Lapland is reindeer land. I was soon to discover that human inhabitants could not exist without the deer. They are the Lapp’s principal means of transportation, food supply, source of fur and clothing, and symbol of status and wealth.
Having become well acquainted with one family of Mountain Lapps, I bargained with them off and on regarding a trip by reindeer and pulka up into the low mountainous country to see their reindeer herd. That trip, with me driving a half-wild deer from my uncertain seat in the tiny pulka, was my true initiation into Lapland.
Pulka driving combines all the thrills and pleasures of tobogganing, horse racing, and the rodeo. A pulka—the conveyance by which the Lapps do virtually all of their cross-country traveling in winter—is a tiny round-bottomed sled or toboggan somewhat resembling an elongated foottub, barely large enough to hold one person. It is hitched by leather thong to the deer, which is controlled by a single rein extending backward at the animal’s side, or often between its legs. I became adept in the business, and learned well the first rule of pulka-driving: “Don’t leave go of the rein.”
Preliminary reading on Lapland had convinced me that the novice could not escape many a spill in his first attempts as a pulka driver. I quite naturally assumed that my deer would be hitched behind my guide’s and “trailed along” to begin with. But not so.
“Here is the rein,” the guide indicated, and that was all there was to it. My animal started out at a fast pace. Almost immediately we encountered a sharp incline where the trail led down to the frozen bed of a river. A pulka has no brakes and the deer broke into a terrific gallop to keep the conveyance (and me) from surging forward between its legs.
But the animal couldn’t go fast enough. From up ahead my guide signalled me to drag my feet. Thus was taught to me the first great lesson of the Arctic—how to use one’s feet in steering a pulka or checking its speed.
That first hill was maneuvered without a spill and quite
proudly I can boast that never afterward did I fall out of a pulka.
Of course I did nearly everything else which a skilled driver would never do. Once while braking down a hill, my leg became caught under the pulka and I thought it would snap off before I could get it loose. Several times, on mad charges downgrade, I narrowly missed colliding with trees. And once I didn’t miss. That was on a level stretch. My animal suddenly veered into the forest and a tree was the first thing we encountered. Forcibly, too. All these things happened to me, but never once did I actually fall out.
Soon after gaining the riverbed we met a reindeer outfit coming in the opposite direction. Our animals shied and balked; a reindeer is frightened at the least occurrence. In the confusion, I got ahead of my guide and he tried to repass me. A deer detests being overtaken. And there, on the frozen river, we made the fastest time of my travels in Lapland—twenty-five or thirty miles an hour for a short stretch. Hoofs pounding, snow flying, hearts (both of animal and driver) beating wildly—it was a supreme moment. My face was so caked with flying snow that vision was almost impossible. All I could do was clutch tightly to the rein until the race was over and my guide had finally passed.
The deer is a remarkable animal, with speed, stamina, and adaptability. Their usual gait is a trot, but often they break into a gallop, and sometimes resort to leaps and bounds. The deer’s hoof is a marvel of adaptation. It is wide and looks like a gunboat on the deer’s slim leg. And if the snow is soft, the animal can expand it still farther. The rear of the hoof consists of sharp prongs which can be put down flat for snow, or dug in for ice. Every few miles our deer would stop to eat the snow, the only drink they required. Often they eat and paw their way down to gray moss, which is their winter food.
All signs of trees, or even shrubs, were now gone; we were north of the Arctic timberline, traversing a sheet of white snow which seemed as wide as the world. In the distance, on that white expanse, appeared a large speck, surrounded by a cluster of much smaller specks. They proved to be a wigwam-type tent, surrounded by a great herd of reindeer. With a merry swirl we circled up to the isolated shelter and were greeted by a young boy, who seemed barely in his teens. This was the herdsman.
All of us were soon inside. The tent was opened at the top and smoke from a fire on the bare ground lazily rose and disappeared through the hole. Reindeer pelts surrounding the fire made excellent seats and a bed. The place was snug, warm, and comfortable.
