Reindeer Trek across Lapland
Time for my departure was approaching. Since I was now familiar with the route, the return trip by way of Hammerfest might have been easy. But that would have become just a twice-told tale. In my reading before this whole adventure started, I had uncovered the prospects of a more exciting and rewarding way of heading back into civilization. Although he had never undertaken that journey personally, my Lapp friend, Clement Boyne, recommended it highly. I would go by reindeer and pulka, eastward instead of west, out through this wild country of northern Norway over to the Finnish border, then continue through the northern reaches of that new nation to a junction with the Great Arctic Highway, which extends from the Arctic Ocean down to Rovaniemi, Finland, on the Arctic Circle.
Clement Boyne helped me engage a good Lapp guide, who had a pair of reindeer to transport us by pulka. All interpreting had to be done before departure.
It was decided that, by making an early morning start, we could cover most of the distance to the Finnish border the first day and put up for the night at a Lapp but which my guide knew about. The country from there would be wild and mountainous, infested with wolves, most feared predator and enemy of the deer. It seemed best to start that part of the trek by daylight.
My indebtedness to Clement Boyne had been so great, and our friendship had become so intimate and real, that we both found it hard to make our farewells. Next morning, with no one any longer able to interpret for me, I went out to join my guide, and found that for some reason he had made a change of plans. He had sent his son instead—a young, inexperienced and unimaginative fellow, who had almost no ability to comprehend sign language, which would be our only means of communication.
This change of plans was hard to take, but there was almost nothing I could do. It became even harder to take when I soon discovered that our reindeer—at least mine—was unaccustomed to pulka driving and was, in fact, as yet only partly tamed. It soon became apparent that my young companion’s animal was equally ill-trained. Once, in desperation, he even had us swap reindeer and pulkas, but both creatures were still just as difficult to manage. In that fashion we began our journey into the mountain wilderness toward that Lapp but where we would spend the first night, then on across Finland to Mari, and the junction with the Great Arctic Highway.
Down toward the Finnish border we went, and bid good-bye to all civilization. Our route led along a mountain stream and where the ice was uncertain or broken we had to find a way along the banks. My journey by pulka up to the large reindeer herd had been to the north of Karasjok, across a barren expanse of snow. There, we had been above the timberline. But this trek toward Finland took us through areas of deep forests. Trees seemed to be everywhere and often it was difficult to snake our way through without hitting one of them. Darkness came but we did not stop. Escaping mix-ups with trees became even more difficult. I grew worried. Couldn’t my guide find the Lapp hut? Was he lost? He could not understand the sign language with which I endeavored to converse and ask questions. At one point he did stop and, from a sack tied to his pulka, pulled out some marsh hay and began stuffing it into his boots. He motioned for me to do the same.
For this I was thankful. The night was growing bitterly cold. Lapland days are often unpleasant but the nights are severe. After a long climb we began coming to occasional descents. In the darkness, the deer charged blindly through the forest. Black shapes of trees seemed to be everywhere. Drifts of snow powdered into our pulkas as we charged through them.
Nine, ten, eleven o’clock—still we went on and I began to wonder how long a novice—unused to this sort of thing—might be able to endure the cold.
Out of the night came the barking of a dog. Ordinarily, the sound of barking dogs does not cause my heart to well up in thankfulness. But that distant barking, somewhere ahead in the snow-filled darkness, sent chills of anticipation through every vein of my body. We entered a clearing; on the far side was a light. We swung up to a backwoods house. Some Lapps stuck their heads out to see what was the matter and a long lingo of unintelligible confab ensued. Result? We spent what was left of the night in that hut.
When daylight came I found that I had been a guest, in what amounted to a one-room house, with eight Lapps. There was a small utility room, without door, and I had graciously been allowed to sleep there. By 8:00 A.M. , the family was astir. The weather outside is too severe, at night, for dogs, and they had slept on the floor of the main room, with the family and my guide.
