Once, around Easter, I was skiing all by myself along the Inari river, 450 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The vernal sun was warm and gentle, and in the ice cover, there were already dark, melted spots where I could see the river water flowing swiftly toward the Arctic Ocean.
All of a sudden, I had the strange feeling that I was not alone. And look at that! On both banks of the river, there were hundreds of reindeer, just watching the lonely skier. Silently, they looked upon the stranger, until they had seen enough and continued to dig lichen from under the snow.
That night, I met Jouni, the owner of the reindeer herd. He was rather young for a herder, but also a passionate hunter and, in all ways, very good company.
In Finnish Lapland, there are more than 200,000 reindeer herding in an area of approximately 114,000 square kilometres. Every single reindeer is owned by one of Lapland’s 5,000 herdsmen (or women), who usually are Sámi people.
If you ask a Sámi herd owner about the number of reindeer in his herd, don’t expect to get the true number. It’s a bit like asking Southerners how much money they have in the bank.
The only certain thing is that every reindeer you meet wandering in the fells is branded and someone’s property.
The reindeer are the sheep of the people living in Lapland. They herd freely in the vast wilderness all summer and winter. And the herders take good care of their animals. The most important thing is to keep the herd together, drive it to better pastures every now and then, and keep the wolves, bears and wolverines away.
The herder’s calendar has eight seasons.
Spring is vital for the growth of the herds. For calving, the reindeer herds seek their way to the southern slopes of the protective fells.
The reindeer take full advantage of the short, but light-filled early summer in Lapland. They gain weight, the calves grow and become stronger.
After Midsummer, the calves are marked by making specific cuts in their ears with a knife. The earmarks are called “mother’s words”. After calf marking, the herds are driven, to protect them from insects, either to the coast or higher to the fells.
In late summer, August to September, the reindeer gather reserve fat for the wintertime, mainly by eating green grass and mushrooms.
Once the autumn colours have passed, there is no more green to graze on and the reindeer start eating lichen. Autumn is also the mating season for the reindeer.
In early winter, the herders will gather the herds to separation enclosures and decide upon which animals will be slaughtered and which will survive for breeding. The reindeer are again sorted into herds and driven to the winter pastures.
In winter, the herds are separated into smaller ones, and the herders protect them against bears, wolves and wolverines. Predatory animals are increasing in number, and they manage to kill hundreds of reindeer each year, despite the careful protection of the herders.
In March to April, the herds return to spend the late winter in their summer pastures, which are still snow-covered. On the southern slopes, however, the reindeer can dig lichen form under the snow and ice.
Over the centuries, both the reindeer and their herders have, in a remarkable way, adapted to life in these extreme conditions. The reindeer manage on a scarce diet over the dark wintertime in freezing temperatures, falling sometimes below -50°C, and the people herding them have been amazingly resourceful in finding different uses for the reindeer. The reindeer skin and fur make the best clothes and footwear, the reindeer meat is solid, tough and nourishing, and the reindeer antlers and bones are nowadays used for making all sorts of souvenirs for tourists.
The herders have also adopted new technologies without hesitation. In summer, they travel over the roadless fells and bogs on motorcycles, and in winter, snowmobiles. The most foolhardy and reckless riders are found north of Inari. No ravine is too steep for them to ride down, and there is no river that they can’t cross on a snowmobile – whether it is covered with ice or free of ice. Motorcycles and snowmobiles are absolutely necessary and extremely useful in reindeer herding.
When wandering in Lapland, a Southerner may meet Sámi herders at a fell cottage or around a campfire. They are sociable storytellers, especially if you happen to have with you something to drink. I’ve many times reflected on the colourful stories Jouni told me.
Hiking in the fells, tourists often encounter reindeer as well. The reindeer are not afraid of people, but on the other hand, they don’t let you near either. Sometimes one or more reindeer start following hikers, staying a short way behind so as to accompany them in the fells.
For a Southerner, the encounter with the reindeer, their herders and the natural serenity of the wilderness in Lapland is an experience that is hard to forget. In the worst case scenario, you will get struck with Lapland fever, which has no cure: you get the irresistible urge to return, year after year, to the same places, as north as possible, raise your tent below a fell, make a fire, enjoy a pan of black coffee and just sit in the brushwood, listening to the silence.
From the “Im Reich der Rentiere“, by Bernhard Wagner.
Siida – A WINDOW INTO SÁMI CULTURE AND ARCTIC NATURE
Paliskunnat – A REINDEER HERDERS’ ASSOCIATION – REINDEER NET