Our interview with reindeer herder Aslat-Jon Länsman covers the basics of reindeer herding, life far above the Arctic Circle, as well as how you can experience herding yourself.
A few hundred years ago, the people of northern Europe realized that milking polar bears was a bit too tricky, so they shifted gears and began herding reindeer instead.
In the centuries since the Sámi people began herding reindeer, the practice has grown into a cultural cornerstone in northern Finland, coloring virtually every aspect of life in the far north. Sámi entrepreneur Aslat-Jon Länsman offers his insights and unique perspective on herding reindeer in the 21st century.
REINDEER HERDING 101
Reindeer husbandry began in the Middle Ages, when the Sámi people domesticated wild Scandinavian mountain deer. Unlike most “farm” animals, reindeer remain semi-wild to this day, spending significant portions of their lives roaming the wilderness. As a result, reindeer herders like Aslat-Jon also spend their time in the forests and atop the fells, keeping watch over their herds.
Typically, reindeer are born in the spring, sprout antlers over the summer, and then spend the rest of their lives thinking primarily about two things: food and making baby reindeer. For the herders, summer means protecting the herd from predators while trying their best not to disturb their birthing season. Luckily, technology offers a handy solution.
— We try not to bother the reindeer for no reason. We might fly the drone over the herd a little, just to see how to they’re doing.
Summer is also when the herders make repairs from the previous winter and prepare for next winter.
— Now it’s the time of year when you can recharge your batteries for the coming winter. There’s always some tinkering to do. We have to repair the fences and sledges, maintain the snowmobiles and make hay.
The list goes on and on.
Depending on the weather, summer in northern Finland can also become torturous for reindeer. Flying insects such as mosquitoes and horseflies force the herds to flee to wide open areas, fellsides and even onto the roads, sometimes even causing local traffic jams.
— During those times, the reindeer aren’t so interested in the cars, Aslat-Jon says with a laugh.
In some reindeer herding areas, summer is also when the reindeer herders round up the herd to earmark the youngest reindeer. But for Aslat and his fellow herders, autumn is more convenient.
— At some point before I was born, they did the earmarking in summer. But in dry weather, this creates a lot of dust and erodes the ground, which isn’t good for the calves or the environment. But in the autumn, the wetter weather allows the ground to withstand, for example, riding a motorcycle.
In autumn, Aslat-Jon checks the movements of the reindeer a few times a week, but during the winter migration, he keeps a much closer eye, following the herd’s location almost daily.
Reindeer herding makes up a huge chunk of Sámi culture—and the livelihood has colored almost every aspect of life in the North, from their beliefs to their food to their clothes. And in the last few decades, these traditions have attracted visitors from around the world who are interested herding half-wild animals in the unforgiving Arctic.
Aslat-Jon’s travel company Arctic Siida specializes in authentic excursions into Sápmi, the Sámi homeland. In the winter, he offers the opportunity to spend a day or more working along a real reindeer herder.
— We always tailor the package for the customer. Usually they stay for about a week to help with the herds, and maybe heading to the Arctic Ocean (only 40 km away) to try out their luck with king crab. People come from all over the world and through many travel partners. In Nuorgam, for example, we work closely with Nuorgam Holiday Village.
While reindeer rides and farm visits are a staple of Lapland’s responsible animal tourism, offering travelers the chance to herd reindeer is a relatively new activity, and some people are delighted with the authentic experience.
— Some customers are surprised when they realize that these are not places built specifically for tourists. The authenticity really impresses them. Because with or without visitors, we would be herding reindeer.
Utsjoki has the highest Sámi population density in Finland, at nearly 50%. This intersection of genuine Sámi culture and intrepid travelers from around the world seeking out new and unspoiled experiences has created a lot of opportunity, both for the local economy and in sharing the Sámi perspective.
— Some of our customers are already well-informed, and they come to experience Sámi culture up close and to participate in reindeer herding. Working alongside them, we are able to share our own truths and knowledge about our culture and reindeer herding. And when our customers go home, that perspective goes global.
HOW TO EXPERIENCE IT YOURSELF
It’s something you’ll hear again and again, but it’s true: there are more reindeer than people in Lapland. And that means that the range of reindeer experiences runs the gamut from reindeer rides in winter (offered in virtually every destination through multiple service providers) to earning cold hard cash working hard alongside real herders.
Follow a seasoned guide at the Salla Reindeer Park and feed reindeer while learning about how the north herds reindeer.
In Posio, you can visit Valkeapeura Reindeer Farm and spend the day alongside reindeer, offering them their favorite food: lichens.
In Rovaniemi, after you’ve visited Santa’s reindeer at the Arctic Circle, take a hike with the reindeer of the Orbas Reindeer Family for a true herd experience.
For a more immersive experience, you can stay at the Reindeer Lake Resort, a working reindeer farm in Pello.
Of course, if you ask Aslat-Jon, of course, he would recommend you travel to Nuorgam and spend a week with his team and his reindeer among the tundra fells. There’s no better way to understand the life of a reindeer herder than to live a small chunk of it.
But what if spending a week with reindeer herders isn’t enough? What if you crave not just experience, but experience, the kind you could even list on your CV? Ruka’s reindeer farms are looking for outdoor-loving Arctic enthusiasts to join their team of reindeer herders for the summer.
What are you waiting for?