It’s lunchtime on Monday at the Mausjaur’s shared house in Jörn and the herders have already been up for seven hours, feeding the herd where they are grouped together in the forest just outside of town. The kitchen is a hive of activity as Lotta Svensson prepares food for the hungry workers. People crowd around the table, helping themselves to bread and butter, reindeer meat, cheese, biscuits and fruit juice; the dogs are fed and watered in the corner. The feeding frenzy is short lived and people drift away to their respective rooms to catch forty winks before the afternoon shift. We grab the opportunity to check over the cameras and film equipment and prepare ourselves for the week ahead. As yet, there has not been a decision on which day the migration will start, but there are at least three days of preparation before that can even been considered.
At 16:00hrs, the kitchen fills again as people grab another quick snack before they head out. At some invisible signal the house bursts into life as heavy-duty, insulated clothes are zipped up, boots laced and gloves pulled on. Lotta laughs and tells me the signal to go to work is the slightest twitch of someone’s toe and, in future, it might be better if we are given the warning beforehand so we can start to get the camera gear together and be ready in time, rather than keeping everyone waiting.
The dogs are (each) watching their owners’ every move and then the house falls silent as the pack stride off down the road to where the skidoos are parked up, at the edge of the forest 200 metres away.
The skidoo engines roar into life and the forest tranquillity is torn to shreds. Communication from now on will be at the top of our voices unless we’re in a position to cut the engines. The Sami workers have radio-com headsets but these are primarily for distance communication and battery power is conserved by only using them when necessary.
I’m invited to ride pillion with Magnus, Lotta’s son, and ten minutes’ white knuckle ride later, we’re on top of a low hill where a firebreak cuts a wide swathe through the pine trees, making a convenient path for the regional power lines. The herd in this location numbers about 1500 reindeer, dispersed among the trees within a half mile radius, and here is where the majority of the remaining animals, currently scattered throughout the surrounding countryside, will be assembled over the following days. The snow in this area is up to four feet deep and very tricky to walk on, for us at least; the Sami make it look impossibly easy and conduct their business around us as we flounder hopelessly.
Ahead of us, skidoos with trailers have stocked up in town with sacks of reindeer pellets and a huge, vacuum-packed bale of hay. The pellets are towed in amongst the trees and deposited into long, plastic feeding troughs and the reindeer instantly close in, competing to get at the food. The hay bale is unwrapped in the open, beneath the power lines and carved up with a chainsaw to make it easier to distribute with a pitchfork. When the skidoos and trailers have finished dishing out the pellets, the trailers are loaded up with loose hay and towed through the forest while someone riding behind on the trailer throws handfuls of hay out on the forest floor until the load is spent. This continues until the hay bale is completely distributed and the animals are fed for another day.
The afternoon has flown by and those that live nearby drive back to their homesteads. Those that live further afield head back to the shared house in Jörn where Lotta has prepared the evening meal of stewed reindeer meat on-the-bone, along with another arctic speciality, bludpalt, a mixture of Reindeer blood, milk and flour, stirred until it’s a thick consistency and then baked in the oven.
As the sky darkens outside and the mercury heads south, everyone disappears once again to their rooms. An early start is on the cards for the morning.
Preparations continue in and around Jörn while we take a drive west to the town of Arvidsjaur to stock up on supplies. The population of Arvidsjaur is around 4500, with a further 2500 people dispersed around the surrounding countryside and, although the people are predominantly Sami folk, the presence of a large army base and a car-testing centre on the outskirts of town, means there is a significant number of Swedish people living there also. It looks like a fairly regular Scandinavian neighbourhood, with the majority of the houses painted either blue or yellow in keeping with the national colours and typical of every village and town across the country.
At one end of the long, straight high street is the church, built in 1902. It’s a pretty structure that’s kept in immaculate condition inside and out and sits in a snowy graveyard setting. Close by, and perhaps more interesting, is the old church village of Lappstaden:
The story goes that towards the end of the 16th century, around 1595, Christianity came to the Sami’s communities. King Gustav Wasa, the ruling monarch at the time, gave the people no choice but to conform to the imposed religion, and set about resolving all reasonable objections. Many people from the more remote parts of the region protested, claiming that it simply wasn’t possible to travel to and from church in a day. The state replied by building a village of almost 100 huts two kilometres from present-day Arvidsjaur town centre, so as to provide an option for those that needed to stay overnight on worship day. The huts were relocated to their current position in 1820 and still remain fully functional even today.
