In Sweden, a long journey home
It is the migration that sees 12 thick snowsuits shuffling about Laponia. Inside the suits, beneath goggles and thermal hats, are Americans, Australians, Europeans – trading their lives as lawyers and doctors to become Sami for five days. ‘I am proud to take you out there,’ beams our guide. ‘You will soon be reindeer-herding experts.’
We are expert at nothing when we arrive at Stubba. Wading through snow the consistency of porridge, we tumble about like giant toddlers. We forget to stay active, and the cold slaps us in the face and stamps on our fingers and toes. We fly off the back of snowmobiles and ditch them in deep snow. Zipped up in our cumbersome snowsuits, we look like astronauts. For all our familiarity with the wilderness around us, we may as well be on the moon.
‘Don’t worry,’ says Lennart cheerfully as he packs the sleighs that carry our food and equipment. ‘We will help you to survive. Most people do. Which is a good thing.’
We are several hours behind the reindeer by the time we have cleared the camp at Stubba, pulling down the tepee-like tents, known as lávvu, that are home for the next few days. The snow acts as the herdsmen’s newspaper, telling them where the reindeer are, whether there are predators in the area, and of the presence of clumsy foreigners who have lost control of their snowmobiles. The trampled route we follow is a rolling ticker of information, announcing that all is well with the herd. Here and there, a single line of prints peels off to a spruce tree. Newsflash: a reindeer has trotted off for a snack.
Far in the distance, a neat line moves across the horizon, trailing puffs of cloud like a steam train. The sun is a pale smudge in the sky, a pinhole promise of light and warmth, as we lurch and bump across the frozen land in pursuit. As we draw closer, the neat line turns into a snorting tangle of reindeer, steam from the melted snow beneath their hooves rising above their heads. Lennart, Kenneth and Juvva leap on and off their snowmobiles, waving their arms and whooping to chivvy the animals along.
The pregnant females, in particular, have a strong instinct to keep walking once they clear the lowland marshes and forest and start the slow climb uphill three days into the migration. ‘They can smell life, the mountains, the earth,’ Lennart explains. Kenneth seems to feel it too – he becomes more buoyant the further west we travel.
Before we reach our rest-stop each night, Juvva races ahead to cut down a few trees so the reindeer are better able to pull off the wispy beards of lichen that hang from their branches. If it has food, the herd is happy to stay where it is for the night; if they grow hungry, the reindeer set off for the previous night’s camp, forcing Kenneth to backtrack several miles each morning to round them up again.
Keeping reindeer herders in the same spot overnight is an easier proposition – sit them on reindeer fur by the fire and feed them reindeer. Minced reindeer, smoked reindeer heart, smoked reindeer tongue, barbecued reindeer steaks, cured reindeer leg, reindeer with pasta, reindeer stew scooped from a blackened pot. Gathered in the lávvu, evenings pass with the Pittja men sharing tales of peril and romance, hope and fear in the candlelight.
‘We’ve had language for a long time but not the written word,’ says consummate storyteller Lennart. ‘It’s a spoken language so talking and sharing stories is the Sami way to read a book.’
The Sami language is extraordinarily eloquent when it comes to the natural world. While there are no words for ‘terrorist’ or ‘credit crunch’, there are more than 100 for snow, to denote levels of grip and depth and texture, and over 50 for reindeer.