A school friend of mine, who have kept in touch with over the years, has always been very keen on Arctic experiences. He tried to persuade me to join him on one of his trips many times and eventually I agreed. I confess I had very little idea of what it would entail and could not have imagined the impact it would have on me.
We flew, in planes of rapidly diminishing size, from London to Oslo, Oslo to Tromso and Tromso to Hammerfest. From there, it was about an hours drive to Karasjok. Just outside this tiny town was our guide’s operation on the banks of the river Karashoka river. Sven Engholm still runs these tours - his website is easy to find.
Sven is one of the most impressive individuals I’ve ever met. Taciturn and reserved he is a man completely comfortable in his own skin, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything to do with huskies, the flora and fauna of the Arctic and survival in that forbidding environment. A kind of Arctic Crocodile Dundee, utterly unflustered in every situation.
The essence of the holiday was a five-day round trip covering about 30 kilometres per day. Each night we stopped at shepherd’s huts, which are dotted around the wilderness. These are there to serve tours such as this, cross country skiers, and the Sami people whose land we were primarily crossing.
The Sami people are a tribe of reindeer herders and their range covers parts of northern Norway Sweden and Finland. We were to meet them in what I found to be a wonderful experience.
Initially the going was fairly straight forward. The dogs know what they're doing and the drivers only real task is to operate the brake appropriately. It was fascinating to see how the dogs, particularly the lead dog, kept an eye on me as the driver. In places where they needed help (rough ground or uphill) the lead dog definitely gave me a long look if I was a bit slow getting off the sled to jog alongside. I wasn't, then, a particular lover of dogs but by the end of this trip I had formed a very close bond with all four of my team. I had nicknames for all of them which, alas, I can no longer remember.
Our first stop, for lunch, was in an unprecedented winter wonderland. We’d emerged from a patch of forest and we're crossing a large piece of open ground when Sven called a halt. The cleanliness of the snow and the trees, and the luminescent quality of the light and the air here is hard to describe. The best I can do is to ask you to imagine a Disney film in which Stardust is being sprinkled. There are crystalline elements, frozen in the actual air, that sparkle. As I looked round at the clear blue sky, the beauty of the fantastic ice shapes, and the patches of conifers, it was as if I was doing so through a lens of Stardust. A magical experience.
The shepherd’s huts are just bunk rooms with a wood burning stove … and an outdoor toilet! We’d all brought bottles of our favourite tipple and, after settling and feeding the dogs, the evenings were convivial affairs. One particular night, after dark, a party of cross-country skiers turned up - two women and a man, in their early 20s. We made them welcome, and shared some food, but the man was clearly keen to get off as they hadn't yet reached their target for that day. I think the ladies could have been persuaded to stay but I remember being impressed, and a little envious, of the confident hardiness of these three as they set out into the Arctic night for another 10 miles of skiing in the dark, before pitching a tent somewhere out there in the forest.
On the third day, Sven had arranged for us to spend a day with the Sami people. This experience was a real eye opener and stuck with me for years. It was a lesson about many things in life.
The Sami people turned up first thing in the morning, driving skidoos with small flatbed trailers attached to them. We were each allocated a trailer, in pairs, and then they set off to the reindeer herd. That was the most surreal experience. Myself and my friend sat on this flatbed trailer, which was barely big enough to hold both of us and had no sides or anything to grip hold of. The driver of the skidoo, I suspect with some glee at frightening the tourists, careered off as fast as he could go. Whizzing backwards through an Arctic forest, at 20 miles an hour, is an experience I'll never forget.
When we arrived, I was taken aback to find that we were in fact attending a regular reindeer cull. This event was also a gathering of Sami families. There were children there aged from about 5 upwards and one old lady must have been well into her 70s. The children, in the main, were dressed in traditional Sami clothing. This is made entirely out of reindeer skin and, apparently, is as well insulated as any of our modern materials. The children's shoes were a curious reindeer skin design with an upward pointing front toe, a bit like an Aladdin slipper. The shoes apparently are stuffed with straw to aid insulation.
The reindeer herd was quite extensive and spread over the hillside in front of us. To be honest, I'd never seen a live reindeer before and was a bit surprised to find how small they are. More Shetland pony then Monarch of the Glen.
