A Trip To See The Northern Lights

We also discovered the extraordinary life of the Sámi,
and the nuances regarding reindeer.

By Laurent Lefevre
Photos/videos by Fabrice Lievin, Serge Maraval, Valérie Tournois, Hélène Vienney-Touraine, and Laurent Lefevre.

(Part 2 of 2) – The northwestern part of Lapland, adjacent to Rajamaa located at the Swedish border, is the traditional territory of the Sámi. Presented as the last indigenous people of Europe, they live astride four countries* and challenge the pejorative term of Lapland. Banned from school until the 1970s, the Sámi, their language (which comes in nine variants), does not have a word for war, but it does have 150 words for “reindeer,” and 200 words to describe snow. 

Note: If you’d like to see part 1 of this story, please go here.

A Sámi of the forests who as a child experienced the hard life of a nomad, Henrik was a reindeer herder in Canada before returning to his land to practice traditional cattle raising. By staring at the young reindeer in the eyes, he knows how to pick the animals that will be used to drive the sleds. This was an ancestral activity that punctuated the life of this migratory people. 

A sleigh ride pulled by a reindeer allows you to discover the taiga at the slow and slightly swaying pace of the animal, while immersing yourself in the resplendent beauty of this coniferous forest, as if whitewashed with lime during winter. During the lunch break, the reindeer are massaged and fed after their harness has been removed. 

It’s time for a shared lunch in the kota (“hunting shelter”) of Henrik who willingly entrusts with the current difficulties of reindeer herders, an activity reserved for the Sámi in Sweden, which has just granted them [in French] the exclusive right to administer hunting and fishing on the territories where their herds graze. 

Faced with deforestation and the consequences of global warming, they are fighting to preserve these grazing areas (The Reindeer Husbandry Area) and lichen resources, essential to their herds in winter – a 71% decrease in the area of lichen-rich forests has been observed over the last sixty years. 

According to the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, the cumulative development of mines, wind farms, hydroelectric plants, roads and power lines threatens the sustainability of their breeding.

By dog sled

Crossing the taiga by dog sled is a new way to discover the land of the Sámi.  Anna, Henrik’s wife, leads the team of five sleds, each composed of five dogs that respect a hierarchy and well defined functions.

“My life is entirely turned towards them; dogs first, money last. My joy is to see them running in harness. Siberian huskies have been selected over generations for their pulling ability and it’s in their blood,” says the musher [in French] from Canada, where she met Henrik.

“Nothing makes them happier: to be in the taiga or along the frozen rivers with them, what could be better?”.

Respecting to the letter the directives (size of the enclosures, private space, possibility to scratch the ground…) of the Swedish legislation, one of the most scrupulous concerning animal protection, Anna takes care of the well-being of the twenty or so dogs that make up her pack: they are fed twice a day and go out daily in summer. They never work more than four days a week and not before twelve months. Each animal over eight years old stops being harnessed when it no longer feels like it and benefits from a “retirement plan”: the possibility of being adopted.

“Dogs should be “heureux et en bonne santé” – happy and healthy! You have to feel their desire to go! “This is still the case on Tuesday, February 23rd: despite the heavy snow, we often have to slow them down, with our feet on the brake. And when the sled struggles on the slopes, they turn around to ask you for help in order to speed up the pace!

Festival of Northern Lights

After having reached by forest skis the Moukon Kuusikot refuge, bathed in a sunset, a traditional sauna on a wood fire is necessary because the evening in this environment cut off from the world and its perils will be full of surprises.

Due to large explosions on the surface of the sun projecting huge quantities of particles into space captured by the earth’s magnetic field, the aurora borealis are the subject of ancestral beliefs. “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find them,” warned Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. On the night of February 26 to 27, everybody –believers and non-believers alike! – was able to witness a festival of Northern Lights, which crossed the sky like dancing animals, the spirit of which they embody for many indigenous peoples of the Arctic regions.

About the Sámi:
* They are estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000, probably close to 100,000. About 20,000 live in Sweden, around 0.2% of the population of 10 million ; about 8,000 in Finland ; 50-65,000 in Norway and 2,000 in Russia.

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