTERIET Avvittring 1855 LOSSEN
Västasjön. Aquarell by Björn Berg, 1945. A few decades before becoming an illustrator for Astrid Lindgrem, the artist spend many of his summers in the Härjedalen region. Courtesy of Kerstin Myrtennäs.
Black-and-white photographs show the people who made a living on these lands. Men with faces flayed by the seasons, leaving for the forests along the river with their axes. Rafters with hooks in their hand, dancing effortlessly over the carpets of timber they moved downstream.
The families lived off the lands and the forest around their homes. In early spring, when the ice floes had broken and left for their journey down the river, they paddled out with their seines again. Fishing around Lossen, many agreed, was the best in the region.
When the ice returned in autumn, they bored through the ice with coiled drills. During the darker seasons, the shimmer of kerosene lamps then reflected in the snow around their wooden houses.
Behind the square window panes, women stitched and men repaired shoes. And so the nights passed by, until those weeks when the light returned.
Sometimes in early spring, those of lighter sleep woke to the sound of cracks, echoing from the lake in the woods. And they began to wonder.
Was it starting again?
The cycle of life and seaons at Lake Lossen ended around 1960.
A few years before, construction works had begun for the dam at the south-eastern end of the lake.
The judicial decision to carry out the plans had been made in 1958. As completion drew nearer, the houses had to be removed from the shore. The National Board of Antiquities began documenting. [Fn: The work resulted in the book Lossen. Liv och arbete vid en Härjedalssjö, edd. Harald Hvarfner et al., Lund 1961]. On the lake, one of the villagers of Valmåsen was designated to collect the memory of what now was doomed.
When the snow-melt arrived in spring 1962, a concrete wall on now retained the waters. Over the months that followed, more than a dozen houses on the lake and the old road around it disappeared under 27 meters of water.
On a rowing boat, one now could paddle meters over the spot where the inn’s flag pole once had flown its pennant.
Road sign at Valmåsen in 1961 (photograph has not been arranged). Photograph by Per Persson, Valmåsen and Sveg (courtesy of Kerstin Myrtennäs).
Felt: View towards Valmåsen from Ramberget. Photograph from 1925 by Georg Göransson, Valmåsen and Ljusnedal. Courtesy of Karin Myrtennäs.
Two years after I had first passed the shores I returned to Lossen.
There can be a few days in spring, Olle then had mentioned in the car, when the lake floor reveals the sunken village, when the ice has melted and the snow-melt hasn’t arrived to fill the lake anew.
It was a crisp evening in early May when I arrived at the northern shore of Lossen. Towards the water, a huge expanse widened that was the bottom of the lake. Dry rocks scattered the ground. In the shadow of their contours, fields of snow still hugged the ground.
A cold wind drew ripples into the waters of the Ljusnan that here discharge into Lake Lossen. For travellers on their way to Norway, a bridge here once carried over the river, the inn of Valmåsen waiting on the other side.
For a while, I held watch over the water for reflexes of its piers. Behind me, I heard the wind driving sand over the lakeshore desert.
The bridge over the Ljusnan at Valmåsen, 1958. Photograph by Ljusnans vattenregleringsföretag, Sveg (courtesy of Kerstin Myrtennäs).
Emerging from the rocky ground, several triangle-shaped structures were silhouetted against the rocky expanse. Like concrete ears, they seemed to listen to the history that lies silent on these barren shores.
A century ago, the bridge towards Valmåsen was seen important enough that the Swedish army dug a system of bunkers into the ground.
On mud-covered stairs, I slid down towards the dark. Metal doors protected the access to this underworld. Each spring, the rising waters of Lake Lossen flood the concrete maze behind, painting the doors in a patina of turquoise brittle and rusty flakes.
A layer of ice, several inches thick, still covered the bunker ground. Beyond, a lightless abode awaited. A mere shimmer from a ventilation shaft illuminated the brittle remains of bunk beds that once meant a subterranean abode.
