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A day with Lovis the reindeer

Archana Singh | Updated on December 20, 2019 Published on December 20, 2019

How green is my valley: Lovis, a reindeer that belongs to a Sámi family in Sweden   -  IMAGES: ARCHANA SINGH

Hiking in Scandinavia is one thing, walking with a reindeer — Santa’s trusted vehicle — quite another

Home of IKEA, ABBA and the Nobel Prize, but also uninhabited islands, and Arctic wilderness — Sweden is a dream destination. Some visit to witness the most magnificent light show on Earth — Northern Lights; others to bask in the glow of the Midnight Sun. I decided to walk in the shoes of Sámis, an indigenous people who have lived for over 10,000 years in the Sápmi region, which stretches across four countries — Arctic Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

My Sámi adventure begins at Idre Sameby, the southernmost part of Sámi settlements in Scandinavia where the Andersson family — Peter and Helena — run Renbiten, an adventure and culture tourism company. Their company name reflects their love for reindeer — “ren” is Swedish for reindeer.

Peter briefs us about the Grövelsjöfjällen trek and warns us about the route being damp, cold and puddled. But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm to explore a countryside that has preserved the Sámi culture for centuries. Suddenly, my attention is captured by the brown coat and majestic antlers of a reindeer prancing in the lawn. Peter, noticing the distraction, throws a carrot, “You’ll be hiking with a reindeer that we lovingly call Lovis.”

As soon as he asks the group who wants to hike with Lovis, I volunteer. Hiking in Scandinavia is one thing, walking with a reindeer — Santa’s trusted vehicle — quite another. To everyone’s surprise, Lovis behaves, and probably believes that she’s more like a dog than a reindeer. Like an excited puppy, she keeps pulling at the leash. Every 20 metres, she stops to find lichen, a favourite reindeer food. After an hour of walking, however, she calms down. Maybe she knows what’s coming next.

“Time for a fika,” says Peter as we reach a turquoise blue lake sparkling on the floor of the lush green valley. Fika means a coffee break in Swedish — in fact, it is more about socialising than coffee. Peter, a sturdy yet soft-spoken man with a dry sense of humour, starts peeling the layers of his Sámi life. His clothing reflects the man himself, a blend of conventional and contemporary. From his belt hang two niibi (knives) and a guksi (wooden cup) — Sámi symbols, but also handy tools when out in the woods. He uses the smaller knife to slice smoked meat and the larger one to ward off predators such as bears. The guksi is used to drink water straight from the streams, as also the coffee he carries in a flask.

He then opens the door — made of cloth and wood — of a Sámi hut, where his grandfather lives with 10 family members. I wonder how so many people fit into the little hut. Apparently, it is the combined body heat, the fireplace and reindeer skins that keep them warm when temperatures drop to -40°C.

Reluctantly, we end our fika break to cover the remaining part of the hike. As we start gaining height, the landscape changes from lush woods and alpine lakes to tundra barren land of stones and moss. There is no vegetation barring a few shrubby pines. “When I was a kid, pine trees didn’t grow here,” says Peter with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “They can’t survive under several feet of snow. But global warming is changing everything. Now we don’t get as much snow as we did earlier.”

Upon reaching the summit, Peter points to an area where young reindeer calves are marked. Swedish law makes this mandatory. Usually, every Sámi individual owns a minimum of 500 reindeer, and brands them with a unique imprint.

After a few hours of hiking and chatting, we take another fika break. Dark clouds gather around us while we listen to more Sámi stories about reindeer grazing and dying traditions. Heading down the mountain to escape the heavy rain, we run towards our tipi — a tent with a fireplace that acts as our dining hall, living room and bedroom. Thankfully, the heavy showers let up soon. It’s evening, and we prepare some pyttipanna, a Swedish hash, for dinner. For this, we forage for wild berries and lichen from the garden; and then toss it all into a pan.

Pyttipanna, a Swedish hash of berries and lichen

 

Outside the tipi, the full moon drenches the valley in its white glow. A bonfire is lit, around which Peter shares more stories from his childhood, and, after a lot of cajoling, he sings yoiks. One of the most ancient musical traditions in Europe, yoiks are usually shared within a group of close friends and family.

As an eventful day winds down, we call it a night to sleep on reindeer fur under a sky filled with a billion stars.

Archana Singh is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Travel log

 

When to go

Summers (May to September) for hiking, rafting and biking. Winters (November to March) for skiing, dog-sledding, snowshoeing, snowmobile rides, fishing on frozen lakes and, of course, watching the Northern Lights.

Getting around

Preferably travel with a Sami guide, as they know the region best. From a hike to just a dinner at a tipi, local companies are well equipped to handle all requests.

Stay

Being a nation of outdoor lovers, campsites and country cabins are more popular than hotels in Sweden. However, Sweden is full of excellent B&B, guest-houses and hostels.

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Published on December 20, 2019
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