North Sweden has a number of major rivers that you’ve probably never heard about. And the biggest North Sweden river that you’ve never heard about (unless you’ve been reading previous posts) is Lule River, or Lule älv in Swedish, which also means “Lule River”. It is born in the wilderness of the Scandinavian Mountains near the Norwegian border, originally as two forks, Greater and Lesser Lule (Stora Lule älv, Lilla lule älv), which merge only after they come down from the mountains, at the village of Vuollerim. Bigger parts of the forks, and the entire length of the resulting Lule River, flow through Swedish forest Lapland, a land of logging, mosquitoes and reindeers. Well, reindeers in Sweden go into the mountains in summer, precisely to escape mosquitoes; forests are their winter habitat.
Lule River has been actively harnessed for hydro power in the 20th century, because a big river in the wilderness flowing from the mountains is precisely what you want to harness for hydro power. The first hydro power plant was built there in Porjus as early as 1915. Two more came only in the 1950s, and the rest was built in the 1960-1970s. There are in total as much as fifteen hydro power plants on Lule and its forks now. Their combined power output is about 4200 MW. That’s already more that the entire hydro power production of all Finland combined; Finland, although obviously the best country in the world, does not really enjoy great opportunities for hydro, although it has been using what it does have fairly well.
It is relatively easy to travel along the Lule valley by car and to see most of the power plants, along Road 97 (Luleå-Jokkmokk), and then even farther, along a section of the Road E45 to Porjus, and up there to Vietas and Ritsem in the heart of the Scandinavian Moutnains on an unnumbered road. Power plants are basically the reason why all these roads exist at all, it’s not like anyone would build roads here for reindeer herding. This is rather fortunate, because you can now use these roads to travel to some of the greatest Swedish national parks, including Muddus and Stora Sjöfallet.
While exploring the Lule valley, you can easily get a feel of how destructive hydro power is to the local environment. No more salmon in Lule, obviously, and significant areas have been flooded, greatly affecting reindeer herding and the traditional livelihood of the Sami people in these lands. But, well, on the other hand you get your electricity carbon-free, and these days it’s what really matters. Indeed, Sweden produces nearly all of its electricity carbon-free; half of it comes from nuclear, and half from hydro, and well this is that hydro. It has to exist somewhere after all.
1. Road 97 leaves Luleå along the northern bank of Lule. It doesn’t go straight along the river, and you only get to see some glimpses of it occasionally. Until this place named Edefors, where the road crosses to the southern bank. Information signs tell you how you’re travelling along the road between two world heritages. Because at the Luleå end you get Gammelstad and at the Jokkmokk end you get the Laponia area, and indeed both of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
2. Lule and Edefors bridge.
3. Rest area. One thing that is quite nice about Sweden is their rest areas.
4. From that rest area there is a sign for some place named Laxholmen, which I went to check out, and immediately saw the Laxede power plant (200 MW). It’s one of the smaller ones on Lule.
5. Laxede dam. Hydro power plant dams in Sweden seem to be usually built from plain crushed rock. You can clearly see the height difference here.
6. The old river bed, where some trees are growing already.
7. Edefors/Laxede used to be a place quite renowned for its salmon, as you can guess from the name (lax means “salmon” in Swedish).
8. Although the salmon is gone, there are a few historic buildings of a fishing camp on an island in the old riverbed. It looks like they might be open for visitors in summer, but they weren’t at the time.
10. A sign nearby said that this is some Sami thing, but I don’t remember details anymore.
11. Shallow old riverbed.
13. An old lock (?) on the shore.
14. Continuing on to the northwest along the road to Jokkmokk, after Laxede you soon enough reach the Arctic Circle.
15. Sami and Swedish flags, and the “split” in the hut-like shelter, are set along the Arctic Circle line. The sign “Polcirkeln” to the right is typical for Sweden; similar ones exist on the Luleå-Kiruna-Riksgränsen and Haparanda-Pajala-Karesuando roads.
