Finding Petronella

A vein of rock arced through the center of the square, big block letters cut into white granite: ARCTIC CIRCLE. 66°3345.9.”

I straddled the line with my feet, feeling cool wind brush my skin, and closed my eyes. Once I crossed it I would be in Finnish Lapland, where there wasn’t a single town with over 4,000 people. “Petronella,” I whispered. I could all but see her, the way she stood in the doorway of the old sauna at Morgamoja, sleeves rolled up, her blue eyes challenging. The fireweed at her feet caught the late-day sun like tiny violet stars. She was almost smiling. 

This was where the gold miners’ directions began: Cross the Arctic Circle. Take a bus five hours north of Rovaniemi to a town called Ivalo. Transfer in Ivalo, get off at the grocery store in Inari. When the mailman comes ask him for a ride to Njurgalahti Bay. Find a boat driver who will take you 25 kilometers upriver to Kultahamina. Gold Harbor. With a map and compass, walk twelve kilometers into the wilderness to a gold claim called Pehkosenkuru.

I lifted my left foot from the south and brought it down next to my right. Both feet in the Arctic. I thought of the red highway line on my map, how far from it I’d ended up. I’d never been good at following maps. Or straight lines. 

The compass in my chest pulled in only one direction. I had learned to trust it.

North.

On June 16th, 2014, Jenny packed her ukulele, a waterproof notebook, and a pair of shiny neon pants into a red backpack and flew to Helsinki to begin a long trek north. She was retracing the steps of a Dutch woman who in 1949 had followed her writing muse beyond the Arctic Circle, landing herself among the gold miners of Lapland where she lived until she was arrested, deported, and disappeared–a legend growing in her wake. Jenny met the 89-year-old Petronella van der Moer in March 2013. Shortly after, she quit her job to follow her trail across Finland.

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Petronella van der Moer, Lemmenjoki Gold Fields, 1949

From the long, flat Finnish highway to the rolling fjelds of Lemmenjoki National Park, Finding Petronella is the coming-of-age story of a woman stepping into her power. It is a claiming of space for the feminine in wild places, and an exploration of the way connection to land can challenge us, heal us, and remind us who we are. It’s about finding the courage to push beyond the boundaries created for us by society, and those we make for ourselves. Most of all, it is an investigation of what it means to live life like we are alive.

Finding Petronella also explores the dying culture of Lemmenjoki’s last gold miners. Every spring thaw they leave the lives they’ve built, following the call within them toward wild beauty. They take from the land, but also protect it, love it, and live as part of it. They know how to slow down, how to sit in silence, and how to pay attention. Jenny reached them in one of their last good years, when the stories and legends they’d been telling for a century were still shared with whiskey around the fire, before a new law initiated the decline and eventual disappearance of their culture. Never before written about in American literature, they have something to teach us.

Over the last seven years, Jenny has been working to become the writer equal to this work. The book, in its final drafting stages now, will tell the story of this adventure. In the meantime, you can get a taste for what happened on Jenny’s walk across Finland here.

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Jenny O’Connell and Annukka Rantalainen, 2014

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