The Story of the White Reindeer
Finding herself in a hiker’s shelter in reindeer country, our explorer finds herself chatting with the shelter’s Sami owner about his life with these magnificent creatures
Article by Justine Gosling
I’d just ﬁnished walking the 30 km I had set myself for the day when the rain began to pour. Just a few kilometres back I’d spotted signs for cabin accommodation and hot food, I didn’t give it a second thought. We entered the main cabin reception and restaurant to be greeted by an elderly Sami man in full cultural dress with a workman’s apron on and a smile that lit up the room. He looked just like the puppet Pinocchio’s wood carver father from the children’s ﬁlm. We didn’t speak the same language but he was very welcoming and showed us to our room.
After a shower we popped back to the restaurant for a hot meal. The only main meal on the menu was homemade reindeer stew. With its big chunks of meat in a ﬂavoursome broth it was exceptional. Fresh food is difﬁcult to ﬁnd in this remoteness, even the partially frozen bread to dunk was a comfort. The table top we ate on was made from the trunk of a once huge tree sawn in half, with our plates of stew resting on the ﬂat side. This weighty structure was supported by whole upright segments of a tree trunk and the bench we were sat on was made the same way. We had no chance of moving such a heavy table or moving the bench to get closer to our plates so we ate with outstretched arms which meant that our full spoons had a distance to travel to reach our mouths. We hung around after dinner and got chatting to a Finnish brother and sister who were up hiking for a few days. The elderly Sami owner was very friendly, he didn’t really do any work, he mostly sat around chatting to everyone who came in.
From the moment I saw him I was curious about him. From the lines on his face to his traditional dress I knew that he was someone special who had many stories to tell. He eventually came to sit next to me, curious about where I was from. The Finnish siblings translated for me to enable us to converse. It was to be my favourite encounter yet on the expedition.
I began asking him about the cabin we were sat in, he had built it himself. Everything in the room was made of wood, from the heavy tables and chairs, the ﬂoor, walls, the counter and even the very heavy light ﬁttings which were hallowed tree trunk segments with holes drilled into the sides to let out light. Not something you would want to hit your head on.
He was smiling with delight and pride at our curiosity about reindeer husbandry. All of Father Christmas’s reindeers are male as they are stronger than the females. Also the females are often pregnant around Christmas time with the same gestation period as humans of 9 months, with calves being born in May. It takes 2-3 years to train a reindeer to pull a sleigh. There are two round ups during the year, in June to mark the calves whilst they are still with their mothers and then in October for slaughter. Approximately 100, 000 reindeers per year are slaughtered leaving one male for every 20-30 females to continue to reproduce. The human population of 185,000 living in Finnish Lapland are greatly outnumbered by the 320,000 strong reindeer population.
There is no such thing as a reindeer “farm”. Reindeer meat is one of the world’s most ethically sourced and proﬁtable meats I was told. The reindeer, although owned, are wild roaming, eating organically from the forests and are never transported alive. They have a very small carbon foot print as much of the meat and produce stays within the country. The whole of the animal is consumed, from their meat, fur coat to their antlers for tourist crafts.
He told me that his family had been herding reindeers for over 800 years. It is considered rude in Sami culture to ask a reindeer herder how many reindeers they have, it’s the equivalent of asking a British person how much money they have in the bank! Therefore I refrained from asking.
His father gave him his ﬁrst two reindeers when he was 14 years old. All he ever wanted to be in life was a reindeer herder. As soon as he left school at 14 he headed out into the wilderness to live the nomadic life of a traditional reindeer herder. He didn’t leave the wilderness until he was 20 years old when he had to return for his mandatory military service. He chuckles when he tells me that after so long in the wilderness from such a young age he had forgotten that girls existed and asked his mother why so many boys had long hair!
I asked him about the white reindeer we had seen four days ago, were they rare? He guessed that two in every hundred reindeers born are white, and that they are considered special. I showed him my photo of the white reindeer we saw, he could tell by the markings it on its ear that it belonged to his son! The coincidence made us all laugh, we had seen that reindeer four days and approximately 110km away and now we had found the father of its owner.
He then told us his story of the white reindeer. During the 1959 reindeer round up he saw a beautiful woman hiking who was from southern Finland. He only saw her brieﬂy but describes falling in love with her at ﬁrst sight. After this encounter he took an infant white reindeer to sacriﬁce at a scared place of the Sami people, asking the Pakana gods to bring this beautiful woman back to him. It took four years, but she did return to him in 1963 and soon after they married. They’ve now been married for 53 years. His son met his wife less than one kilometre from the same sacriﬁcial place.