by Tim Choate
At forty degrees below zero, Fahrenheit and Celsius’s scales converge, as if even the thermometer just gives up on distinguishing different measures of cold. In weather just a few degrees shy of this, I am wearing more clothing than I have ever put on at one time in my life, feeling the hairs inside my nose flash-freeze with every breath. This makes the imminent hour-long ride on snowmobiles into the wilderness feel rather intimidating.
This is rural Finnmark county, the northernmost region of Norway, though indigenous people identify more with Sápmi, their term for some 150,000 square miles spread across national borders and that outsiders crudely referred to as Lappland. My host, Nils, is a reindeer herder, dressed in a vibrant blue tunic edged with colourful tribal patterns and broad leather belt with a knife. He and his brother typically alternate overseeing their seven hundred or so animals, leaving Kautokeino (population ~3,000) for a couple weeks at a time. In the summer, the herd lives on an island about 280 miles north of the Arctic Circle; in the winter, they retreat to inland grazing territory some one hundred miles closer to the Finnish border. In between, the Sara brothers travel much as their nomadic ancestors did, staying with the herd and setting up a tent each night. Sure, there are now conveniences like snowmobiles and plastic and, for that matter, metal that were not available to their forebears, but the pattern of daily life remains surprisingly similar. Once we stop our snowmobiles, the silence is still only broken by wind or the crunch of snow underfoot.
His people, the indigenous Sámi, are descended from hardy tribes that have occupied this land for over 5,000 years (with evidence of human presence stretching back as far as 10,000 BC). They are credited with inventing skiing, their prehistoric equipment appearing recognizable today, albeit quaint. Fortunately for us, Nils has a wood cabin for the wintertime, with a fireplace and a small generator for the evenings. As soon as we arrive, he collects a frozen reindeer carcass from outside and leaves it on a tarp on the dining table for the next 24 hours to thaw. Although reindeer get culled throughout the year, most of the yield comes just before fall, after the herd has grazed on summer grasses and leaves. Marketing its relative health advantages has more than doubled market price in the past decade and Nils is quick to distinguish reindeer herding from other forms of agriculture as being uniquely and successfully sustained more by sales than by government subsidy. However, without such generous subsidies (representing close to 60% of all farm income in Norway, almost double what Nils and his colleagues receive), most reindeer herders have incomes well below the national average.
Nils enjoys occasionally hosting travellers who wish to immerse themselves in actual Sámi traditions, through his partners at Visit Natives. Despite intimidating logistics, it is also a counterweight to the occasional – and often inaccurate – cultural appropriation by non-Sámi actors in the cities. Finding other side jobs is rather difficult when the herd requires constant supervision, even outside of migration times. Predators, notably wolverines, golden eagles, and lynx, are the biggest threat to reindeer and, nationally, account for over 80% of animals lost (upwards of 50,000 per year). The work is not without its dangers. Everyone I meet has stories of friends dying in snowmobile accidents, mostly falling through ice into hidden water holes. Nils’s own 14-year-old daughter mentions in passing the time she got gored in the leg by a reindeer as if it was nothing unusual. Before fuel-injected snowmobiles, goes one of Nils’s colourful stories, one might depend on a full bladder to defrost the engine’s carburettor, to get home before nightfall and not freeze to death.
Every morning, Nils rides his snowmobile to where he last left the herd, checking on the condition of all the animals and often peeling away to track down wayward individuals. Other herds are also wintering nearby and, though each animal’s ear gets a tag unique to the owner, it is easy for reindeer to wander off and join into a different group. Nils is exceedingly good at tracking but, just in case, some of the reindeer wear either a traditional bell or a modern GPS collar to make the group easier to follow. A few get further domesticated to work as draft animals but “domesticated” is a relative term, and even these reindeer must still be lassoed to get put into service pulling a sledge.
One night, Nils takes me out to the goahti that he has built nearby. A simple conical structure of stout birch trunks, draped with heavy tarps and branches for insulation, it is about a dozen feet in diameter at its base, with the night sky peeking in through the hole at the top. A panel, hanging from the outside of the goahti on a rope, serves as a door that can be tucked into the tarps on either side in windy weather. Inside, small branches and reindeer pelts cover the ground on either side of a small, rectangular fire pit. A large bough spans the room, from above the doorway through which we entered to the top of a small doorway on the opposite side. In truth, it is not dissimilar from the “covering afforded by a few intertwined branches” described by Tacitus in the first century AD, when they were used as the primary Sámi dwelling.
“Through here,” Nils gestures at the door behind us, “the people come and go. Only the people. The other hatch is only for the food. But because it is only us,” he says, grinning, “I think I just bring the meat in with me.” Stabbing sticks through the reindeer steaks to spread them out and maximize surface area for smoking, he hangs the cuts of meat from the large central timber span and builds a fire underneath. A length of chain in the middle suspends a blackened teakettle, which he fills with water pulled from a frozen creek. Soon, the hut is warm and hazy. The balance between cold, fresh air coming in and hot, smoky air escaping through the top is just enough to be both comfortable for us and effective at smoking the meat; in slightly more agreeable weather, Nils will sleep here all night.
With teas in hand and fire crackling, he sits up, breathes in, and starts singing. Sámi joiks are melodic chants, often just a few syllables, alternating in a rhythmic, harmonious mantra. The pacing of the joik and the progression of notes vary from song to song, which are meant to honor a particular person or entity. “Song” isn’t even a wholly appropriate term, as the joik is meant to recreate the essence of the subject, not to be just a description or story. The performer must inhabit the subject, with the joik representing this process. He demonstrates a lively number that bounces quickly from high to low before explaining that the person it is about is outgoing and animated but also has a bit of a temper. By contrast, another song, about a particular landscape, progresses only through a much lower range and at a fraction of the speed.
He sings to me songs of his family and friends, one by one, as well as his own joik, created by an aunt. He does not keep count of how many he has memorized. There is a Sámi Grand Prix every year that includes a joik contest – a sort of Sápmi Idol. A few years ago, Nils presented one that he had composed to honor his wife, but admits that nerves got the better of him on stage and that he didn’t perform as well as he would have liked. Joiks are traditionally acapella, but some performers now include backing music and more emphasis on lyrics. Sámi radio stations rely heavily on joiks, interspersed with news and weather.
Outside the goahti, the sky seems composed more of stars than darkness. The air is so devoid of both moisture and particulate matter that constellations gleam even on the horizon. The aurora borealis is “only” a green stripe tonight, smeared across a small stretch of sky, but an active night can provide enough light to read by, in virtually every colour of the visible spectrum, as well as a crackling or popping sound in the lower atmosphere when conditions are right. Nils privately walks off to ask nature, itself, for a more impressive display for me, but he warns me that it will only work – and maybe, at that – if I truly believe in the potency of his request. Hours later, the powers that be seem unmoved, though the vast, silent night is no less majestic or impressive. A last visit to the outhouse before going to bed is unfailingly an exercise in marvelling at snow, birch, stars, and silence until teeth begin to chatter and toes start going numb.
Tim Choate works in Washington, D.C. as a consultant to nonprofits. He is also known to cook, take photographs, run for beer, and frequently find himself in unusual or bizarre circumstances abroad.