Racing reindeer

I am standing on a lake in Finnish Lapland, waiting for the first race to begin. All round me is flat, white ice over 60 centimetres deep; above, a clear blue sky. In the distance hills rise gently from the shores of the lake, covered in firs and snow.

The first five reindeer are led from a paddock to the right of our vantage point. Four are docile and walk straight into the starting traps; the fifth is flighty and needs to be persuaded. The jockeys line up behind, kitted out for cross-country skiing. They pick up the reins and wait for starter’s orders.

There is no cheering when the gates spring open and the reindeer race across the lake, just quiet chatter. There’s still no cheering when the reindeer enter the home straight two minutes later. The reindeer are hot now, tongues lolling to catch the chill air. As they pass the finish line, the jockeys release the reins and glide to a stop. The reindeer head straight for the paddock, not breaking stride in their rush to get back.

The results are announced over the PA – in Finnish, of course, so they make no sense to tourists like me. Not that it matters: we’ve come for the experience, not to back the favourite in the 2:30 at Inari. (In any case, betting isn’t allowed.)

The reindeer championships take place every Easter as a low-key, homely affair, oddly reminiscent of an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales. There are stalls spread with essential kit, ranging from ropes and workwear to buckets and boots. Some stalls offer traditional Sami socks and embroidered smocks while others, more up market, trade in fur and hides. Parents and children sell hot sausages and doughnuts to raise money for the local primary school. Wafting over the whole scene is the distinct aroma of a hundred reindeer, waiting their turn to race.

The bulk of the crowd consists of locals, especially members of the Sami community. They are joined by Sami from Norway, Sweden and Russia – people connected by common traditions, but not by a common language. At one time, there were dozens of Sami languages, but now there are around a dozen.

To find out more about Sami culture, I booked a reindeer safari. These reindeer were far more sedate, content to pull sled-loads of tourists at walking pace round a well-trodden trail for an hour or so. We were given stern warnings not to stand on the sled, but to sit, swing our legs round and shuffle backwards against the deerskins on the backrests. “If you stand here,” our guide said, pointing to slats at the front of a sled, “the reindeer will be startled and will run away.”

Safety briefing over, we were ready to take our seats. The first visitor stepped forward and immediately stood on the slats at the front of her sled. She was lucky: the only outcome was a Paddington-like hard stare from her reindeer.

Nothing much happened during the safari, either. The lead guide, dressed in full Sami costume, proceeded at a steady pace at the side of the first reindeer. Each of the other reindeers was tethered to the sled in front, so where one went, they all went, accompanied by the soporific sound of the sleds scrunching the snow. The continuous low creak of compressed snow was broken only by the tinkling of the reindeers’ bells. It was a journey of calm contemplation, not adventure.

Afterwards, our guides introduced us to traditional Sami life. We peered into a wooden pyramid that would have been home to an extended family for the whole of the cold, Arctic winter in these very forests. Nearby, reindeer meat was curing in an elevated cage, and next to that was a cold store – a miniature hut on stilts. A few metres further on there was a canvas goahti, a kind of yurt used in the summer months when the herders migrated to the Arctic coast to fish and forage in the midnight sun.

Over a mug of hot bilberry juice, our guides answered questions about the old way of life, now almost abandoned. Sami people are no longer nomadic, and many have left for the cities of southern Scandinavia. Those who stayed behind still tend their herds of reindeer, both for meat – it’s on the menu in every restaurant in Lapland – and so tourists like us can experience an hour of slow living. They also fish in the summer, and run boat trips over some of Finland’s 188,000 lakes.

A few kilometres to the south, we visited the museum of gold mining at Tankavaara. Finland had a mini gold rush in the 1870s, and to this day flecks of precious mineral can be found in the beds of the ice-cold rivers. A century after the first gold was discovered, the last full-time prospectors found an easier way of earning a living: teaching tourists how to pan for gold. They were joined by a former telephone engineer, Kauko Launonen, and his wife Inkeri Syrjänen, who set up a restaurant, then a museum and then a whole resort.

I had dinner with Kauko and Inkeri in the restaurant they founded 40 years ago. When they first arrived in Tankavaara, they lived in a VW camper van and endured many cruelly cold days and nights until they had their first wooden home. Friends and family must have thought them mad, but their vision drove them on. Capitalising on interest in the Gold Prospector Museum, they organised gold panning competitions. “At first,” Kauko said, “it was only for the Finns. They we had the next idea – a world championship!”

“How did you persuade other countries to take part?”

“We invited them. They came. Simple as that!”

Kauko was president of the World Goldpanning Association for 18 years. After he stood down, he and Inkeri continued to come up with new ideas. The weekend I was there, Tankavaara hosted the Gold Rush Run, a race which attracted teams of huskies from all over Scandinavia.

Of course, husky racing was never part of the Sami tradition: in one sense, it is no more authentic than the snowmobile adventures offered in even the smallest village in Lapland. But it doesn’t matter. It brings people to the frozen north and puts money into the local economy: and that makes it more likely that Sami culture will live on.

In a long weekend of reindeer, huskies and gold, the only thing we missed was the Northern Lights. The phone app showed they were tantalisingly close – if we had been another 60 km north, we would have seen them.  Ah well. All the more reason to go back next year.

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