Forget dog sleds, the ice hotel and trips to see Santa - instead, join the annual reindeer migration, and explore Lapland following one of its most ancient journeys
Impenetrable velvet green forests blanket broad unbroken valleys, and mighty mountain ranges rise majestic. Thunderous waterfalls tumble, ice-cold rivers glisten clear and over half a million reindeer can be found on the move. Better known as the stomping ground of Santa Claus, Lapland is not just a winter wonderland, but a wild extreme in which nomadic herders live in step with their animals and nature reigns supreme.
Joining modern-day herders as they swing into action, slaloming round boulders and icy drifts on snowmobiles, allows you to penetrate the wild heart of this landscape and really see how animal and man live side by side. Climb aboard a skidoo and you will slowly weave a route towards higher ground, travelling through the Great Lake Falls National Park, a world heritage site, where the first calves are born at the beginning of May.
Lapland is not a country but a region, defined more by the people and animals that populate it. Its boundaries are cultural rather than geographic, denoting the areas traditionally inhabited by its indigenous people, the Sámi reindeer herders. Located above the Arctic Circle, it includes the northernmost parts of Sweden, Norway and Finland and extends along the Kola Peninsula of Russia.
Each year the reindeer must migrate through these vast unbroken wilderness areas. For the Sámi the reindeer are central to their lives, almost an extension of the family, providing food and income through the sale of meat and fur, and now through tourism and this special travel experience.
Joining the migration, you begin to see how this unique journey has carved a way of life. A life-blood of knowledge is passed between father and son, uncle and nephew, as they all work tirelessly together over long stretches to safeguard the herd. Although many Sámi now live and work in town, the migration brings them back together and allows them to resume the old customs and traditions of their forefathers.
Whilst spring heralds the start of the journey, winter snow often lies choking the valleys and forests that you will need to negotiate. But just like their forefathers, the modern-day herders know how to survive in this icy environment, finding hidden water sources buried deep beneath the snow, boring holes in thick dense ice to find fishing spots, and cooking their catch on open fires.
The trotting herd travels almost in unison, like a swaying column of patchwork browns, slowly, steadily pushing forwards through the arctic expanse. When the reindeer rest for the night so will you, pitching traditional lavu on the snow, a tough tepee canvas tent originally made from hinds. The herders seem to literally eat, sleep and breathe reindeer. Your bed will be made of reindeer furs and your food reindeer meat.
It’s hard to pull yourself away from your tented furry cocoon. Each morning the animals must be fed and re-grouped. You can take on as much or as little of the work as you like. The ‘real’ herders are there, rising early, jumping on their skidoos to race off and find the reindeer – which don’t stay still for long.
This can be a time-consuming and sometimes comical process, as flighty breakaway reindeer ignore flailing arm signals and bolt free. Chasing a speeding reindeer in thigh-deep snow more often than not ends in a face plant. There can be people, animals and arms almost everywhere.
But the lure of their favourite food, a wiry moss called slapped, which hangs in branches like a wispy beard, can restore order. Almost magically, the wonderful, blissful peace is skillfully and sublimely restored and the journey can begin once again into more untracked virgin snow. The steady bobbing trot of the herd as it travels en masse, the warm plumes of breath that make frost rings in the cold air, the simple toss of a head, a swipe of the antlers, and the flash of the white reindeer, considered even more spiritually significant and rare by the Sámi, are mesmerising to watch. You may just find that you can’t help yourself following the crowds.
- Reindeer Migration Tours: Pathfinder Lapland
- Flights: Scandinavian Airlines