The families, as they arrived, we're getting together, greeting each other and chatting, but, interestingly, although they were clearly very close, there wasn't a great deal of laughter. They struck me as being a serious people.
The cull itself was both fascinating and appalling to watch. They lit a huge fire and then set off into the herd on the skidoos, from which they lassoed various reindeer. Each of the men had two knives on a belt at his waist. The first was about 3 inches long. As they lassoed the reindeer, they seemed to position this knife on its neck, near the back of its head, and then with one punch knocked it in, which killed the reindeer outright. it collapsed to the ground without so much as a twitch. They then hitched the lasso to the back of the skidoo and dragged the corpse over to the fire, where the skinning team went to work.
Again, this was fascinating to watch. The other knife on the guys belt had an upward curve at the end of the blade and was clearly razor sharp. This was used to skin the animal in a fantastically skilled operation that only took about 15 minutes. It was so expertly done that I could only watch in admiration, despite a queasy stomach.
Everybody was involved in the butchering process. The stronger guys were hauling the carcasses about, skinning and butchering out larger chunks of meat. The women and some of the older people were involved in cutting some of the finer cuts or, in one bizarre case, sitting over the carcass with an empty Coke bottle, a funnel and a ladle, filling the Coke bottle with blood for later use as black pudding.
Most shockingly, a number of the reindeer were pregnant. The embryos were tiny but recognisably reindeer and these were tossed to the children, who played very happily with these small “dolls” creating beds in the snow for them, talking to them and arranging them into different sleeping positions. Everything in my experience was telling me that to watch such a thing should be appalling. Yet it was clear that this was an absolutely normal part of their day to day life and seemed, somehow, in complete harmony with their surroundings.
It was a day I will never forget. One of the people came back for a drink with us and it turned out that he did have a job, as a journalist in Stockholm, but he came back regularly for culls and other family gatherings. Another taciturn man, it was apparent his comprehensive love of this life made it indispensable to him. Maybe such people have life right. If needed, a hospital, antibiotics and other conveniences of modern life are accessible. If not needed, they live a life that hasn't changed much for hundreds, possibly even thousands of years (if dog sleds are substituted for skidoos). They are so completely in tune with nature, their community, and their surroundings, it seems an enviable way of being, despite the hardships.
On, I think, our 4th night we were sitting in the hut, chatting, when Sven commented laconically “I think you might find the Northern Lights are starting.”
We all dashed outside to view this spectacle. I have to say, having seen many photographs of the Northern Lights, my own experience was quite different. I can only describe it as I saw it.
If you can imagine yourself in an utter wilderness. There is only you, the hut and your companions, with nothing visible around you for miles, but snow and trees. When the conversation stops, the silence is almost tangible, utter, and has a texture to it. Not the velvet silence of the tropics, a crackling, brittle quiet.
The night is really crystal clear, the stars overhead visible but not providing much light. The horizon is obscured by trees but looking over those trees you have a sense, and this is the best way I can describe it, that just the other side of the wood somebody has lit 3 cigarettes of celestial magnitude. The three plumes rise slowly, then, as cigarette smoke does, start to widen from their base and to whorl and eddy, create fantastical shapes. Initially these plumes are just grey, and could be mistaken for a strange cloud formation, until flashes of purple start to appear at the edges.
As the plumes grow and start to mingle, creating evermore wonderful shapes, flashes of green start to supplement the purple. Both colours grow and fade, flashing and flickering and integrating themselves into the whirling grey. It's a cross between cigarette smoke, drifting through coloured light, and a murmuration of starlings with feathers flashing in the sunlight. It feels like sacrilege to witness such a thing and think of electro-magnetism. It was an experience that affected every sense; the silence, the smell of woodsmoke, the feel of the freezing air in lungs and nose, and the sight of this impossible kaleidoscope drenching the sky. Awe and wonder, a sense of insignificance and yet of belonging, possibly even tears through chattering teeth, was my response and I’m glad I’ve been able to recover some small part of it.
I find myself choked up by the strength of this memory and will stop now. It feels like a good time to take the puppy out into the woods.