16. Afterwards the road continues to follow the south bank of Lule, past the village of Vuollerim where Greater and Lesser forks of the Lule river merge. There is a hydro power plant in Vuollerim, but I didn’t stop there. After Vuollerim the road follows Lilla Luleälven, the Lesser fork, and ends in the town of Jokkmokk.
Jokkmokk (Jåhkåmåhkke in Lule Sami) is the municipal center of a vast territory of 17,600 sq. km. It is one of the biggest municipalities of Sweden by area, bigger than the biggest municipality of Finland (Inari) and than the entire country of Montenegro. However less than 5000 people live there, and about 2700 of these live in the town of Jokkmokk itself. As such, it is a small place pretty much devoid of any sights, apart from the Sami museum named Ájtte. At the time I was driving through Jokkmokk, however, the museum was already closed for the day, and I found no other reasons to stop by. But it’s a bit unfortunate that I don’t even have some token picture of Jokkmokk, of course.
Jokkmokk stands on the crossroads. To the east goes Road 97 to Luleå; to the west is a dead-end wilderness road into the foothills of the Scandinavian Mountains. And to the north and south goes Road E45, the Inland Road (Inlandsvägen), roughly following the Inland Railroad (Inlandsbanan). The Inland Railroad is about 1300 km long, and the Inland Road is even longer, depending on what you consider its exact beginning. As the name suggests, it goes through the sparsely-populated forested wilderness in the Swedish inland areas, just to the east of the foothills of the Scandinavian Mountains, passing through only a handful of small towns like Jokkmokk or somewhat bigger. Probably doesn’t make for a very interesting road trip, unless you really enjoy seeing over 1300 km of trees. But anyway if you want to follow Lule River, you have to turn onto the E45 to the north, and very soon afterwards you’ll see this Akkats power plant (158 MW, 1973).
This power plant is visible right from the road (a bridge on E45 goes slightly downstream of the sluice gate), and this is probably why they decided to make these paintings on it. There is of course also a small parking lot and a lookout point to look more closely. The paintings were made by Bengt Lindström and Lars Pirak, and present Sami motives of course, including the goddess Sarahkka, eye of a shaman, sieidi-holy place, a Sami drum and a caravan of reindeers.
17. Downstream of Akkats sluice gate you can see a bridge of the Inland Railroad.
18. Upstream of Akkats there is a large and rather beautiful reservoir, also easy to look at almost right from the road.
19. While Akkats and Jokkmokk are still disappointingly far from the mountain chains, in one direction far away across the reservoir you can get a peek of the sharp snowy peaks of the Scandinavian Mountains.
20. Here at a parking lot by the reservoir, where quite a few RVs were parked for the night, you can see a map of the Laponia area. Laponia is of course an alternate name for Lapland, and it is used here in North Sweden to denote a vast contiguous area of four national parks (Muddus, Stora Sjöfallet, Sarek and Padjelanta) and some smaller nature conservation areas. Laponia, being about 200×100 km in size, stretches from the hills of Muddus in the wilderness north of Jokkmokk, all the way to the heart of the Scandinavian Mountains on the Norwegian border. It is considered in its entirety a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the largest mostly pristine wilderness areas in Europe.
21. The Inland Railroad, parallel to Road E45/Inland Road. Built very slowly over 1908-1937 mostly for strategic reasons, it has never really been actively used, even shutting down entirely at one point, and it shows now too. Currently there are some rare timber trains, and a very small passenger train once a day purely for tourists, only in summer and skiing seasons.
22. It would sure be fun to take a train on this railroad. Or drive along the entire parallel road. While it’s a rather boring route, for me it’s often kind of the whole point.
24. Some lake in the vicinity of the Inland Road.
25. Now we are straying back to the east, but this time on minor gravel roads.
26. It was the very end of May when I did this trip, but it still was possible to see some unmelted snow here above the Arctic Circle.
27. The distances here are considerable, and driving tens of kilometers on these barely used gravel roads is not so fun, although roads are maintained rather decently.
28. And so we can reach the reservoir of another hydro power plant, Messaure. This is the other fork of the Lule, Stora (Greater) Luleälven.
