A cry goes up from the forest. A snowmobile
shoots out onto the frozen lake, skirts the trees and disappears. Nasti the
Lapp dog – two pointy ears protruding from a mess of black fur – yelps and
whines, eager to be on the move. Deep within the trees ahead, a strange
whooping and hollering crescendos and subsides, before rising 90 degrees to the
left and once again fading to nothing.
‘Ah, here comes my brother,’ remarks
Lennart Pittja, looking up from the smoked reindeer meat he has been slicing
with a hand-carved knife. Nasti can wait no longer. He bounds across the lake
to the treeline, only his tail visible above the snow.
There, a couple of hundred metres beyond
him, are the reindeer. They appear as a trickle, a single-file struggling
through the deep snow towards us, but are soon pouring out of the forest at a
pace and number it’s hard to keep up with. On and on they come, a stew of
antlers and hooves and kicked-up snow, the occasional snout poking out above a
rolling carpet of fur.
And then, just as suddenly, all is still.
The reindeer stand motionless on the lake, sometimes nosing the ground and
otherwise looking a little surprised. Nasti perches on the back of a
snowmobile, apparently aware that he’s had his fun, and the drone of engines is
silenced as the riders gather round for a chat. The first morning’s work of the
annual migration is done.
The depth of winter has now passed in the
World Heritage site of Laponia, more than 3,600 square miles of pristine
forest, mountain and lake in Sweden’s far north, 40 miles beyond the Arctic
Circle. For Lennart, the weather is positively balmy. He draws air deep into his
lungs and smiles. ‘Ah, it is like the Outback here today.’ It is 15°C below.
A warm hug of a man forever bubbling with
good humour, Lennart is the latest link in a chain of reindeer herders that
stretches back nigh on six millennia. His brother Kenneth, with the deep voice,
long whiskers and imposing girth of a fantasy novel character, is the main
herder. Like their ancestors, their lives are intricately woven with that of
the reindeer and the land on which they tend them. Theirs is the story of the
Sami, the indigenous people of Sápmiland, an area extending over the northern
reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – and more familiar as Lapland to
anyone who’s ever written a pleading letter to Father Christmas.
‘Every Sami person has a special relationship
with the reindeer, it’s difficult to explain,’ says Lennart, gesturing to the
300-strong herd milling about on the lake. ‘Without the Sami, you wouldn’t have
this many reindeer, and without the reindeer, there would be no Sami. It’s
thanks to the reindeer that we are still here in the north; they let us
Emerging from the woods where they have
spent the last four months foraging for food among the birch and spruce, the
reindeer are on their way to summer pastures in the mountains some 200 miles to
the west. Here the females will calve and the males will get fat, ready for
slaughter in the autumn, before the herd makes the long journey back to the
forests for the winter.
The migration takes around 10 days, through
marshland, forests and mountains, at a pace dictated by the herd rather than
the herdsmen. ‘We are following the reindeer – they set the programme. I have a
plan but the only thing I can say for certain is that we won’t follow it,’
explains Lennart as the reindeer move off at a steady trot.
Kenneth is quick to notice if an animal is
missing – he knows every single one of his reindeer by sight. He has urged the
herd into the family corral at Stubba, a few miles north of the forest, and
stands amid a boiling mass of animals in the central enclosure, thoughtfully
chewing on a blade of straw. He picks out a small bull with stubby antlers
buried deep within the pack, raises his arm slowly above his head and lets the
lasso fly. Bingo. The animal bucks against the rope, his front legs struggling
to find purchase in the snow as Kenneth hauls him in.
During the summer mating season,
uncastrated bulls raunch around like drunk teenagers, fighting other bulls,
chasing the ladies, and losing up to a third of their bodyweight in the
process. It’s no good to the herders who wish to sell their animals’ meat in
the autumn, and the Pittjas are in the corral today to nip the problem in the
bud. Kenneth and his son Juvva battle their young reindeer to the ground; with
a summary snip of the pliers, its genetic legacy is forever lost. It hobbles
away with a slightly wild look in its eyes.
The work is still very much a family
affair. Lennart and Kenneth’s father, Josef, stands on the sidelines with their
uncle Bertil, dispensing advice and stories. Nephew Emil grapples with a bull,
yanking it by the antlers with one hand while taking a call on his mobile with
the other. Reindeer skitter around the pen, darting in one direction and then
the other, the movement of a single nervous animal setting the herd moving
again just as they start to settle.
Despite the frenzy of activity, the lasting
impression is one of calm. Voices are raised only to swear at Nasti, who stands
well away from the kicking legs of the herd, barking furiously. The herdsmen’s
treatment of the animals is firm, pragmatic, respectful. It is part of an
approach to life that allows them to flourish in an environment most would
consider hostile. The land, even when frozen, is a generous ally, providing
food, shelter and warmth if you know where to look for it. Only a generation
ago, the Sami would live outdoors with their herd and track the reindeer on
foot. ‘But it was tough,’ reflects Lennart. ‘We would survive well without
electricity if we had to, but change is not a bad thing.’
Indeed, modern reindeer husbandry comes
with such a litany of financial pressures that, without change, there’s a real
chance it won’t survive beyond Juvva’s generation. From the EU law that
prevents them from slaughtering their own animals and thus getting the best return
on them, to competition for land from forestry, mining and hydroelectricity,
the biggest threat may well come in the shape of predators, such as the lynx
and weasely wolverine, that stalk the northern wilds with a lusty eye on the
Sami’s reindeer. These predators are protected species and the Sami are
prohibited from hunting them if they attack the herd but, says Kenneth, if a
reindeer is killed, the Sami are compensated only 50 per cent of its value by
the Swedish government. During the last spring migration, half of his herd
disappeared in a single night. ‘We are not part of the economic system – if we
lose reindeer, it can take us years to build the herd again. How is Juvva going
to survive if he has to give up half his income every year?’ Gloominess seems
to sit uneasily with the Pittja brothers. ‘I’m angry sometimes but I am always
optimistic,’ says Lennart. ‘We realise it is up to us to keep the culture
going, not the government or the EU. We have been here thousands of years so we
are not doing so bad.’
The family is nothing if not resourceful,
making extra income selling homemade traditional Sami clothing and knives
carved from reindeer antlers. Lennart’s own solution is tourism. Since 1995, he
has been guiding small groups through Laponia, trekking in the mountains in the
summer and joining the reindeer in the early spring. ‘We bring guests out here
to share our lives. I don’t know anything about marketing and I’m not a
politician but I know people like to come here and they go home and tell their friends
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
‘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.
‘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.
The article 'In Sweden, a long journey home' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.