[Footnote: history of the Lossen bunkers: http://militarhistoriaz.blogspot.com/2018/07/skansen-i-valmasen.html ]
In the light of the evening, I followed the shoreline upstream for a kilometre or two. From the forests further up the slope, small streams ran over fields of mud, fanning out towards the water. Dry weather had drawn cracks into the ground that reminded of an eroded desert.
These too now were barren lands.
All across the shore stumps reminded of the forests that once covered what now was lake floor. Before the first flooding in 1962, the trees around the lake were cut down to not cause a threat for the dam’s infrastructure. Submerged for most of the year, the rotting forests would fill the air with a pungent stench.
From the layers of mud my view wandered towards the river. On the other side, the houses of Valmåsen once had stood, until they were swallowed by the rising waters.
In one of his dialogues on Atlantis, Plato described the end of Atlantis, the ancient civilisation that disappeared from the face of the earth.
Three centuries ago, Rudbeck had revisited the texts of the Greek philosopher. His aim was to prove that their stories of Atlantis – and many other places promised by ancient myth – were true. [Fn: Rudbeck and its interpretation]
Atlantis had a been a high civilisation and model society, Plato described – until that one grievous day and night
… when the island was swallowed up by the sea and vanished, wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal of mud which the island created as it settled down.
After Plato, Timaios, 25D
the forests fell before the flood
and from the trees they built no ark
they moved their homes instead
the kiln of barren banks
has chapped the mud
sand drifts into the cracks
like chalk sticks maimed to dust
the stumps hold on to barren land
and with each wave
the river gnaws away
crumbs of earth from bony roots
the stiffened fingers of a severed hand
still clutching at the void
the last connection to what is lost
When the decision to dam up Ljusnan at Lake Lossen was made in 1958, the expected damage was accepted. Sacrifices in scarcely populated regions of Sweden could mean a huge benefit for the rest of the country. In the 1960s, this narrative still found political resonance. Promises of new jobs further helped convince local communities.
Around Lossen, 82 people lost their home when the lake was flooded. Many more lost their livelihood with the dam. Log floating was disrupted to a degree that the industry never recovered. The same holds true for fishing.
Lossen was the most upstream in a series of dams that blocked the free flow of the river. In winter, the water collected in earlier months was gradually released to produce electricity. Instead of the ice floes breaking in spring, water now oozed down the exit channels in winter as as suffocating slush of ice crystals.
The construction of the dam broke with a general rule of law valid in Scandinavia since Viking times. According to this rule, the ways of fish have to be kept viable. Many species rely on travelling upstream to spawn, and require rapids to thrive. These fish quickly died out. Together with them, species such as the the freshwater pearl mussel also disappeared, whose larvae live on the gills of salmonids.
In the new lake, nutrients from newly flooded shores washed into the water. After an unsustainable spike, the fish population in the lake dropped rapidly. The shores that changed between parching sun and being flooded turned barren. Fish such as perch (abborre) and pike (gädda) that need ground cover at specific depths to spawn disappeared.
It was clear from early on that those damaged by the anticipated changes through the dam had to be compensated. At Lossen, it was agreed that that the loss of fish population had to be compensated.
24.540 Swedish Crowns was amount attached to this loss. It was the market value of the estimated amount of fish in the lake, compensated according to the contemporary prices of fish meat. To those deemed eligible, a tiny fraction of that sum arrived as mail check.
In an attempt to compensate for the ecocide, it was decided that the new lake would be set up as population for charr (röding), a species appreciated by sports fishers. However, changing the population made it necessary to massively intervene in ecosystems elsewhere.
The water intake of Lossen Dam was connected to a system of tunnels. These all fed into a power station that started operating underground near Långå in 1973, several kilometres further east.
The dams of Övre Särvsjön and Grundsjön north-east of Lossen were connected to the same system. In these lakes, whitefish (sik) was endemic. Sik is more efficient than charr at absorbing plankton. Its arrival in Lossen would have spelled out the end of any charr population in the lake.
In the long run, it was probable that sik would eventually migrate from there into Lossen through the man-made tunnels. It was therefore decided to reset the population in those lakes to prevent another turnover in fish population.
