Winter Travels in Samiland

Why Is a Reindeer Like a Cat?
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 25 2004 6:34 PM

Winter Travels in Samiland

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Separating the reindeer: Look first at the ear markings, and watch out for those antlers
Separating the reindeer: Look first at the ear markings, and watch out for those antlers

Winter tourism is on the rise in Samiland, and that doesn't just mean more ski resorts, but also "adventure tourism" like snowmobiling and, increasingly, dog-sledding tours. The Ice Hotel, for instance, has partners that advertise these outdoor tours in lyrical prose. The trouble is, at least from the local Sami point of view, these treks into "Europe's last wilderness" take place in the middle of land traditionally used for the winter grazing of reindeer.

And reindeer don't care much for dogs.

I'd noticed a small pamphlet around Kiruna addressed to tourists, explaining in careful, non-confrontational language some of the issues facing reindeer herders in the area. According to local Sami herder Lillemor Baer, this newly released brochure was a desperate appeal to right-minded tourists. "With the mining industry," she told me, "there's a board of directors you can talk to. The same with the community council. But with the tourist 'industry,' there's no one person to contact. No one to take responsibility."

Lillemor grew up in a reindeer herding family and has reindeer of her own. "We don't know what it is about the dogs that scares the reindeer—it may be the smell, or the barking, or seeing them rush forward—but we do know that after dogs have crossed a path, the reindeer won't go near." Although only 10 percent of Sami now own reindeer, the animal is indelibly fused with Sami culture. In the past, every part of the creature was used: the skin for clothes, boots, and bags; the antlers and bone for utensils and decoration; the meat and milk for food. The reindeer has a mystique beyond that of a horse or cow. Its spirit can never be fully domesticated, however tame it gets.

"The reindeer is like a cat," Anders Kärrstedt declared, when I asked what other animal the reindeer resembled. Anders works with Lennart Pittja of Vägvisaren, or Pathfinder, a Sami eco-tourist company out of Gällivare, 60 miles southeast of Kiruna. Anders had met me at the bus station and whisked me off to see a herd of reindeer brought down from the mountains, where they had been grazing on moss throughout the winter. It was time for the animals, who'd been wandering freely, to be separated out by their owners. The reindeer ran feverishly around the fenced-in circle, while the herders expertly checked the markings on their ears. These distinctive cuts are made when the reindeer are young, the equivalent of branding a cow. One by one, the reindeer were nabbed at the neck or by the antlers and dragged off to waiting trailers to be taken to corrals closer to the families' homes.

Lennart and Anders watching reindeer
Lennart and Anders watching reindeer

Anders and Lennart took me back to their base on Mount Dundret. The light was brilliant midday, and the spruce branches loaded with snow. We piled into the Sami tent to make a fire and have some lunch. Lennart, now 32, grew up with reindeer, and while his older brother is taking over most of the herd, he has opted to work with tourists. His first idea was to bring people here to the tents, make them food, and tell them about Sami culture. Although he still does that, he's now joined with Anders to set up trekking expeditions over the tundra with reindeer as pack animals. The treks last over a week and take place in late summer, when the mosquitoes are few(er), and the landscape begins to take on fall colors.

"Our aim is to get people to slow down. We often stop and look at plants and see what there is to see. It's not hard work, so families and older people can come. We don't always use the same paths. Our aim is to have little impact on the land.

"We also invite people on a spring trek to follow the reindeer up into the mountains. That's a little harder, because we ask them to participate in some of the work, but people find it very rewarding."

I asked him about dog-sledding and he shook his head. "It's not our tradition," he said diplomatically.

After lunch—reindeer fried in butter, excellent for those on the Atkins Diet, and coffee—we headed out to feed Lennart's reindeer. I mingled freely with the creatures, entranced not only by fairy-tale memories, but by their curiosity and springiness. Reindeer really do dash through the snow. Their hoofs are splayed to give them a good footing, and when they move, there's a clicking sound, tendon over bone. They have a nervy energy; when they hear another reindeer's clicking sound going faster, they bound off with incredible speed. In truth, they did remind me of my cats, who keep a wary eye on me even after years of living side by side.

Lennart said, a little dreamily, "I never get tired of watching them. I could just stand here and watch them for a long time." To him, they were not like cats or any other animal, each reindeer was an individual. "It's not just the markings, it's everything about the reindeer. The Sami language has so many words for different kinds of reindeer, but it's also that you learn to recognize their expressions."

Lillemor Baer had told me, "Once you tame a reindeer, it doesn't matter if it goes into the forest and you don't see it for months. When you find it again, it will return to being tame."

I'd read you shouldn't ask reindeer herders how many animals they had. It was a bit rude, like asking someone how much money they had in the bank. But I forgot and asked Lennart, just as I'd asked Lillemor. Lennart smiled and said, "A few," a traditional response. Lillemor had told me, "You can't really say you own reindeer. When the wind blows one way, you might have 500 reindeer; when it blows the other way, you have none. Only the wind owns the reindeer."

Barbara Sjoholm is the editor of Steady As She Goes: Women's Adventures at Sea, and author of the forthcoming travel-history narrative The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea. She has been visiting Scandinavia since the 1970s.