Kustaa Vilkuna: Salmon. The History of Salmon Fishing in the Kemijoki River and its Surrounding Areas

Kustaa Vilkuna was born on October 26, 1902, in Nivala. Vilkuna graduated from the University of Helsinki in 1927 with Finnish language as his major. He earned his doctorate in folklore in 1936. Vilkuna was a prolific writer and a true polymath in the field of folklore. He also had a keen interest in fishing and the related folk traditions. Vilkuna’s magnum opus, “Salmon: The History of Salmon Fishing in the Kemijoki River and its Surrounding Areas,” was published in 1974.

Vilkuna first became acquainted with salmon fishing as a high school student when he joined a expedition led by teacher Veli Räsänen to Petsamo in 1921. His first research on the subject, “Observations on the Sea Fishing of the Kola Lapps,” was published in the Finnish Museum in the 1930s (1930), and in the 1950s (1954), he published one of his most significant articles, “Salmon Fishing as a Whole,” in both Finland and Sweden.

In 1974, Vilkuna completed his work on the history of salmon fishing in the Kemijoki River and its surrounding areas. The book provides a comprehensive account of the ancient salmon culture, as the title suggests. It also addresses various key salmon-related issues. The transfer of salmon ownership to the state is described as a violent legal maneuver. The construction of the Kemijoki River comes under scrutiny as well. It was noteworthy that a folklorist like Vilkuna took a strong stance on the course of history. It is also interesting to note that Vilkuna was part of Urho Kekkonen’s inner circle. However, Kekkonen was one of the key figures behind the decisions to develop the Kemijoki River. Kekkonen specifically pondered the development of Northern Finland’s hydropower and heavy industry in Kemi and Oulu, as well as in the Kemi and Oulujoki river basins. Rapid harnessing of the Kemijoki River was one of the main goals. Thanks to Kekkonen, an additional budget of the so-called “Billion for Northern Finland” was added to the state budget, and state-led Kemijoki Oy was established in December 1954. Kekkonen also served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Kemijoki Oy.

Vilkuna’s stance on hydropower development is evident in the following sentence: “There are still top executives in industry and hydropower who wonder about the compensation claims of former salmon farmers, without remembering that this population has been deprived of a productive fishing livelihood, ruined the best shoreline fields, and diverted power via copper wires southward to meet the current minimal share of the nation’s electricity needs.”

The second-to-last chapter of the book is also telling: Destructive Actions. In this chapter, Vilkuna thoroughly examines the events leading up to the construction of the Kemijoki River. It is a source of great wonder that the first power plant on the Kemijoki River was built at Isohaara, where there was no natural waterfall. The permitting process is also reviewed in detail.

Although the book can be heavy reading at times, it provides an excellent overview of the most significant environmental change in our recent history since the Ice Age in water nature. At the same time, it offers a comprehensive account of salmon fishing and fishermen in the Kemijoki River. The section describing fishing gear is unique material. The illustrations are also top-notch, with 202 drawings and maps effectively complementing the text. There are 205 photographs in the book, which serve as significant historical documents today.

For research on fishing in Finnish folklore, it opened up opportunities for a more opinionated approach, and that opinionated approach has been preserved. A perfect follow-up to Vilkuna’s work is Kari Alaniska’s doctoral dissertation on the Kemijoki River, “The King of Fish’s Path to Extinction: The Construction of the Kemijoki Power Plants and the Migratory Fish Question 1943–1964.” The book is 410 pages long and serves as an excellent historical account of the construction of the Kemijoki River. Anyone interested in the history of salmon and the Kemijoki River should definitely read this as well.