In Sweden, a long journey home
‘With only one word, I know what the mountain looks like, what the condition of the snow is, how the reindeer are,’ says Lennart. ‘And Sami is much better for swearing than Swedish. Swear words in Swedish are like a mosquito, in Sami they are like a golden eagle.’
Being with the herd and in that environment is a delight that loses none of its novelty. Just as spirits start to flag from cold, some astonishing new spectacle presents itself.
As we near the end of a long day, the setting sun catches loose snow whipped across the surface of a frozen marsh by the wind, golden flecks whirling in the deep-blue light of dusk. A sleepless night spent rigid on the frozen ground inside the lávvu is instantly forgotten as dawn brings a group of fearless reindeer snuffling up to the tents, curious and hungry. The following evening, stuck crossing a mountain in a white-out and unable to separate sky from snow, the mood darkens as the temperature drops. But, like an Arctic superhero bursting from the milky gloom, there is Kenneth on his snowmobile, slicing a route down the mountain that takes us below the treeline. We are soon back in the forest of our Swedish fairytale, bouncing beneath spruce branches balancing fat, twinkling pillows of snow.
The white weather had eaten the mountains but I know them so well, I could feel my way down,’ Kenneth tells us that night, stretched out by the stove in a herder’s cabin built by his father.
Lennart is quick to agree. ‘I know the lakes, I know the rocks, I know the creeks, I know the trees. There is no wilderness for me here. This is my garden.’
We are beginning to see this ourselves, caught under the spell of a land that but four days previously had seemed impossibly, comically unyielding.
We return to the mountain in the spectral light of a slow-coming dawn. Up and up we go, squinting into the low cloud for signs of the reindeer we were forced to leave during the white-out. Scattered specks hove into view, gaining legs and antlers as we draw nearer. The herd has survived the night.
Kenneth circles the slopes in everdecreasing loops to gather his reindeer, scooting down the hill to collect animals nibbling on lichen in a copse of birch.
We join the procession for a final time, falling in with the reindeer’s steady plod. Far to the west, across a landscape of frozen valleys and peaks, lie the mountains that will mark their journey’s end. We stand and watch as man and beast march on through the land they have called home for thousands of years, until the herd grows fainter and fainter in the pearly haze, and finally fades into white.