The only time most of us ever talk about reindeer is around Christmas time. But for the indigenous Sámi people in Northern Lapland, Finland, the reindeer are most important creatures for everything from food to transportation to clothing. So important that the Sámi have some 100 different words referring to reindeer.
On my recent trip to Northern Lapland, Finland
, I had the opportunity to visit the Inari Reindeer Farm, a family-owned operation that's been in business for 29 years. Interestingly, Jani is the son of the original owner and his previous job as a camera man and a marketing specialist, didn't seem a background that would serve him well to run this reindeer business.
But he is native Sámi. In fact, his father and mother are from two different tribes and he was of the generation that almost lost their language -- because speaking the Sámi language (each tribe has a different language) -- was forbidden. Luckily, he learned the language when he was a teen and he eventually and happily returned to his roots.
A visit to this farm is a welcome learning experience for the entire family. Here, you can take a leisurely one- to three- reindeer sleigh ride through the forest, or opt for a safari where you overnight in a hut. You can learn to lasso a reindeer -- a useful skill should your animal wander into your neighbor's herd, or even have a reindeer gently pull you while astride cross country skis.
Set on the property are several wooden teepee-like structures, referred to as kota, where you'll be able to sip coffee or tea from the birch cup (a kuksa) and nibble on biscuits beside a roaring fire -- the Sámi always have a fire burning
in the center of their kota because fire represent life to them -- as you listen to indigenous songs (joiks). (I will post a video of one of these next week.)
Jani, wearing his colorful native dress including leggings and shoes made of reindeer hide with a handmade birch burl cup dangling from his waist, introduced himself to us and explained that when we feed the reindeer, we needed to watch out for the antlers. (Stick your head too close while you're admiring these creatures and you'll accidentally get poked in the eye!)
Jani is a wealth of information as he gave us the run down on reindeer facts as well as factoids about the Sámi people. Here's some of what I found out:
* They get the reindeer used to the sled when they're a year old. But some 30% don't or won't learn how to pull a sled.
* Once the reindeer are five years old, they can pull visitors around the forested property.
* They eat lichen all winter and, in the summer, they forage among some 200 different plants in the forest, but they also munch on grass and hay.
* Both male and female reindeer have antlers and they both shed they every year, though at different times of the year.
* The female weighs about 110 kg while the male can weigh 160 kg.
* Eagles prey on the babies, but the adults have predators too, including bears, linx and wolverines.
* The reindeer can pull three times their weight.
* The reindeer are trained to pull the sleigh at a leisurely 5 km/hour so the visitors can enjoy nature.
* Every Sámi carries four things with them, especially when they travel in the forests: salt (for fish they might catch), a cup, matches, and a knife. The knives are all hand made with the handle constructed of antler and birch, the sheath of reindeer hide, and the blade of carbon steel.
* The drum used to accompany the songs is also made of birch along with a skin of reindeer leather. The stick is of antler bone.