I had told Olof Thomas (OT) my boss and reindeer herder that Amanda, the anthropologist, and I, the ever curious food/farming enthusiast, would love to accompany him on any reindeer related expeditions he might have. Sure enough one week after meeting him he was calling to ask if we wanted to see a big fall separation of reindeer for the Sirges Sameby in the foothills of the mountains. “Bring your skis, lunch, and lots of warm clothes and just follow the stream of people on snowmobiles heading into the mountains,” OT instructed us in his fend-for-yourself fashion we’re growing familiar with.
We awoke on Sunday morning in Jokkmokk to find that the mercury had dropped to a brisk twenty below zero (Fahrenheit), which is colder than most freezers. Luckily our car roared to life after stammering and wheezing most uninspiringly at first. We scraped with all manner of windshield clearing devices to clear the thick layer of ice and then we were off. We passed reindeer casually pawing at the snow on the side of the road, regarding us placidly as Amanda tried to immortalize them with a camera thrust out of the window.
Though there are not many roads in these parts we still had a hard time figuring out where to turn, as apparently there is also a lack of signs. After some difficultly and several disagreements we were about to turn around at a large dam Amanda mistook for some sort of guarded compound when we were passed by a car pulling a reindeer trailer. Reassured, Amanda permitted me to drive on past the dam and eventually we found the large parking lot OT described. Our car seemed to be the only one that didn’t have a reindeer trailer. We watched a snowmobile disappear into the birch and pine woods and head off into the mountains. We donned our skis, cinched down our down jackets in an effort to avoid being mistaken for the offspring of the Michelin man, and set off.
Appropriate clothing for -20F skiingThe skiing was beautiful, high mountains blanketed in thick snow rising to the west, marking the border with Norway. We quickly reached the tree line and continued on, though we doubted whether or not we were going the right way despite the occasional snowmobile (they are called “snowscooters” in Sweden) passing us. Finally, after 3 kilometers, dozens of snowmobiles started approaching us, coming down from the mountain, single-file, carefully pulling sleds with passengers nestled in reindeer hides, noses visible beneath thick fur hats. We spied OT and his uncle Per Ola riding together. The first time I met Per-Ola he was wearing thick green pants, a faded blue button up shirt with suspenders and a white hardhat, keeping himself busy with some task, whether reindeer or fish related. He is in his mid sixties, and is short and adorable, always chipper and smiling and an excellent crafter of duodji (sami handicrafts). Before we knew his name we simply called him “funny uncle.” Per Ola and OT told us we were almost there and that we could see about 6000 reindeer in the corral. Soon they would be driven down to the lower corral for the separation. Even though it was only about 1:30pm the sun was setting and we pushed on to see the herd.
Moisture from our breath froze around our faces, giving us a frosty appearance. The temperature had not risen during the day so we did not linger long watching the herd of reindeer slowly circulate counterclockwise. Their antlers musically clinked and they quietly grunted, a sound something between the unlikely cross of a frog with a pig. We descended again with a small flock of snow white ptarmigans flying just ahead of us as the light completely left the sky.
On our windshield was a note from OT describing where his cabin was located. Part of the directions involved turning at a “blue down jacket hung on a pole” and then looking for his car “after a while.” We found it with no problem and opened two sets of doors to step into his family’s tiny cabin. A small woodstove blazed and 4 beds lined the outside of the single room, each with another bed underneath and all covered with reindeer hides. We removed our frozen clothing and warmed ourselves by the fire. It would be several hours before the reindeer separation which gave my water bottle, now frozen solid, enough thawing time to render the contents slightly liquid. Now was a time to eat and rest, which we gratefully did. We accepted OT’s generous offer of reindeer stew with what looked like ramen noodles (Sami fusion food?). It was warm and delicious and we sipped on glögg (Swedish mulled wine) and talked.
Various people, both relatives and friends, dropped in to say hello, strategize, eat, drink coffee and lie on a reindeer hide. We met a good many people and heard some funny stories. OT explained that to be a reindeer herder is to wait. A snowmobile passed by the cabin and OT was able to tell not only the make and model of the snowmobile, but also the owner, whom he identified as one the herders who had been out gathering the reindeer in subzero temperatures for the last three days. These herders would have to rest and eat before the separation could begin. It was only about an hour later that we got word – via smart phone – that it was time to put back on all of warm clothes and go out into the night and -25°F weather to begin the reindeer separation, an activity that could take all night.
OT prepared us for the evening’s separation. He explained that the corral where the reindeer are separated looks like a flower, with a central round area and 20 “petals” peeling off from it. In the very center of the round part was a pole with a powerful light shining down. Each petal has a door and is numbered. OT works with his family, the Utsi’s, so we were in their petal, number 18. Other people were already on location, busily shoveling snow and making birch wood fires to stay warm. OT suddenly motioned for us to follow him. We went with about 25 other volunteers to move the reindeer from one corral to the closest big corral. I grabbed hold of a long piece of plastic, about 5 feet high and 100 feet long, with other volunteers. By holding this plastic and walking towards the reindeer we could cause them to move in the direction we wanted. Even though the plastic was not strong enough to hold them, the reindeer did not want to go through or jump over it, so for the most part they did as we wanted.