Quickly the herdsboy brought in a kettle of snow, hung it over the fire, and threw into it half a dozen hunks of bloody raw reindeer meat. The snow melted, the water boiled, and the meat simmered in a bubbling scum of powdery dirt on the water.
Coffee was brewed. It was good. I took mine black, for I still was not used to curdled deer milk. My Lapp guides had brought good Norwegian bread and margarine from Karasjok. Soon I was eating with such enthusiasm and abandon that I got too close to the flames and scorched my peske, or outer garment. Men and boy laughed merrily at my clumsiness and with a hunting knife one of them speared out another piece of meat for me to devour. When the meal was over we went outside where I had a visual lesson in Lapland economics.
Several hundred reindeer were scattered within a few hundred yards of the tent, many of them pawing and eating through the three-foot snow cover to reach the moss below. Strange as it seemed, this was prime winter grazing land.
These animals represent the wealth of Lapland. In his neighbor’s eyes, the owner of such a herd is rich. A large herd is a status symbol, and with good reason. From the deer come the pelts and fur for clothing, and the meat and milk for food and drink. The hide is cut in strips for leather thongs. From the blood, a type of pudding is made. The deer stomach is filled with milk in the making of cheese. Reindeer hairs are hollow; they float, and are used for stuffing life preservers.
The true Lapps, I learned, even depend on the reindeer for all designations of month and season, rather than using a calendar. Calving time means that the month of May has arrived; the shedding of fur means summer. There is the month when the horns of the reindeer are in velvet, the month when the deer must start for the coast, the period when the animals get restless and head back inland again. It is solely because of the migrations of the reindeer that the Lapps are nomads; they would normally prefer a sedentary life. Time means little to a Lapp, but everything to the animals they tend, so the reindeer has become the true calendar of the Arctic. The fact was being reinforced in my mind that, without reindeer, human life could not exist in this Arctic land.
My guides wanted to take a couple of the animals back to Karasjok, so they could be trained for pulka driving. rile herd seemed docile but when one of the men unloosed his rope, whirled it, and lassoed one of the creatures, a mighty battle began. The lasso had caught the animal around the foot. In a series of violent jumps and charges, the creature freed it. The other man succeeded in getting his rope around a deer’s antler, which resulted in a tussle that outdid a bulldogging contest in a western American rodeo. The animal lunged and plunged, snow was churned into the air, the Lapp man at times found himself being dragged bodily as he clung to the rope—until suddenly the deer’s horn broke off.
It was late afternoon before two reindeer were successfully lassoed, tied behind the pulkas, and preparations made for the journey back to Karasjok.
As we glided out over the great snowfield, I took a long look back at the young herdsboy standing outside his tent, surrounded by the reindeer. A lonely task, but an important one. He was guarding an economic and symbolic treasure—the wealth of Lapland.
“Two Lapps from America”
Karasjok’s winter population consists of some eight or nine hundred Lapps, made up of villagers who live in substantial but small hewn-log houses in the town itself, and of Mountain Lapps, who occupy rude homes across the river, about a mile away.
In spring and summer a general exodus occurs. Many Lapps from the town itself go with their cattle and horses to summer camps, up the Karasjoki River, where better grazing can be found during the short summer months.
The Mountain Lapps are the true nomads. Each spring they follow their reindeer herds down to the coast, returning to their Karasjok homes in the autumn.
Neither of these departures had yet occurred and in that population of nearly a thousand I made an intriguing discovery. One Lapp, and only one, so far as I could determine, was able to speak English. I was having a particularly difficult time making my sign language understood by the girl at the fjellstue who was preparing my food for breakfast. Glancing out the window, she gave me an apologetic smile and wave of the hand, dashed out the door onto the snow, and came back with a fine looking middle-aged Lapp, who had been passing by just at that moment.
