‘So…do they respond to voice commands?’ an American woman asks, eyeing the tethered reindeer currently ignoring us. ‘No’ Nils, our guide responds cheerfully, ‘they’re wild animals’.
Right. I’m with two couples for a three day reindeer sledding adventure at the Nutti Sámi Siida yard in the small village of Jukkasjärvi, 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. As temperatures can reach -50C, preparing for the weather is a priority. We’re kitted out in massive thermal overalls (I’m about as nimble as a blimp), socks, hats, and boots, then given a lesson in harnessing and controlling the reindeer.
We’ll be standing on the two runners on the back of our surprisingly large wooden sleds. The surprisingly small (hip height) reindeer are harnessed. Nils says, ‘They’re herd animals, they want to stay together’, as one, bolshy as a teenager, powers through thigh-high snow instead, dragging a capsized sled behind him.
And we set off, in single file along a track through vast swathes of silent and snow blanketed forests and frozen lakes. All I can hear is my sled and the reindeer’s rhythmic soft and splayed hooves on the path. There are no signposts or landmarks and it’s weirdly impossible to know how long we’re on the road or how much distance we’ve covered. It’s magical.
Sometime (and apparently 6 miles) later, we arrive at the eco-friendly Reindeer Lodge, in a clearing in the coniferous Taiga forest. It’s about -7C, and my hands and feet are achingly cold. We turn the reindeer out with their mates. They observe a strict hierarchy (no antlers? no status). I watch a bare-headed cub trotting enthusiastically between three feeding troughs trying and failing to get a look-in.
My cosy cabin has no television, radio or wi-fi. Quiet. I’m alone with my thoughts (never a good place to be) so I read via soft focus eco-bulb the Lodge welcome pack. We’re not allowed to enter the corrals or feed the reindeer. So, tame –ish. The pack continues endearingly, ‘Please respect the reindeer. They also want to eat and live a quiet life’. They’ve come to the right place for quiet. There’s no running water, one communal compost toilet, and a sauna. After dinner, we retire early, to the sound of nearby reindeer scratching beneath the snow for lichen, and then nothing.
On day two, as we harness our reindeer, one of the Sámi staff assures me that reindeer aren’t aggressive, but they are dominant. In fact, they’re not intimidating, but they are impressively hardy, strong and scrappy. And fabulously uninterested in us; when I reach out my hand, hidden inside a mitten the size of bear’s paw, to pat my little companion, he jerks his head away. Their peeling, partially furred antlers are a mixed bag; an older animal carries a majestic candelabra, a young one has what looks like a twig imbedded in its head. They grow a new pair every year and my reindeer has lost his right hand side one, leaving a slightly grisly bloody stump.
We travel, though no idea where, for 5 miles and stop for lunch. Nils lights a fire from scratch, in the snow, in about 3.2 seconds and heats up delicious fish soup, and coffee made in a kettle with snow. Nils is a Sámi, who are the indigenous people of Lapland, and only Sámi can own reindeer.
After lunch, we’re back on our sleds, but I round corners too fast and with no give in the sled, I fall off, twice. My reindeer has been slightly uncooperative all day, occasionally looking round when we stop with a ‘You still here??’ look, but now careers off, and the following reindeer misses me by inches as he careers to catch up with his mates.
We arrive at our lávvu, a Sámi tent in the early evening and lay our foam pads, reindeer skins and sleeping bags over the twigs packed into the crisp snow floor.
Outside it’ll get down to -20C, and I fear I’ll freeze to death and be found frozen solid in the morning, just as I once found my guinea pig, solid as a rock in his shoebox.
In fact, it’s a warm and cosy night, and we’re up early and homeward bound after a pit-stop for lunch. We set our reindeer free at the Lodge, they trot off without a backward glance. Some (all right, all) of the other guests later take up the offer of a sauna, in which you can wash. Not me; I’ve forgotten what’s underneath my layers of thermals anyway and want to keep it that way. I take to my cabin. And then, just like that, after breakfast the next day my weird, wonderful, one off experience is over.
My trip was organised by Nature Travels Limited. Phone: 01929 503080. www.naturetravels.co.uk