There was a fireplace, with black iron cooking utensils and black pot for coffee or tea. Breakfast consisted of bread, coffee, and strange flabby meat, cut up with a huge hunting knife.
As the main door was opened, allowing the dogs to get out, stinging snow of a blizzard whipped into the room. Not until then did I realize that perhaps my guide had known of the approaching storm, and had tried to get as far as possible before it overtook us. This place that we had reached was certainly not the Lapp but where we had planned to spend the night.
Outside now, the dogs were fed a pan of animal blood. My guide and I restuffed our boots with hay. By means of smiles and signs I thanked my hosts profusely, paid them for their kindness, and we were off
That day, heading into the blizzard, brought difficulties hard to imagine. Numbing cold penetrated to my mittened fingers; stinging snow hurt my face. At times our trail hugged a low mountain where the snow was two feet deep. It flew up and filled the air in showers as we plunged down hills. My pulka became laden with the stuff If worked into my mittens and boots.
We crossed many great lakes. With but a single rein, there is no way to steer a deer other than to get him started in the right direction. On the great white sheets of snow covering the lakes, our animals refused to go as we wished. They would become wild and charge about the snow area without any sense of direction. Only when they had worn themselves out could we get the beasts in hand.
As the author of People of Eight Seasons describes the average unruly reindeer: “They race off after their own noses; and when the rein checks them and tries to control them, they start off hither and thither in all directions in the snow drifts.”
By early afternoon we came to a tiny log hut, and stopped for something to eat. In the main room, about twelve feet square, was an extended family of nine Lapps, all but one of whom lived there. Cooking utensils hung on the walls or in the fireplace; beds were on the floor.
Only one other habitation lay along our path during the remaining daylight hours, and there we stopped to feed and rest our deer. A Finnish farm family lived here—not quite as poor as the Lapps of the night before, but obviously hard-pressed for a livelihood in these stark surroundings.
A man was lying in bed in a corner upon our arrival, and a woman was getting in firewood. Hearing a gurgling from a pile of furs on the floor, I discovered a delightful little baby. A young girl, perhaps three or four years old, was equally sweet. The mother of these children, and of another baby boy whom she nursed every few minutes, could have been attractive too—but her face was stolid. Probably it was because of my intrusion.
The man got up. As we became better acquainted, by means of smiles and signs and laughter, the young mother smiled, too. Both mother and father showed great affection for the children. Both mother and little girl beamed appreciatively at the beads and trinkets that I gave them.
The blizzard almost completely abated before nightfall. We traveled late and after dark swung southward, finally reaching a good-sized Finnish farm. There I had a room all to myself, with coffee before going to bed, and a good breakfast before leaving next morning.
“Don’t Leave Go the Rein”
The next day was clear and fine, but it brought the worst experience of the trek. I was half a mile or more in the wake of my guide, who was out of sight somewhere ahead. Suddenly my deer stopped, frightened by a wolf or some forest denizen, then unceremoniously it jerked the pulka at right angles to the trail and bolted off through the forest. Finally I stopped the beast and maneuvered it back to the trail but there the crazed animal started out at a gallop in the wrong direction.
It was several minutes, this time, before I could bring the frightened deer to a halt. When that feat was finally accomplished, the only thing to do was to get out and endeavor—with what patience I could muster—to veer the creature around, end for end, in the right direction.
Apparently such a procedure wasn’t to the deer’s liking. Quite suddenly, like a horse breaking from the starting gate at a racetrack, it bolted forward. I made a leap for the pulka—a feat which I had successfully accomplished on the run many times. But this time I missed.