For centuries, indigenous cultures in South America had used a substance won from crushed roots of Fabaceae for fishing. The nerve poison named Rotenone slows down the breathing of fish.
Following the damming, Rotenone was released into Övre Särvsjön. A silver belt of dead fish, hundreds of meter broad, floated against the dam wall little later. The toxin eventually leaked out into other waters, too, yielding similar effects in smaller streams and contributaries to Ljusnan.
It was the largest application of this toxin ever seen in Europe.
[FN] Louis A. Krumholz, „Some Practical Considerations in the Use of Rotenone in Fisheries Research“, in: The Journal of Wildlife Management, Oct., 1950, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 413-424.
The last Bond
Diagram of the Ljusnan bridge. Attachment no. 1 in „Rapport från skjutning“, published with kind permission of Krigsarkivet Stockholm.
In Vienna, when the old Danube bridge crashed down at dawn, an eyewitness who had wanted to cross said the bridge had flattened out like an old man going to sleep.
Werner Herzog, On Walking in Ice (p. 32).
Buildings can die different deaths.
In 1963, the snow hadn’t melted yet when the planes took off from Frösö. A squadron of Tunnor (‚barrels‘, named after their plump shape) departed westwards from their base.
After less than half an hour of flight over the snow-covered Fjäll, the planes took a left turn. Approaching in flights of two, they followed the contour that the Ljusnan left on the winter canvas.
Behind, the frozen expanse of Lake Lossen opened.
Decomissioned F4 „Tunna“ (J29) in front of Frösö Park Hotel, Frösön.
The concrete bridge over Ljusnan (ca. 1937) in winter, with rests of the older wooden bridge from 1887 below. Photograph by Bengt Eskilsson (courtesy of Kerstin Myrtennäs).
At its southern shore, not far from the town of Tännäs, a radio bus was stationed that morning. Through their binoculars, air force officers watched the fighters diving towards the bridge. Not far away, hundreds of people had gathered that morning to witness the impending spectacle.
When the flooding was executed in 1962, the military had requested permission to practice target shooting on what had then become ghost bridge. The bridge opened up an opportunity to train with life ammuniation and to explore the effects of armour piercing rockets on a solid structure.
Ice still covered half of the bridge that day in early spring. On 26 April, the officers counted eighty shots, each individually aimed at the bridge and its angle meticulously protocolled.
After the last explosions had rung out, the squadron leaders flew an extra round over the masses, the roars of their planes mixing with the cheers of school children who got a day off that day.
As the roar of the fighters faded out, the officers headed out on the lake, assessing the damage the bridge had taken. Others headed towards the forests, a local journalist related – to examine if any reindeer had been hit by shrapnel in the wider blast radius.
The day after, the planes returned. This time, the fighters fired whole series of the rockets on the bridge that was still standing. The first of fifty exploded on the bow of the bridge. Three seconds later, half of the pathway collapsed into the riverbed.
The series that followed hit what was already a destroyed bridge. For a last time, the officers set out later that day to protocol the damage the salvos had yielded.
„They lay well yet didn’t pulverize the remains“, the final report concluded.
[FN: F4-tunnorna anföll bron“, in: Östersunds-Posten, 26 April 1963, p. 1 and 4.
„Rapport från skjutning av gamla landsvägsbron vid Valmåsen 25-26/4 1963“. Stockholm, Krigsarkivet, Jämtlands flygflottilj, Stabsavdelningen, hemliga arkivet, F1:10.]
Rocket exploding on the Ljusnan bridge. Photograph no. 1 in „Rapport från skjutning“, published with kind permission of Krigsarkivet Stockholm.
„One of the ‚barrels‘ dives and fires its rocket against the bridge, figuratively speaking over the heads of hundreds of interested spectators.“ Photograph from „F4-tunnarna anföll bron“, p. 1.
The Ljusnan bridge right after the collapse. (b) marks the hit in the arch that led to the collapse. Photographs no. 3 and 4 in „Rapport från skjutning“, published with kind permission of Krigsarkivet Stockholm.
Bra miljöval – built before 1996.
remains of bridge now monument