After moving half the herd into the closer corral, we herded them into another, smaller corral. This time I wasn’t operating the plastic sheet. Instead I was clapping and swinging my arms about, bringing me back to my days at Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Asheville, NC, where I was often herding pigs, cows, and sometimes turkeys. Several times the reindeer decided it was not in their best interest to go the way we were suggesting, so they turned and ran toward us. This was a bit unnerving as there were: A) hundreds of them running straight at me; and B) some had enormous antlers. Both Amanda and I were amazed when the reindeer poured around us like water. Not a single one touched either of us, even though antlers were flashing by perilously close to our heads. I later learned that it is very rare to be run into by a reindeer. How the song Grandma got run over by a reindeer originated I cannot fathom.
We moved back to the flower and slipped into our petal to wait for the first group of reindeer. OT said, “Aaron, when I call for you, come and grab the reindeer by the antlers and help me drag it into our area.” That was the first time I had ever heard that particular sentence and I was excited to help. I was not prepared for the chaos that ensued. One hundred reindeer poured into the central corral snorting and looking a bit confused. Meanwhile about 40 reindeer owners, men, women, and children, tried to look at their diminutive ears to find their own special earmark. People were peering around with craned necks and wrinkled brows. I assume they were wrinkled but it was hard to see too clearly because of the large fur hats most of the people were wearing.
Suddenly a hand would shoot out and grab a reindeer who would immediately try to go the opposite direction. Oftentimes a hand would come out of a glove and feel one of the reindeer’s ears, to determine precisely who in the family it belonged to. The herder would pull his reindeer, who was usually striking the same pose one would imagine a horse on a black diamond ski slope would adopt, knees locked, with head pulled back. At any given moment, reindeer slid past, pulled by their herder into the correct petal. Some reindeer loitered in front of the petal that perhaps they liked the most; a few it seemed were even looking at the numbers in an attempt to make the whole process easier on everyone.
“Aaron” I would hear and I would dash off to grab a reindeer by the antlers and take it to our petal, sometimes alone but most often opposite another herder. Both male and female reindeer have antlers, and even the calves have antlers, making them easier to handle. The calves were about the size of a large yellow lab, but occasionally we came upon a hark (castrated male) that was the size of a very large whitetail deer with enormous antlers. Once we had dragged the reindeer through our door and into our petal, they were vaccinated against flies, and recorded as to whom they belonged to. When released, they usually ran a few frantic steps, spotted the other reindeer, and quickly joined the others placidly digging holes in the snow to reach food.
The reindeer we would separate would be transported by trailer (hydroelectric dams, logging, and roads have made driving the reindeer overland increasingly difficult) to their winter grazing grounds where they can be more easily helped in the event of food shortages and predator attacks. One might wonder why a reindeer herder doesn’t try to cheat and take reindeer with other herder’s earmarks and the answer is that it doesn’t help them. Taking someone else’s reindeer means having to take care of them for the winter, a costly endeavor, so herders make certain that they are only claiming their reindeer.
One of the reindeer we separated had a large open wound on its back haunch, the telltale sign of the wolverine, the most powerful member of the mustelid (weasel) family. OT and I pulled the reindeer around to see if the butcher would buy the reindeer, but OT got disoriented in the circle corral and we went around too far. After taking our bearings among all the other herders going their separate ways OT finally located the butcher who agreed to take the reindeer.
Children were at the separation and they worked together to identify and catch their own calves and pull them to the correct door. Larger reindeer sometimes shook their heads vigorously and it was hard to hold on. OT and I were pulling an especially strong and exuberant male reindeer with rather large antlers. As we neared the door he decided he would rather not oblige and began to buck and thrash. With a loud crack the antler that OT was holding broke off in his hand. I was just barely able to hold onto this enraged reindeer long enough for OT to grab the now much smaller antler. We pulled him into the door where OT handed his handhold over to Amanda while he sawed off the other antler (they have no nerves or feeling at this time of the year) so that the reindeer would fit in his trailer.
When most of the reindeer had been claimed someone would shout something in Swedish and everyone would retreat back to their door. Then a new group would rush in and it would all begin again. Between reindeer groups we would warm our hands and feet by the birch fire and occasionally sip hot glögg. Above us the northern lights waved like rivers of greenish light, trailing across the clear night sky. While we were awestruck by this beautiful display our comrades seemed quite accustomed to being outside at -25°F, separating reindeer under the northern lights. Our group was speaking North Sami between themselves, but others around us were conversing in Swedish or Lule Sami. Amanda and I don’t speak any Sami at this point, so we were often spoken to in English, where I seem to do much better.
The reindeer separation would go on for many hours, with the herders working until the early morning hours. Still OT considered this work a “vacation” and fun, and while I disagree about his first assertion, I did find it quite fun. Unfortunately we had come ill equipped to spend the night and so we regretfully turned down OT’s invitation to stay and instead we began the 60 mile drive through the dark woods along a road that was commonly used as a “moose safari” road. Not two miles from Kuorpak we came across a mother reindeer and her calf who trotted ahead of our car along the road, unwilling to jump the high snow bank and wade through the deep snow. The road was not wide enough for us to pass them so we had to wait and give them ample space. Eventually the mother veered off and the calf, after a moment’s hesitation, followed her. Along the way we also saw a beautiful red fox, as well as female moose, as big as cow, lying dead on the road, presumably because of a collision with a very large truck. The northern lights shifted and flashed across the frigid night sky as we drove along the snow-covered roads back to our warm apartment.