The house stirs at about 5am and, bleary eyed, I go to the kitchen, where breakfast is a couple of slices of bread and butter with cold reindeer meat and a glass of fruit juice, hurriedly consumed so I can vacate the breakfast table in order to make room for the steady flow of workers. Within 30 minutes people are pulling on the layers and heading outside. The sky is clear and the mercury is sitting resolutely at –12.
Down at the corral there are people I’ve not seen before – family members who have driven in from all over to join in with the migration. Many of them have their own animals among the herd but, generally speaking, this would be a very small number compared to those owned by the six Keepers.
A section of fence is opened up down by the railway and a couple of the visitors stand guard to prevent any animals trying to leave the enclosure too soon. The corral is large and it takes a while to herd the animals together before they can be led down to the gap in the fence. Meanwhile the expected train comes hurtling down the track right on time and, with a blast of the horn and a cloud of snow, the 18:05 from Stockholm thunders past and disappears from sight round a bend in the tack.
The oldest animal in the herd, an ancient looking, domesticated male of about 7 years old, is located and attached by a line to a skidoo. His seniority means that wherever he is led, the others will follow and using this method the herd are safely taken across the railway tracks and into the forest on the opposite side. The migration has begun.
The forest landscape rolls past to the sound of skidoo engines (near and distant), barking dogs, whooping Sami and the steady trudge of twenty thousand hooves in the virgin snow. The aim is to bring the herd down to the wide, frozen River Skellefte, where much faster progress can be made. However, the river is too far to reach in one day, so the destination for today’s journey will be another holding corral at a place called Petikträsk, some 30kms away.
The weather had started very bright, but by mid-morning the clouds are rolling in and snow starts to fall. It gets heavier and heavier until we’re travelling in a veritable blizzard. Visibility falls and Matt and I need to concentrate very hard just to stay in contact with the group. We chase back and forth trying to get something of use on film but the conditions conspire against us. On top of that, five minutes of standing still trying to capture a shot of the wilderness can leave you all alone with the herd nothing more than a very distant, receding drone of skidoo engines. On occasions we have to resort to following the churned up snow just to find our way back to the group, as the full company move as one, steadily onward through the arctic backwoods.
Large open areas of frozen marshland punctuate the land we are travelling through and as we near mid-day, the weather has relented and the herd are driven out into the open and allowed to rest. With the nearest trees some two or three hundred metres away the Sami can stop for a spot of lunch and not have to worry about losing animals that may wish to wander off. The occasional reindeer tries to roam in search of food but someone is always quick to leap onto a skidoo and coax the animal back. For the most part, however, the herd are happy to lie down and rest in the snow among the old grass storage huts that dot the landscape, while the Herders and their families cook lunch over open fires by the edge of the marsh. It’s interesting to observe that each family unit sits apart from the rest during this break and not all together as I would have imagined but, as always, at some unseen signal, the twitch of a toe perhaps, everybody finishes up at the same time and the journey recommences.
The afternoon passes as we cover mile after mile of endless forest and marsh. At times we are able to get ahead of the herd and observe from a vantage point the spectacle of these five thousand reindeer moving headlong through the trees on their way to the northwest. The snow is falling again and as the snow cover gets deeper, we begin to see individual animals dropping behind before giving up altogether. I am able to approach some of these animals without them trying to run, and I concern myself with this but am told they will most likely rest before making the migration on their own, or they will be hunted in September as part of the annual slaughter process. I use the moment to get some close portraits but can’t stay too long. I can already hear the sound of the group is growing faint as, once again, I’ve been left behind.
The corral at Petikträsk is reached and I see the familiar sight of feeding troughs scattered among the trees and across the hillside. A truck laden with sacks of pellets is parked on the road nearby and while sacks are being offloaded, Tomme takes Matt and I on a quick recce of tomorrow morning’s route, so that we’ll be able to get ahead of the group in the morning and capture the event on film as the herd are driven down onto the River Skellefte.
