Trekking with the reindeer in Saami land.
By Jonathon Reynolds
Head down against the rain I trudge forward through a grey world. Mist binds my horizon on all sides shrinking my world to a 50 metre circle. Every step my feet squelch and squish with water – I can feel it moving between my toes. The ground is covered in water the air is thick with water and my feet feel as if they are slowly dissolving in water.
Surprisingly, despite the physical discomfort, I am in a great mood. I am high in the mountains of Sweden far north of the Artic circle covering ground in the same way the local native people – the Saami – have been travelling for years. Turning I see a ghostly form move out of the mist. It slowly coalesces into Hella leading one of the loaded reindeer, an image that has not changed in hundreds of years.
For centuries the Saami have lived by herding reindeer. In fact at one point the Swedish government declared you must own reindeer to be a Saami! That is no longer the case and now about 2,500 Saami families in Sweden carry on the reindeer herding tradition while the other 25,000 live in towns and live life much similar to other Swedish people. Out here on the mountain though, we are back to the basics. This trip is following the same routes as the spring and fall reindeer migration routes – routes on which the Saami have been travelling back and forth for centuries.
“Let’s take a break and wait for the others to catch up”, Lennart’s voice cuts through my thoughts. Lennart is one of the two Saami guides with us on this trip. He owns the reindeer which are carrying our tents, food and heavy gear. Right now he wants to wait to make sure no one has drifted from the route in the fog.
After a few minutes of waiting we are short 3 people, the other Saami guide, Anders, and two members of the group. Lennart asks us to wait and walks off into the fog giving a low call which sounds a bit like a horn. He walks into the fog till we can’t see him then returns and goes in each direction giving the same call. I hear nothing in response but at one point he suddenly stops and walks directly away from us disappearing in the mist in a few seconds. Less than a minute later he is back leading the missing trekkers.
“Okay, lets get to camp and get warm and dry”. Lennart really is an optimist I think – I can’t see getting warm and dry today. Warm yes, but there is no way these feet of mine are going to dry out in this rain. Finally the ground starts to slope down. We have been climbing almost all day and as the ground starts to drop it becomes super saturated. All the water from the mountain, invisible in the cloud above us, is running down over the rocky soil in a mini-flood about an inch deep. The landscape looks like a set from a StarTek show – you know the old 60’s TV show with the Styrofoam rocks – only these rocks are real. Eventually the rocky soil turns into a boggy, damp, spongy mass and the water coalesces into a stream running along beside us. Suddenly the ground drops away and off to our right is a huge bank of ice overhanging the stream as it plunges down the steep slope. We gingerly pick our way down on the jagged rocks and soon come across a very faint trail. The reindeer I am leading is getting tired and keeps pulling at the lead I have wrapped around my waist – and this is the best behaved one of the lot! He starts behaving better once he finds the trail, maybe he senses other reindeer ahead or maybe he just knows the day is almost over.
This has been the longest and hardest day on this 5 day reindeer trekking trip. I am amazed at the other group members and how they have held up. Jamie, my tent mate, just 18 years old and on his first camping trip ends up on one of the wettest trips ever but he keeps on smiling. Sandy, who is Jamie’s mildly eccentric aunt (and how I wish we all had eccentric aunts like her) has given this trip to Jamie as his 18th birthday present. Marsha is a cancer survivor who is celebrating her 60th birthday with this trip and she has pulled her daughter (Erica) and ex-husband (Jim – father of the daughter) onto their first family trip in 27 years. There is Becky, who did a similar trip to this one when she was a teen and has come back to relive the experience and Hella, the wife of the Crossing Latitudes guide. Then there are the Vägvisaren guides, Lennart who owns the reindeer, Anders who is the chief chef and camp maestro and Howie, Hella’s husband a cheerful and very professional guide originally from the USA and Canada but now a patriotic Swede. Oh, and the most important members of our group are the reindeer. Much shorter than I imagined at only about a metre tall but they have those big racks of fuzzy antlers and those big dear eyes that the women on the trip seemed to find irresistible. Of all of us the reindeer seem to mind the rain the least. In fact I am not even sure they notice. Their biggest concern seems to be eating especially the mushrooms they are addicted to.
