Pastures New: Herding Reindeer with Norway's Sami People
22 November, 2018
Five flights, one snowstorm and an airport that consists of four chairs and not much else later from stepping out of my front door, I arrive in the snow-capped region of Hasvik on the Norwegian island of Sørøya. Undoubtedly you've never heard of it, unless you're an overly keen fisherman who's kept an eye on the exact locations of recent deep-sea fishing world records.
The next two days are spent preparing for the arrival of the reindeer, with the whole family falling into their individual roles. Everything must be ready to go as the timing of the migration and route taken is up to the deer themselves - "We are just there as guides," Nils laughs. We set about organising rations and stretching out the lassos that have been stored for the summer. Hendrick suddenly tells me to run and before I know it, he has me tightly tangled up in his ropes. Before he releases me, he can't resist smugly pointing out that the deer have four legs and antlers to contend with, making me twice as difficult to catch - and yet I still miserably failed to get away.
Each member of the family wears the same colourful, hand-made clothes as their ancestors did, to which they will add reindeer furs when the temperature drops. No Gore-Tex jacket could compete in the depths of winter, they tell me. It's a necessary precaution - once the deer arrive to the corral, the families can be working for more than 24 hours at a time, sleeping on the mountain in long, gruelling days and nights that merge into a blur. It might seem like a tough life - but these are the Sami, and the desire to work alongside nature this way is in their blood.
However, I'm not here for the fish. I'm here because this remote island, deep in the Arctic Circle and at the northernmost tip of Norway, is the traditional summer home of the Sami people. For thousands of years these indigenous people have co-existed with reindeer herders (also known as boazovázzi) and each year they make the pilgrimage to follow thousands of deer from their lush summer pastures on the island to the wintering grounds on the mainland's tundra. With the creatures outnumbering humans by a ratio of six to one, this is no easy task - particularly as during the summer grazing season the deer will have spread across the island's unforgiving mountainous terrain. Around 40 Sami must club together to corral them using modern luxuries such as boats, motorbikes, ATVs and even a helicopter to locate the stragglers. The whole process can take up to a month.
I join the tribe at the end of September just as the winter migration preparations are beginning and am greeted by Nils Sara, the father of the Sami family with whom I'll be staying. We've been introduced by Visit Natives, a travel agency dedicated to supporting the herders' lifestyle through small-scale tourism and homestays with local families. Founder Anniina Sandberg was inspired to protect the indigenous culture of her homeland after spending nine months living with a Maasai tribe in Tanzania. The majority of the money raised goes directly to Sami families in order that they may better be able to resist the financial pressure to move to the cities in search of alternative work, thus preserving the culture of herding for the next generation.
The importance of this mission is brought home to me when I meet Nils' ten-year-old son (and total badass) Hendrick, who having inherited calves from the age of two is now a seasoned veteran with his own lasso, knife and small herd. Unfortunately for me the herding process, due to begin on the day I arrive, has had to be postponed thanks to unseasonably bad weather - the warmer summers and unpredictable winters brought about by climate change are known to affect the herding patterns, although it's impossible to say for sure if this is the case here. Instead, I head out to the still-grassy and golden hills under Hendrick and Nils' guidance to watch them constructing the goahti, the traditional tepee-like structure that will be their home for the two months that the migration lasts.
As the evening draws in Nils shows me how to smoke reindeer meat over a low fire, which his family will enjoy with foraged berries, sweet flatbread and mountain-herb tea in a meal that almost has me questioning my vegetarianism. Sitting on a deerskin rug alongside them, it's a timeless scene and an opportunity to slow down before the real work begins. Before we sleep Nils takes me outside and explains how lucky he feels to live with the same great sense of purpose as his forefathers. It's only as we move further into the darkness that I realise the sky is dancing with green light. I've been so exhausted and focused on the prospect of reindeer that I'd completely forgotten I'm in the land of the Northern Lights.