We arrive at Petikträsk by 07:00hrs. Matt and I immediately set off on a skidoo down to the river so that we have plenty of time to find a good position and prepare the cameras. The river is almost a mile wide at this point and we’re able to open up the skidoo throttle and hurtle across the expanse of flat ice under a clear blue sky. The speedometer reads 60Kmh and the wind-chill bites at our faces. Matt, sitting behind me, has to hang on for dear life; a fall at this speed will undoubtedly result in severe injury. There’s some discussion over where is the best place to be and we range all over, searching for the ideal viewpoint. As a result, we very nearly miss the event but in the nick of time, we agree on a spot and the cameras are
turned toward the riverbank as the whole herd spills out of the trees and onto the ice. From hereon the pace of the herd should increase and the route should follow the river until the summer/winter boundary is crossed.
The weather is perfect and now that there is very little risk of losing the group, Matt and I range further afield in our endeavour to capture the grandeur of the landscape. From a hilltop Magnus Svensson points at the vast region laid out before us to the north and talks fondly of the Mausjaur territory and it’s pristine beauty. Then he turns to the south and points at how large sections of the neighbouring Malå territory have been scarred by forest clearance; he almost sounds derisive.
Lunch is called and the herd is halted on the ice and allowed to rest while everybody adjourns to the side of the river. Tomme chops wood from an old tree stump; lights a small fire and in two flicks of a reindeer’s tail, rustles up a meal of fried potato and reindeer meat for Matt and me before doing the same for his family.
The scene along the bank of the frozen river – of the Sami families cooking on open fires while the herd rest nearby may just as well have been set a thousand years ago. The people sit and quietly contemplate the route ahead, while their children fidget and play, and the dogs watch the reindeer. Only the skidoos and the modern clothes betray the era as current day but, for now, the skidoos are silent and the peacefulness of the river reaches our ears: The sparrows twittering in the trees behind us, the distant call of a whooper swan, flying low across the skyline; a solitary reindeer bell, and the strident call of a carrion crow deep in the forest.
Time creeps by slowly and the urgency has all but vanished. The dogs are sleeping and the reindeer are waiting… It’s time to go.
News reaches us that a large section of river has melted, less than a mile ahead, so the route has to be revised.
The noise and urgency returns as the skidoos are started and the herd are driven to a narrow, frozen tributary a few hundred meters upstream. A high bank is no obstacle and soon we are pushing the herd along a snow-covered trail parallel to the free-flowing water down to our left hand side.
The trail we are on leads all the way to a junction with the B365, which runs between Glommersträsk to the north and Lycksele to the south. A corral on the opposite side of the road marks the end of today’s trek as the animals are secured for another night.
The day begins with a push through the forest to a frozen lake about 1 km away. A hydroelectric dam stands at the southeast end. The herd take little over half an hour to reach the steep slope on the outside of the dam and, with a brief faltering of hooves, the animals negotiate the short climb and drop over the inside wall onto the icy surface. As soon as the full herd are on the lake and trotting along close to the northern bank, Tomme splits from the group and comes over to us.
“We will cross the line in about an hour”, he says. “We can go ahead of the animals, if you like, and wait on the boundary.” This seems like a good idea, so the three of us speed off down the lake on our skidoos, with the wind biting at our faces once again.
Above the ancient settlement of Gallejaur, on the northern bank, a long swathe has been cut through the pine forest-covered hillside. From the surface of the lake it’s possible to line yourself up with the gap in the trees and, in doing so, place yourself directly on the Mausjaur summer/winter boundary.
We can see the group, away in the distance, moving steadily, the distance closing; the purpose of the journey is in sight. It takes little more than 40 minutes before they approach the line, and as the first animals cross into the summer area, I feel a sense of accomplishment; that the concerns caused by potentially hostile SPLO’s are allayed for another season; that the reindeer are free to roam the forest and bear their young. Yet for now, however, the journey is not quite over. The herd will be driven for another day, deeper into the territory surrounding Arvidsjaur, where they will be less likely to inadvertently stray back into the winter area.
Lotta is waiting for us in her car on the narrow road that runs through the old farmstead in Gallejaur, and with a final glance at the tail-end of the herd, now receding into the distance, we turn our back on the Mausjaur group and climb into the car for the short trip to Arvidsjaur, where we’ll start our long drive back to Stockholm.
The reindeer will settle into the summer grounds and will continue to be fed on pellets for a while so they can gain in strength. The months ahead will involve calving, earmarking and the slaughter, before the whole migration process will re-occur in reverse. It’s indisputably tough work – but it’s a labour of love.
Author – Lee Ridley