The best way to see the Northern Lights at their spectacular best is to crash head-on into a Finnish pine tree at 40mph. The sky immediately becomes a swirling kaleidoscope of unforgettable colours.
Unbridled tourism has reached Beavvaseama, the Land of the Sun. Snowmobile safaris and husky sledding trips now face stiff competition from self-drive reindeer excursions. In north Finland you can now rent a polka, or sled, and hurtle around the Lemmonjoki National Park and wilderness areas of Hammasstunturi, Tsarmitunturi and Vatsari with a free-range, lichen-fuelled Arctic ungulate as your chauffeur.
You can go off-roading on a reindeer.
As one promotional flyer in a local hotel proclaims: “Trips can be endured for a full day or half day”. There are few things more exhilarating than being behind a bolting reindeer, feeling the wind and overhanging branches of a major coniferous zone raking back your hair.
Inari is the capital of the Sami mountain people, and the reindeer capital of the world. Everyone is a second-hand caribou salesman, and all the restaurants sell reindeer parts. It’s rather unnerving to ask a waiter or waitress what they can offer and be told: “Tongue or bum, anyway you like”.
But just as you need a local beaver hunting and ice fishing permit, you also require a reindeer-driving licence, which entails sitting for a proficiency test. This means proving you know your way around a reindeer, which means pointing to where the horn is.
You must also demonstrate that you are capable of controlling a speeding reindeer. You must do an emergency stop; reindeer can burn slush if they want; especially if pursued by a rakka, or large swarm of horseflies.
The secret of driving a reindeer is that there is no secret at all; because they have peripheral vision, flapping your arms is enough to get them motoring. Stopping is largely up to the reindeer and whether it passes a tasty roadside dwarf shrub. A snack will usually cause a speeding Rudolph to screech to a skidding halt, and your reindeer rage to abate.
Otherwise, as my instructor and reindeer driving test examiner Mikko told me, all you need is a great deal of patience and upper body strength. Or, failing that, a lot of ammunition.
He should know. Mikko is a professional reindeer jockey. For three months a year from November, he travels around Lapland competing in reindeer racing meets.
The sport is very popular in north Finland. Lapps like a flutter, and the biggest race is the Royalty, or the Kingship Cup. Held over three kilometres every April, it is the Arctic Ascot, and over 600 spectators punt. The course is a frozen-over lake.
I watched the world’s oldest and most prestigious reindeer sprint being won by Pikkamusta, a seven-year-old Arctic mountain stag from Inari. It was his third successive win and turned him into an all-time great, alongside immortals like Eurokas, Tupsuniska , Mustahurma and the great Valkko. His jockey, Asla Akio, is Lapland’s answer to Lester Piggot.
The first prize for the coveted Kuninkuusajot is 10,000 Finnish marks (€1,682) and a year’s supply of reindeer feed. The ‘Little Black One’ beat 23 other thoroughbreds. Jarmo Mikkola, on Trimmi, came in third, securing the Ajola Cup for the season’s top jockey. The much-fancied Napoleon came nowhere. My whisper was unplaced, which is a euphemism for almost last. Its name, translated into English was, rather aptly, The Puller.
There are few things more exhilarating than being behind a bolting reindeer
“The Kingship is our Mardi Gras,” explained Vesa Bergman of The Association of Reindeer Herding Co-operatives, founded in 1947. “It’s a great social occasion. Everyone wears their best hats. Costumes identify areas like Utsjoki, Enontekio, Vuotso and Inari, where reindeer racing is a religion. Finnish Lapland is the only place where reindeers race pulling their jockeys behind on skis.”
Over 150 reindeers take part. All have their antlers removed to make them more aerodynamic and less dangerous. The first Kingship race was run in 1950, but competitive reindeer racing goes back to the 17th century when Lapps raced each other to church to get the best pews. Brides were never late for their weddings because they raced the grooms. Weekly markets also provided an excuse for cross-country competitions.
“Finland has over 500 registered racing reindeers and 100 professional jockeys. Races are on the flat. There are no steeplechases. The other big race is the Gold Watch in Rovaniemi.
Since early times, reindeers have been used as decoys in deer hunting and as pack animals. The first written record dates from AD499. Reindeer husbandry for meat production came during the Middle Ages. The Reindeer Parliament meets every May.
Some 150,000 reindeer are slaughtered each year, producing 3.5 million kilos of meat, which sells at 30 Finnish marks per kilo. The reindeer industry is worth 100 million Finnish marks (€16.8m) a year.
In 1898, the Finnish Senate insisted that herders must set up clearly demarcated herding co-operatives. The Reindeer Herding Law was passed in 1932, defining an official herding area of 114,000 kilometres squared with a southern boundary, following the Kiiminki River and a northern boundary ending at Kuhmpo. Any Finnish citizen in this area may own reindeer. There are now 8,000 owners and 60 herding co-ops or palikkunta.
The Association of Reindeer Herding Co-operatives is responsible for registering owners’ earmarks; each reindeer has an ear notch. About 150,000 are marked every June. There are winter and autumn round-ups and planes and offroading vehicles are used to achieve this.
Autumn is mating season, with the rutting season taking place in August. Calving is around St Eric’s Day (May 18). A calf weighs five to seven kilos at birth and doubles its weight within a month.
At one time, reindeer milk was used for cheese and to cure allergies. Reindeer feed on bogbean, water horsetail, goldenrod and hay. Riverside meadows are the favoured grazing grounds in summer. Lichen and mushrooms are the favourite winter forage. The profitability of reindeer farming is largely due to reindeer being able to find their own food in winter.
Reindeer meat could be the next pan-European health food. Fat content is low and protein levels high. Reindeer has five times more Vitamin C than beef. The
selenium-rich meat is thought to prevent cancer and heart disease. Reindeer fur is good for rugs.
Tree-felling and forestry work has meant a reduction in lichen, and in cultivated areas the snow becomes harder without protection from wind, which means the reindeers cannot find food so easily. Over 40,00 animals are killed by traffic every year.
The National Board of Railroads compensates owners for reindeers struck by trains. Predators include bears, wolves and eagles. Reindeer herding is taught at Inari’s Sami Regional Training Centre.
The Sami homeland covers Norway, Sweden , Finland and Russia. There are 750,000 Sami, and more than half speak Sami, of which there are three forms – North , Inari and Skolt. Most Lapps, meaning people who gain their income from the land, depend on reindeer for their livelihood. Over 800 Finnish families earn their living solely from reindeers, working 40 per cent of the world’s reindeer population.
The Kingship weekend is a celebration of Sami culture. Sami has its own radio station and two Sami language newspapers are published in Norway. In 1994, high school students sat exams in their mother tongue for the first time. A Sami Parliament has sat since 1973, and the sons and daughters of the sun have had their own flag since 1986. Their national day is February 6, but the biggest party is Inari on Kingship Cup Day.
The trainer and owner of the great Pikkamusta hopes to equal the record of Paavo Martin, who won the race seven times. Said a Nakkalajarvi A. Juhan: “It’s a good life for racing reindeer. They live longer. They’re fed better and they have a better love life. But if they do not perform they will be castrated, slaughtered and sautéed.
“Thankfully, the trainers aren’t under quite so much pressure.”