29. Messaure, built in 1963, is bigger than Laxede or Akkats, at 442 MW of power, and the dam is quite obviously much bigger.
30. Unfortunately there seems to be no good publicly accessible vantage point to see the sluice gates.
31. But standing directly atop them, you can see the old riverbed. Or is it actually the old riverbed? It must be, but the walls look so relatively smooth and vertical.
32. The valley downstream of Messaure, with Stora Luleälven flowing on.
33. Power plant switchyard visible in the distance.
34. And now we’re about to reach the biggest power plant of Lule valley and the entire Sweden, Harsprånget (977 MW, 1951). Even the power line from Harsprånget is notable in itself; a 1000 km long power line from here to Örebro County in central Sweden was the first 400 kV power line in the world.
35. It is located a few hundred meters from the E45 road, but a short trail to a lookout point is specifically constructed here, because this is after all the greatest hydro power plant of Sweden.
36. On this short trail there is a monument to workers who died in the construction.
37. The trail also follows a small stream, which forms a few waterfalls, quite small but in less wild areas they full well might have been local sights by themselves.
39. But of course Harsprånget itself used to be far, far bigger than these tiny waterfalls. Well, Harsprånget more properly was not a waterfall but just a very big rapids system, where waters of Greater Lule were squeezed into a small ravine, and over a distance of one kilometer the river was descending by 107 meters. Average flow was 268 cubic meters per second, more than twice as Storforsen rapids on Pite river, currently considered the greatest remaining in Sweden.
The name Harsprånget means “hare jump” in Swedish, and was a straightforward translation of the original Lule Sami name, Njommelsaska. It came from the zigzagging shape of the riverbed, like tracks of a hare running from a predator.
Harsprånget must have been a truly magnificent sight but, well, as you can see it’s gone, cut off by a huge hydro power plant dam built of grey and red crushed rock, visible farther in the distance. Even the mostly dry ravine is an impressive sight in itself. Sometimes it is in theory possible to see water release from the sluice gates, which temporarily revives the rapids. As far as I know this is not something arranged on a regular basis. There is at least one video on YouTube showing this, but it is from 2010 and has rather low quality:
40. A picture of the old glory is also on the information board. The decision to build Harsprånget was made as early as 1918, but the post-war recession affected Sweden same as other countries, and the construction was abandoned in 1923 with little progress made. It restarted in 1945, and the first turbine was launched in 1951. Subsequently Harsprånget was expanded several times.
41. It’s pretty sad that the rapids no longer exist, but, well, the power plant supplies 1.5% of the entire Swedish electric power in a carbon-free manner, and this is something that also needs to be appreciated. Were Harsprånget in Russia (which has some of the greatest rivers in the world and uses them for hydro power abundantly), it would have been the 15th biggest hydro power plant there.
42. Panorama of the ravine.
43. Lookout point.
44. I didn’t find a good place to look closely at the buildings of the actual power plant, but at least you can see the reservoir fairly easily. The top of the dam is visible, with, I believe, sluice gates on the left, and turbines on the right.
45. At least near Harsprånget and Messaure hydro power plants you can also see these mildly curious sights, the former builders towns. Lule dams were constructed at the time when automation wasn’t so abundant, and when these were pretty much frontier places, with pretty poor links to the rest of the world. Hence entire temporary towns were built to house workers, with grocery stores, churches, gas stations and everything else that a town must have. After power plants were launched, the towns were completely dismantled. The only things that remains are their road networks, with signs marking old street names.
46. Here in Harsprånget builders town the pavement is still driveable after about 65 years. At first I accidentally ended up in such a town at Messaure, and was quite confused by how small forest roads from nowhere to nowhere have names like “School street”. In Harsprånget there are information signs at least that explain the history of this place more more clearly.
And that is all for Lule valley power plants, although we only saw 4 out of 15. The most notable one which we did not see is probably Porjus, not far upstream of Harsprånget. Porjus is the only power plant on Lule built in the 1910s, and so it looks noticeably different, and unlike all other Lule power plants a namesake village also still exists nearby. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to visit this one as well.