“I’m Clement Boyne,” he greeted me, in excellent English. “You are from America? I’ve been all over America. I know it well. Welcome to Lapland.”
What I had for breakfast, and whether I even ate it or not, I can’t remember. I pounced on this English-speaking Laplander and began plying him with questions of every description, as though he were the only person I had met or talked to in a year. Clement Boyne was a godsend.
“Many years ago, your government hired me to take a herd of reindeer to Alaska. I went to Point Barrow and taught the Eskimos how to raise reindeer in that land.”
For years he lived in Alaska. At last, his task accomplished, Boyne had returned to the United States just before Christmas and had secured a job in a Seattle department store as a Laplander Santa Claus. His combination of Eskimo and Lapp fur garments, combined with his authentic “North Pole” experiences, made an immediate hit with the crowds. He traveled from city to city in America, considerably extending the Christmas season each year, as department stores tried to out-bid each other for his services.
He had left Karasjok as a young man; he was middle-aged upon his return. He longed for a chance to speak English and we became such close friends that we were seldom parted during the rest of my stay. Together, we visited scenes and areas I had already filmed and with his help I obtained additional shots. He helped me obtain pictures of obscure religious services. He went with me to the homes of the Mountain Lapps. Preparations were already under way for the spring reindeer migration to the coast. With Boyne’s help I filmed the activity—skins and meat being hung out on the outer walls of the huts, pulkas being repaired and made ready, clothing being made or mended.
One day as Boyne and I were walking along a reindeer trail near the edge of Karasjok, a Lapp man, standing by his small hewn-log home, pointed to us and said something to his wife.
“He’s saying: ‘There are those two Lapps from America,’ ” Boyne explained to me. “With you wearing Lapp clothing, you look as much like a Lapp as I do. That man thinks you are one of us.”
Spring, according to official timing, and even according to the calendar set by the reindeer, was supposed to be close at hand. But the elements were confused. The days became colder, and the nights became nightmares. At one time, the thermometer touched seventy degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. My camera lenses froze; I could not turn them when I needed to. I oiled them—to no avail. The fingers of my right hand became raw, and even bloody, as I attempted to turn the grooved lens discs. In desperation, it became necessary for me to get up far before dawn and, in my fjellstue room where the temperature was at least bearable, turn each lens back and forth time and time again, so it would be workable during the day.
The freezing cold merged into more temperate weather. Scene by scene, episode by episode, the story of the area, the activities of the people—even the intimate details of life in the homes of some of my friends—were captured by my camera. Late one afternoon, as the shadows began to lengthen, I climbed a small hill and had a sweeping view of much of the village, and the life that had become familiar to me.
The main cluster of homes, with the church and the store, were nestled in a curve of the river. On the icy surface of the river itself occasional horse-drawn sleighs were passing up and down to the accompaniment of jingling sleigh bells. One such sleigh was loaded high with marsh hay, destined for one of the barnyards that I had filmed. Another sleigh groaned under a load of wood. The winter days, when other work cannot be done, is the time for stocking firewood.
Those sleighs had to use care to avoid holes in the ice, which had been chopped through for winter fishing. Through one of them, as I looked, a teenage girl, her crimson-trimmed attire standing out against the icy white background, was dipping water into a pail, to be carried home for their drinking supply. Past the girl shot a sled, for a boy—taking off from the very hill where I watched—had tobogganed down the slope and out onto the icy river. He, and a companion with another sled, trudged back up the hill, then both of them slid down again. Realizing that I was watching them, and filming their achievement, they had made a running start, and coasted almost across the river’s surface to the far shore.
On that far shore, a small crude ferryboat—deserted and discarded—lay where it had been hauled up just before the river had frozen over last fall. In a month or so the ice would begin to thaw and for a time there would be no way to cross the river at all. But once the ice was gone, the old ferry would again be put in use for the two or three months before freezing weather came again. Winters follow winters in close succession here in Lapland.