SI Vault
Clive Gammon
August 04, 1975
When eager salmon are lying in ambush for lures in Lapland's crystal waters, when heady wine and song beckon from the warmth of the baari—only a truly dedicated fishing romanticist can hold fast to his dream
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August 04, 1975

Pursuit Of A Grayling Shade

When eager salmon are lying in ambush for lures in Lapland's crystal waters, when heady wine and song beckon from the warmth of the baari—only a truly dedicated fishing romanticist can hold fast to his dream

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In the middle of the night, in the wettest birchwoods in the world, Williams and I stood soaked to the skin, waiting for the others. "Please, God," wailed Williams, "send an international airport, a 500-bedroom hotel, an eight-lane highway, a cab." Formally, without real hope, he gave himself a burst in the face from an aerosol can of repellent, but the mosquitoes, which had at first merely probed at squadron level, were now mounting continuous command-Strength attacks. "Go on, eat me, then, eat me!" Williams snarled. We glowered, full of loathing, at the Last Great Wilderness of Europe, hoping with deep sincerity that it would go away.

Endless reaches of gray-green, soaking-wet Finnish Lapland, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, stretched out around us. As we stood on the soggy moss, the Kaldavsti, a beautiful, graylingless grayling river, frothed over brown boulders into a delectable-looking but barren pool. We weren't in the mood to exclaim over that, though. We just waited desolately by the long-extinguished remains of the birchwood fire to be shown the way home. Where were they, Mr. Matti Saromaa, Mr. Jorma Lappalainen, Mr. Aikio Veikko?

They had brought us here. After the first 40 miles of rough road out of Utsjoki we had crossed over the frontier into Arctic Norway and then navigated Lake Polmak in a long, high-prowed Lappish boat that tapered down to three inches of freeboard between us and the choppy water. From the shore of the lake we had tramped miles back into Finland to the banks of the Kaldavsti. "Grayling," Mr. Saromaa had promised, "and small salmon. What you call grilse." Later he amended this to, "There may be some grayling. We shall see."

Still nusing the unconquerable hope, wrote the poet Matthew Arnold more than a hundred years ago, Still clutching the inviolable shade, With a free, onward impulse brushing through, By night, the silvered branches of the glade.... To graduate students of 19th century literature, I offer the theory that Arnold was a closet grayling fisherman. There, in a few lines of The Scholar Gypsy, he precisely formulated the absurd, naive romanticism that had brought Williams and me to Lapland. True, our free, onward impulse had been hampered by backpacks, but still we had brushed through the birchwoods, and it was night, even though the sun was well above the horizon, and was going to stay that way for the next month. And for several hours we had nursed the unconquerable hope of a seven-pound grayling.

The grayling is a fish romantic enough to make you lose your head—a member of the salmonidae, an ancient, ice-haunting species left behind 12,000 years ago when the glaciers of the Pleistocene retreated after gouging out lakes and river valleys. It is a clean, cold fish that is less tolerant of pollution than any other member of the salmon family. French ecologists classify the uppermost reaches of a river, where the water is unpolluted, as le zone � l'ombre, the grayling region, and the first sign of deterioration in a stream is the disappearance of grayling from the fast water that they favor. There are not many around these days.

Such a fish brings out the worst excesses of romanticism in anglers like Williams and me, especially when linked with the prospect of seeking them out in the last European wilderness, up near the Norwegian and Soviet frontiers where the map looks as if some unruly child has spattered it with light-blue paint. Lake after lake, stream after stream, almost all running from northwest to southeast, the way the glaciers drove. Water that is still icebound for eight months of the year.

We had seen much of it on the drive north to Utsjoki, the northernmost town in Arctic Finland, where we planned to base ourselves for the great grayling assault. Blue lakes bordered the road for mile on mile, and Williams and I had gazed at them as gluttonously as 4-year-olds being offered thick cuts of chocolate cake. But Matti Saromaa, whom we'd met in the departure lounge at Helsinki airport and who was now riding with us, saw them through cold blue Finnish eyes. "No good," he kept saying. "All the fish here have been eaten. They made the mistake of living too close to the Lapps."

I couldn't believe it. "In Where to Fish," I told him, "and that's a book that has Biblical status in England, it says, "Grayling in Lapland run large and give tremendous sport.' I am quoting directly." But Saromaa, who is editor of the Finnish national angling magazine, was far likelier to know the truth. And, as we drove north, he revealed it. The factor we had failed to reckon with was that Finnish Lapland is inhabited by Lapps. Not very many of them, perhaps no more than 3,500, a good deal fewer than one per lake, but enough.

The Lapps baffle Matti and other Finns because all they do is herd reindeer, hunt and fish. Long ago they abandoned their shamans and simple, pantheistic religion of holy birds, islands and mountains. But while they now go to the Lutheran church on Sunday mornings, they still have this lamentable attachment to catching things. In winter they hunt fur-bearing animals and the kiiruna, the white Arctic grouse. And in summer they Fish, without mercy, using monofilament nets for scooping up whitefish, trout and grayling to be salted in barrels or shipped south to the fish markets.

No one can do anything about it, Matti told us. Finland is a liberal-minded nation unwilling to interfere with the traditional rights of the Lapps, because it might smack of discrimination. The Lapps are the last remnant of a human migration from Central Asia, with different features and a different language from the rest of the Finnish population, and they are politically hot. A committee had been formed in Helsinki, Matti said, to review the whole question offish conservation in Lapland, but a quirky pucker of the lips indicated Saromaa's feelings about this group. "I think," he said kindly, quickly changing the subject, "when we reach Utsjoki you must come and have a sauna at my cottage. It will help you to relax." He was a very large, placid man, the product, I expect, of many a sauna. "And now," he went on, "in a few moments we will see beautiful scenery. True Lapland." Not being a scenery man, Williams squirmed impatiently and, since he was driving at the time, narrowly missed a bright yellow Volvo coming at us over a blind brow of the road. "Norwegians," said Matti with a trace of animation. "Many are coming here for drinking holidays. Watch out for them." With the savage Finnish drunk-driving laws—three months in jail for a first offense—and the equally savage price of liquor, it seemed crazy to cross the border for the purpose Matti indicated. But he turned out to be entirely correct. Norwegians must like a challenge.

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