Do you remember the code of Lapland—”Don’t leave go of the rein. ” Well, there wasn’t much chance for me to forget it. My valuable movie camera was in the pulka. Furthermore, that pulka and deer represented my only means of transportation. An interminable trek by foot through deep snow to civilization wasn’t to my liking. But—prime consideration of all—the rein was tied around my hand and wrist in a double splice. Leave go I couldn’t. The code was easy to follow. But that deer was not. After the first leap, I was prone on the ground, gliding sleekly through the snow at my deer’s fastest and choicest pace. How far I tobogganed that way would be hard to say. Measured by the pain in my arm it seemed a mile. By yardstick it probably would have measured less than a tenth that far. The empty pulka was dangling along behind the deer and I succeeded, after getting hold of it, in pulling myself in. Whereupon, the ornery creature, probably seeing that the fun was over, stopped altogether and began calmly eating snow. When finally my guide appeared on the scene—having noticed my absence—my runaway deer was as quiet as a kitten drinking milk. But my arm was sore for days.
Toward mid-afternoon on the fourth day I heard, in the distance ahead, strange sounds, like the slow beating of drums. Entering a clearing from the dense forest through which we had been traveling, I made out, on the far side of the open space, two Finnish woodsmen felling a tree. The sounds of their ax blows split through the silent world about us.
Those were the first real signs of civilization. We came to several Finnish farmhouses, then ahead I saw the small cluster of hewn-log structures indicating the inn and its outbuildings of Mari, just a few miles from Finland’s Great Arctic Highway. My reindeer trek across Norwegian and Finnish Lapland was at an end. Almost reluctantly I bid good-bye to my guide, as he started the return trip to Karasjok. That night, at the Inari Inn, I slept in a bedroom all to myself under downy covers in a soft comfortable bed. But there were signs that this was still a frontier land. We had lamps for light in the dining room, and my bedroom was lighted by candle.
My hostess was a lovely Finnish lady who spoke good English. She had once lived for a time in Canada.
Courtesies on this journey will never cease. This new-found friend told me that Mari was actually still about twenty kilometers from the Great Arctic Highway. She would accompany me down to Ivalo, at the highway junction, to see that I got a good start back to civilization without difficulty.
Before we left, there was time to see the great frozen lake on which Inafi is located, and to film the wild ice in the river feeding into it.
My gracious hostess was an encyclopedia of information about this land. One reason she accompanied me to Ivalo, I discovered, was because she was hungry for a chance to speak English with someone from the outside world.
“It is lonesome up here at times, ” she told me, “but when I go out for a holiday I always get homesick. I must return to Mari. “
The road was rough and bad, but it afforded fine views of the lake. At one point it was necessary to honk a herd of some thirty reindeer out of the way.
“There are many wolves in this area,” my inn hostess explained. Rather than attacking the herds of deer, she said, they usually isolate one, then run it until it is tired. “Once,” said my friend, “the postman left his reindeer untended and the wolves got it. “
There was an hour-and-a-half wait at Ivalo for the Great Arctic Highway bus—the bus that runs from Petsamo on the Arctic Ocean, to Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle. “I hope we can meet again,” I said to my newfound friend, as the bus prepared to depart. This hope of mine was expressed without any real thought that it might one day become a reality. The conditions under which such a meeting was actually to occur were stranger than fiction, and lay a long way into the future.
Almost at once, as soon as the bus departed, with me aboard, I was sorry that my Mari hostess was no longer available. I thought the bus was heading in the wrong direction—toward the Arctic Ocean instead of southward toward the Arctic Circle. Apparently too long in the wilds had confused me.
But reassurances came promptly. No one on the bus spoke English, but we soon stopped at a roadblock, to be greeted by a Finnish customs official. Then I knew we were headed in the right direction. I had been in Finland for several days, but all of Lapland—whether in Finland, Norway, or Sweden—is outside of customs regulations.
In an enormous white flour sack—procured at Inari—I had crammed my complete Lapp outfit—fur peske, four-cornered hat, felt outer garments, leather boots, mittens. When I pulled them out for customs inspection, the officer and the Finnish and Lapp passengers on the bus all had hearty laughs. Even though I could not speak with them in their language, a bond of friendship with my fellow passengers was established.
Half a day later, just at the edge of Rovaniemi, through a veil of snow which was turning to rain, I saw the sign, in four languages, “Arctic Circle.” My Lapland Arctic adventure had ended.
Four days later I was back in London with Helen and our girls.