Tugging at the lead rope I guide my reindeer to our camping spot for the night. First order of business is to get the lavvu up. The lavvu is a large tepee like tent which is our dining hall, living room and general meeting place at each campsite. Lavvus have a long history in the Saami tradition some being permanent structure. We found one of these old lavvus close to our third night’s campsite. A frame of bent wood was partially covered in birch bark with the white side down and then a layer of soil was placed on top of the birch bark to act as insulation. When it was complete it would have been dark but very snug and warm inside. We found an antler with the date 1922 carved in it near that old lavvu so it has been there almost 90 years at least. Anders told us that it was likely placed where it was – high on top of a hill between two valleys – as a lookout point for reindeer herders.
But now the issue is getting this lavvu set up and then setting up our tents. In a surprisingly short time, with everyone working together, we have pitched camp and we are all inside the lavvu sipping on tea and coffee and Lenart was almost right – we were warm but only a few had dry feet. By the time dinner was over – reindeer meat and potatoes and some veggies – we pretty much all had dry feet even! Mind you mine got soaked again when I had to put my wet boots on to get back to the tent to sleep.
This is our last night out and everyone is reminiscing about the trip. I love this constant fact of all wilderness trips – even before the trip is over people don’t want to leave so they start reliving all the moments on the trip.
‘Remember the Artic Char the Lennart’s brother gave us? That was the best fish I have ever eaten’ was Erica’s comment. Lenart’s brother is the reindeer herder in the family. Each family has one member that is exclusively a reindeer herder. In the off times – like now – he fishes to make some extra money. He gave us several Artic Char and it truly was the most delicious fish I have ever eaten too. A murmur of assent wrapped around the lavvu much like the bodies all sprawled out like a row of fallen dominos.
The Saami do not sit up in the lavvu, most of the time the lie down in a circle around the tent, each position having a specific meaning. Visitors stay just inside the tent flap while the eldest or head of the family stays at the back the furthest away from the door. The cook stove – in the past the fire – is slightly toward the side away from the door and nothing can be tossed in the tent or you will risk the wrath of the gods. It has been a common joke all week that we must have been throwing things too much and that is where the rain came from. Lennart and Anders call lying down after a meal in the lavvu ‘going cultural’. Tonight almost everyone has ‘gone cultural’. Since we are too large a group for the lavvu each person is slightly resting on the person beside them. It is a cosy feeling, the rain drumming on the lavvu walls and being snug and warm inside with a bunch of new friends.
Looking back over the week I am amazed at how tough the terrain is out here. Far above the Artic circle much of the ground is permafrost. Permafrost looks a bit like stone only when you touch it its slightly springy as if the ground is made out of grey foam rubber. There are very few trees here, a few stunted birches in sheltered spots and then just barren ground. But it is not really barren it is all, just miniaturised. One day Anders walked us slowly around the campsite and he pointed out dozens of tiny plants including what has to be the worlds smallest birch tree forest at less than one cm tall.
Walking here is a challenge because there are no real paths and the ground – except where it is solid rock – as been frost heaved into a maze of knee high humps. Jumping from one hump to the next all day is very tiring because there is no rhythm to it. Not jumping is challenging because the spaces between the humps twists and turns and is not generally wide enough for a whole boot. What really strikes an urbanite out here are the skies! Clear bright skies that stretch on forever. We have not been lucky with our weather but we have still seen some amazing skies. Tonight though the sky stops just metres above our heads.
Morning brings a light wind which partially disperses the clouds by the time we pack the reindeer. Just as we start the sun breaks through and a beautiful rainbow marks the end of our trip. It moves with us as we hike escorting us off the mountain. By the time we reach the parking lot where we will catch the bus the sun is out and we have stripped down to shirtsleeves. The mountains are showing their best side luring us back and making us not want to leave.
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