Reindeer have a bit more sense of dignity than sled dogs at the prospect of pulling a sled through the snow. They do not jump up and down in place yipping excitedly at the sight of a sled, as dogs do. I’d been dogsledding the day before, across Finland’s snow-covered tundra and frozen lakes, and as the sleds were brought out the air was filled with the excited yips, barks and howls of dogs vying for a place on the team.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You can immerse yourself in winter in Rovaniemi, skiing, sliding, dog-sledding, even sleeping in a snow igloo or a unique glass igloo, where you can watch the Northern Lights dance overhead through the glass roof.
- Photographers will love the colorful Sami clothing and the white winter landscapes.
- Good for families, and safe for all ages.
Reindeer are far calmer about the whole thing, but it may not be from a sense of dignity, since they seem perfectly content to stand around in bright red harnesses decorated with bells and Sami embroidery while awaiting a sled. Call it a sense of detachment. They seem equally unconcerned as a sled is attached behind them, and at a shake of the reins they set off into the woods with a warmly bundled rider onboard. (You sit on a reindeer sled, instead of standing as you do to drive a dogsled.)
My reindeer seem unmoved, too, that the robe keeping me warm was of reindeer hide. Perhaps reindeer understand that there are some things it’s better not to think too much about.
A Leisurely Reindeer Sled Ride
I had a lot of time to think about these things as I rode – or didn’t. We’d started off into the woods at a smart enough clip, at least for a reindeer. But after a few minutes, when we were out of sight of the cheery man with the weathered face and big hat back at the camp, Blitzen (my name for him, since I can’t pronounce anything in Finnish, let alone names), noticed a tasty little tidbit of gray moss sticking through the snow and stopped.
As he munched contentedly, I remembered having seen this moss at the Arkticum, a stunning museum of the Arctic in nearby Rovaniemi, where I learned about the Sami, semi-nomadic peoples of Lapland who herd reindeer. And who invite travelers to visit their camps and take a spin of their own on a reindeer sled, as I was doing. Well, maybe not exactly a spin in my case.
From the museum I remembered this gray moss’s name: reindeer moss. As he followed this little patch off the trail and into the woods, I realized how this moss got its name. Blitzen had found his own personal honey pot, and while he savored it, I sat on the sled wondering how to say “mush” in Finnish. Or anything at all in Finnish.
Not even my most honeyed tones stirred Blitzen from his lunch, nor did my shaking the reins, as I’d been shown in my sled-driving lesson. I thought about getting off the sled and trying to lead him back onto the path, which was by now out of sight. But the thought that with me off the sled, Blitzen might suddenly blitz off and leave me standing there in the snow dissuaded me.
Finally the elf-like man in the peculiar Sami hat came looking for me and convinced Blitzen (whom I had by then renamed Dodder) to come home. The man felt so badly that he took me for a long ride on his sled, behind a reindeer who seemed to have his mind on a patch of moss much farther away. Maybe in Norway.
Inside a Sami Kota
By the time we returned to the camp, I could only assume that my face was still there, and began to understand why Santa has a nose like a cherry. I warmed up inside a kota, the tall tipi-like Sami house, sitting around the campfire in its center on reindeer skins, eating crunchy wheat toast and sizzling strips of cured meat. Both were grilled over the fire, and both were delicious.
It was a cozy camp here at the Arctic Circle, with canvas walls and a circle of rough wooden benches around the inside. These were covered with a double layer of thick-furred reindeer hides on which I sat. More reindeer skins. Perhaps an afterlife keeping people warm and as part of Sami interior décor is a reindeer’s chance at immortality. My reverie was interrupted by the Sami man, still looking elf-like in his funny hat. And still smiling as he presented me with my “Reindeer Driving License” to bring home, even though I had clearly failed the driving test.
Fly from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle. Independent travel is easy in Finland, where English is widely spoken. Finnair offers several money-saving packages that include direct flights to Helsinki from cities worldwide, as well as the flights into Lapland. Visit Rovaniemi has information on reindeer and dogsledding, and other activities.