Its 05:00 when I first hear the house come to life and I’m quick to get dressed and grab a bite from the kitchen table before piling on the layers of clothing. Nobody eats much at this time of day because they’ll all be back in a couple of hours to enjoy a proper, unhurried breakfast.
Outside, the morning is fresh and bitterly cold as the pale and watery sun has only just about showed itself through the gap between two houses across the road. The sky is clear and the signs look good for another warm day that will assist in the springtime thaw. This is the weather that the Sami like to see when they are readying themselves for the migration; warm days that speed the melting of the snow in the forests, followed by freezing nights that make the snow hard and easy to walk on for the reindeer, because even though reindeer are very well suited to walking on snow, when its soft underfoot, even the reindeer get tired, ruling out any chance of making a 120km journey.
The first task of the day is to feed the reindeer again and so more pellets and hay are taken up to the hilltop while a few other small groups of animals that are in the area are herded through the forest to join the main group. For the next few days this will be the main objective; to bring more and more of the stragglers together until the whole 5000-strong herd can be corralled as one, in readiness for the long trek to the west.
By 08:00hrs the people have finished giving out the morning feed and there’s still time to do a quick recce into the surrounding forest to locate any stragglers that need to be herded towards the main group. The deep, virgin snow makes skidoo handling extremely difficult and it very quickly becomes evident who’s experienced and who isn’t. I spend a large percentage of my time either flat on my back in the snow or doggedly trying to dig the skidoo tracks out from where they’ve become bogged down. It’s hard work and, despite the sub-zero temperatures, I’m soon down to my t-shirt.
While we’re out in the forest checking on the stragglers, other members of the Mausjaur are elsewhere in the vicinity doing exactly the same and, by the time we all meet back at the house for a midmorning breakfast, there is a sense of progress in the air. For the first time since we arrived, a specific date is being discussed: There is now speculation that if all goes well, the migration will get underway on Saturday.
The afternoon sees us mount the skidoos once again and disappear into the forest en route to a large frozen lake about a mile from the main herd. When we get to the lake, we see that a number of the Sami workers have already gathered another herd of about 2000 reindeer together on the ice and are just waiting for more skidoos to arrive so that the animals can be pushed through the forest and into the main corral on the outskirts of Jörn. Once the herd starts moving, it’s an effort to keep them heading in the right direction. The sight of a blueberry shoot poking through the snow can be enough to steer an animal off track which, in turn, may trigger the whole herd to follow, and its with considerable skill that the Mausjaur reindeer keepers and their colleagues maintain the impetus and direction of the reindeer by circling back and forth, behind and alongside the herd, whooping, shouting and waving hands. The dogs, too, are busy and race around at the rear making sure that nothing gets left behind.
Two hours later and we’re getting close to Jörn. Four of the skidoos race ahead of the herd to prepare for a road crossing.
It’s no surprise that many thousands of reindeer are killed on Sweden’s roads every year and, although this most commonly happens at night along the dark forestry roads, there’s still every reason to take precautions in the daytime when cars, if anything, are likely to be travelling faster.
At the point where the reindeer are expected to emerge from the trees, the lead skidoos take up position either side and a little way along the road in each direction. Approaching vehicles are waved through until the group can be heard clearly. Some of the reindeer have collars with bells, which, along with the sound of the men shouting, make it very clear when the animals are about to appear. At this point, approaching vehicles are stopped for the five minutes or so that it takes for the herd to cross the road. It’s an interesting scene for the cars’ passengers to witness as thousands of reindeers and dozens of skidoos emerge from the trees on one side of the road and disappear into the trees on the other side and, with a final wave from the Sami who are holding the roadblock, the road ahead is clear and all is quiet again.
