(Jaanus Silla)
Article Words : Jonathon Reynolds | 01 July

Walking with the reindeer in Arctic Sweden

A trek along a reindeer migration route may be wet, cold and muddy, but it's also an invigorating taste of a traditional Scandinavian lifestyle

Head down against the rain, I trudged forward through a grey world. Mist hemmed my horizon on all sides, shrinking my vision to a 50m circle. With every step my feet squelched and squished. The ground and the air were thick with water, and my toes seemed to be slowly dissolving from solid to liquid.

Surprisingly, despite the physical discomfort, I was in a great mood. I was getting back to basics in the mountains of Swedish Laponia, a World Heritage area far north of the Arctic Circle, with a reindeer leashed to my waist. For five days our small group (ranging in age from 18 to 60) were following ancient reindeer migration routes, just as the local native people – the Sami – have done for years.

A man and his reindeer

Reindeer have been central to the traditional Sami way of life for centuries – they eat them, use them as beasts of burden and, in rare cases, even use them to pull sledges for both work and fun. In fact, the relationship is so close that at one point the Swedish government declared that, to be classed as Sami, you had to own a reindeer. 

That is no longer the case, and 25,000 Sami now live urban lives like other town-bound Swedes. But despite the influx of quad bikes and helicopters, 2,500 Sami families still carry on the herding tradition – and we were joining them.

Most of the reindeer were already high in the mountains above us. The reindeer spend the winter in lowland forests, and then climb into the bare hills in spring, where the lack of cover for predators makes it safer for young calves. Except for a few pockets of twisted birch in deep gullies, there were no trees around us now – nothing to blunt the wind and rain.

“Let’s take a break and wait for the others to catch up,” suggested Lennart, one of our Sami guides. Tall, with a ready smile and a thick mop of blond hair, Lennart was at home in the fog and rain. A soft-spoken man with a wry sense of humour and a strong political conviction, he started a trekking company as a way of preserving and sharing traditional Sami life.

His clothes reflected the man, a blend of traditional and modern. From his belt hung two niibi (knives) and a guksi (wooden cup) – Sami symbols, but also very practical. The smaller knife is used for eating; the larger, he told us, for fighting off bear and lynx – so never gets used these days. The birch wood guksi is used for drinking water, from the region’s thousands of streams, and coffee, without which Lennart couldn’t start the day. 

But for now the weather, not caffeine, was his main concern. “OK, let’s get to camp and get warm and dry,” he said, having shepherded us all safely through the thick fog.

The challenges of reindeer herding

Lennart really was an optimist – there was no way these feet of mine were going to dry out in this rain. And as the ground started to slope down, it became super-saturated. All the water from the mountain, invisible in the cloud above us, was running down over the rocky soil in a mini-flood. Eventually the soil turned into a boggy, spongy mass and the water coalesced into a stream running beside us.

Off to our right was a huge bank of ice overhanging the stream. We gingerly picked our way down over the jagged rocks and soon came across a faint trail. Sivu, the reindeer I was leading, was getting tired and kept pulling at the lead I had wrapped around my middle – and he was the best behaved beast of the lot. But once he found the trail, Sivu calmed down: maybe he sensed other reindeer ahead, or maybe he just knew the day was almost over.

This had been the longest, hardest day of the trip, which had started on the shores of Lake Siiddasjavri and climbed up onto the shoulders of Mount Alepoajvve. The reindeer had carried the heavy equipment, but we all had our own packs; I often wished there were a couple of extra reindeer to carry more. But reindeer are never really tame like a horse or a cow. They are shy and difficult to lead, with only the most docile being any good for load carrying.

Indeed, there are about 225,000 reindeer in Sweden and only a couple of hundred ever deal with people much at all. As herd animals, they’re instinctively drawn to any other reindeer they see, sense or smell, so they have to be tied to something – a stake, a heavy pack or a hiker – at all times. The key to leading them – and not being led by them – is to be firm, keep a short lead rope and never, ever let them get in front.

Funghi to be with

At least the reindeer didn’t seem to mind the rain. In fact, I’m not sure they even noticed. Their biggest concern seemed to be eating – particularly mushrooms. Wild mushrooms sprout all over the tundra and the reindeer were connoisseurs – especially Girjebáhtta and Nástigállu (renamed Nasti, which suited his temperament well). 

Sivu was much more relaxed about everything, even mushrooms. I quickly learned that to befriend a reindeer, just feed it some fungi – it will be your best mate, or at least until you run out of mushrooms.

We continued onwards, hiking across permafrost. The dominant terrain type above the Arctic Circle, it looked a bit like stone, only slightly springy to the touch, as if the ground was made out of grey foam rubber. There were no real paths and the ground had been frost-heaved into a maze of knee-high humps, making walking a challenging series of rhythmless jumps. 

To our eyes, the land appeared barren – but Anders, another of our guides, disagreed. One day he walked us slowly around the campsite and pointed out dozens of tiny plants including what had to be the world’s smallest birch forest: the ‘trees’ were less than 1cm tall.

Tugging at the lead rope, I guided Sivu to our camping spot. The first order of business was to erect the lavvu, a large, teepee-like tent that became our dining hall, living room and general meeting area. Lavvus are key to the Sami;some are permanent structures, but most are temporary tents easily moved and set up in the abundant open spaces.

Traditionally, lavvus were built in spots that people returned to summer after summer, and their forms identify the Sami tribe who built them. We found an old lavvu close to our third night’s campsite. A frame of bent wood was partially covered in birch bark, white side down, and then a layer of soil was placed on top to act as insulation. When it was complete it would have been dark but very cosy inside. 

A reindeer roast

Nearby we found an antler carved with the date 1922. Anders told us the lavvu was likely placed there – high on top of a hill between two valleys – as a lookout point for reindeer herders.

But now the issue was getting our own lavvu set up, and then pitching our tents around it. In a surprisingly short time, with everyone working together, we made camp and sat inside sipping tea and coffee. Lennart was almost right – we were warm, but only a few had dry feet. However, by the time dinner was over – a hearty plate of reindeer meat, potatoes and a few vegetables – we were all pretty much dry.

The Sami rarely sit up in the lavvu; most of the time they lay down in a circle around the tent, each position having a specific meaning. Visitors stay just inside the tent flap, while the head of the family stays at the back, the furthest from the door. The cook stove – in the past, the fire – is slightly toward the side away from the door.

Nothing can be tossed about in the tent or you risk the wrath of Máhtáráhkka, the grandmother of Sami life and land. It was a common joke all week that we must have been throwing things like mad to be hit by so much rain.

Lennart and Anders call lying down after a meal in the lavvu ‘going cultural’. On our final night almost everyone had ‘gone cultural’, each person slightly resting on the person beside them. The rain drummed on the lavvu walls while we were snug inside.

Rainbow rescue

The next morning brought a light wind, which had partially dispersed the clouds by the time we packed up the reindeer. Then, just as we headed off, the sun broke through and a beautiful rainbow curved across the vast Arctic sky. It moved with us as we hiked, as if escorting us off the mountain, and by the time we’d reached the home-bound bus the sun was out and we’d stripped to shirtsleeves.

In the sunshine the mountains looked magnificent, and as the reindeer stood obediently to heel and the landscape beckoned in seductive fashion, I forgot all about the rain, the squelching and the wet, wet feet – and wished I didn’t have to leave.