A short distance further through the trees the herd crosses an open line of fence posts. The skidoos are brought to a halt and the engines cut as the animals wander a little further into the corral and then look back at us as the fence line is resealed. The corral is quite large in size, covering an area in excess of 2km2 and is the final collection point for the full herd before the main journey starts. Along one side of the Corral runs a branch of Sweden’s east coast railway, a convenient location that allows the Mausjaur to very tightly control the timing of the necessary crossing that will herald the start of the migration.
The next day starts off, as usual, with the early morning feed and a quick check to see if any of the herd is showing signs of illness or weakness. Those that are get split from the group and pushed through the forest to form a smaller group of animals that will make the journey to the summer ground by road, in the back of a truck. By the afternoon the total number of reindeer that are to be loaded onto a truck is about 300 and these animals are herded away through the trees to a small loading corral a couple of kilometres away, where the males will be separated from the females prior to loading.
The weather is quite settled and the conditions look good for the migration to start on Saturday. Half of the herd are already in the main corral, while the remaining animals are still tightly grouped around the forest clearing near the power lines at the top of the hill above Jörn. With nearly everything in place, the remaining task for the afternoon is to bring the 2500 animals down from the hilltop and into the main corral to join the rest of the herd. It’s a clean up exercise also as the forest is cleared of feeding troughs while the reindeer are manoeuvred into the clearing and slowly driven down the hill.
We have positioned ourselves in the deep snow a short distance off the reindeers’ intended route, and are able to film the full group as they appear over the horizon and flood down the steep slope towards us. As the leading animals approach, a quarter of a mile away the rear of the group comes in to sight followed by the skidoos and dogs.
It’s only a short trip for this group, as they are pushed through a narrow strip of forest and into the main corral where the full group is now complete.
With the full herd in one place, the aim of today is to let them rest, feed them pellets and hay, and make ready the final arrangements before the big push to the north west.
Crossing of the railway that runs along the western edge of the corral will mark the beginning of the migration, and a convenient window of opportunity needs to be established with the railway company so that the reindeer are given the maximum amount of time to make the crossing before the next train comes thundering through. We are told that 07:05 – 07:30 the next day is our window; tomorrow will be a very early start.
This afternoon a truck will be leaving the small holding corral with the weak animals loaded on board, and taken by road to the summer territory. We arrive in plenty of time and immediately set to work separating the males from the females. It’s a long and arduous process that involves herding the reindeer group into a tight enclosure, where the males can individually be pounced on and dragged through a narrow doorway and then loosed into their own area. A well-built woman, called Ulrika, who is happy to take a main share of the work, impresses me. Once a reindeer is in her grasp, no amount of tossing and bucking is going to help. There is no escaping as, one by one, she wrestles the hapless beasts through the doorway.
Eventually the separation is complete and the huge, two-story articulated truck, which had been sitting quietly by, is started up in a billowing cloud of black diesel fumes and reversed into position. The ramp is lowered, barriers erected and the females are guided through the passageway and onto the lower level. Once secured, the ramp is repositioned to the second level and the males are allowed through. It seems a well-practised procedure and it’s not long before the driver clambers up into the cabin and hauls the precious cargo out through the gates and off down the road towards Arvidsjaur.
Mid-afternoon, and it’s time to return to the main herd and give them their last feed before tomorrow’s departure. I pair up with Tomme Svensson and climb on board his skidoo trailer as we make repeated circles through the herd, depositing pellets into the feeding troughs. Among the trees, away from the main group, we come across an adult female lying in the snow. She makes no effort to move as we approach, and Tomme cuts the engine to take a closer look.
“She’s dying, see?” he says, lifting her head and allowing it to drop back to the ground. And without further deliberation, he takes his short “nibbie” knife and dispatches the animal with a quick, decisive thrust into the back of the skull. The animal is killed instantly but, just to make absolutely certain, and to ensure there’s no chance of leaving the beast suffering, Tomme cuts it’s throat and steps back as the snow around the body turns crimson. We haul the deadweight onto the trailer and leave a bloody trail through the forest as we take the carcass out of the corral and a few hundred yards into the trees on the other side of the road.
“The meat is no good”, Tomme explains. “Best to leave it to the wolverines”.