Petri Mattus surveys “the world’s best office.”
Story and photos by Margie Goldsmith
We are honored that this article by Margie Goldsmith won a 2009 award of merit in the “Cultural, Educational, Self-Improvement” category from the North American Travel Journalists Association, the second largest travel media association in North America. Congratulations to our author!
I am clinging to the sides of a wooden sledge, like a sled only bigger, hitched to a snowmobile, speeding along a path in the snow-covered forest of Lapland. This cultural area, which includes the northernmost part of Norway, Russia, and Finland, is where the Lapps or Sami live, and that’s why I’ve come, even though I’ve joked to my friends that I’m here to visit Santa Claus!
The author enjoys her day at Petri’s office.
As we race through the forest, Petri Mattus, the 36-year-old Sami reindeer herder driving the snowmobile, glances back to make sure I’m okay. I give him the thumbs up sign. How can I not be okay in this winter wonderland, a sun-dappled forest of birch and fir trees with snow drifts the size of igloos? It’s 12 degrees Fahrenheit, not unusual here, 230 miles/370 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle; but I’m not cold in my warm boots and multiple layers, plus the insulated snowsuit Petri has loaned me. He slows down to point out tracks in the snow and yells “Fox” above the roar of the motor.
We drive at least ten miles in the forest, then stop in a clearing. We’ve arrived. He shuts down the engine as I gaze out at unending snow-blanketed land glistening in the sunlight. Except for Petri’s reindeer boots crunching in the snow, it is absolutely silent. His boots, made by his aunt, are both waterproof and warm because reindeer hair is hollow, an excellent insulator. The toes of the boot curl over so skis can be attached, though with the snowmobile, he doesn’t need to ski. He wears a sealskin cap with flaps, windpants and jacket, and a yellow plastic lasso slung over his chest like a bandolier.
Traditional reindeer skin boots are warm and waterproof.
Petri is one of 8,000 indigenous Sami Lapps living in Finland and one of only 700 Sami reindeer herders. However, the only way you’d know he’s a Sami is by the braided and colorful belt he wears on the outside of his clothes, part of the Sami costume. His belt also holds two sheathed knives. In Finland, both men and women carry a knife not as a weapon, but as a tool.
Petri unloads a huge round bale of hay from the back of the sledge and spreads it on the snow. Reindeer eat mushrooms and lichen, but neither is sufficiently available in winter, so he drives his snowmobile out here with hay three times a week. “Oyyyyyaiiii—-oyyyyy—aiii,” he yells. After a few minutes, I hear what at first sounds like rain pattering on a canvas tent, then more like a clicking sound as about ten reindeer appear in the distance. Apparently, reindeer have two extra bones in their foot that click so that they can hear each other in the dark and know it’s not a predator. Petri calls out again and I see more reindeer moving in our direction. I’d like to ask him how many reindeer he owns, but that’s considered rude, like asking how much money he has in the bank.
Petri’s father, also a reindeer herder, used to come out here on skis before the snowmobile arrived in the late 1960s. He preferred herding before the snowmobile, when it was absolutely quiet. His father also loved sleeping in a teepee in the forest, staring up at the Northern Lights. At 69 years old, ten years ago, he sold Petri the herd, though he still helps out during calving season while they sleep out in the teepee. If there are predators around, Petri also stays overnight in the teepee. The predators, mainly wolverines, kill reindeer by biting them in the neck and, according to Petri, can take down a half-dozen on a single hunt. Unfortunately, he says, he can’t kill the wolverines because they’re protected.
I count more than 100 reindeer as they arrive to eat the hay. Petri has taken his ax to split a log into kindling wood. One stick he whittles it into a fleurette with his knife, then strikes a match. A small orange flame leaps into the sky as the fire ignites in the snow.
“Wow!” I say, “You made a one match fire without even using newspaper!”
Petri Mattus represents a new generation of reindeer herders, one of only 700 remaining in Finland’s north.
“Sometimes you only have one match,” he grins. He takes fresh reindeer meat from a bag, slices it into pieces, and throws it into a cast iron skillet on the fire. Even though I’ve eaten reindeer for the past three nights I’ve been in Lapland, this particular meat is the sweetest, most succulent of all, somewhere between tenderloin and lamb. Petri pokes a branch into the snow and hangs a black coffee pot over the fire. “This is my office,” he smiles and gestures broadly. “It is the world’s best office.”
Camp-cooked meals invariably include reindeer meat, tasting somewhere between beef tenderloin and lamb. Petri first learned to herd reindeer at age 10, when his father allowed him to come to the forest and help. Petri says he’s never considered doing anything else except herd, so it’s not surprising that one of his first words was kelka (snowmobile). He’s in a reindeer cooperative with 20 other families who share about 1,000 square miles of government land. His wife, Kirsen, works at the local Sami Museum about a half hour away from their home, and they have a two-year old son, Pierto.
What Petri loves most about herding is seeing the calves right after they’re born. First they find their mother’s milk then, after a few hours, they learn to walk. “After the first day they can run so fast, you can’t keep up with them,” he says.
“How can they run so quickly, so soon?” I ask.
“It’s nature’s system or the predators would get them,” he says. “The reindeer each have a special voice, and out of hundreds, a baby can recognize its mother. They call like this.” He makes a snorting sound, “OOOuuuooout ooout.”
“Do they have names?” I ask. “They’re not like pets,” he says. “They are to be slaughtered, and we use every bit. We sell the meat, and the skin is used for clothing and blankets. The heads are dog food, the hooves are boots, and the antlers are for handicrafts. We also grind the antlers into powder, and the Japanese buy it. They think of it as Viagra.” He laughs. “The truth is, it does nothing, but they give us a good price.”
The reindeer have eaten and are now napping in the snow, so Petri’s work in the forest is finished for the day. We return to his house, not unlike any small home in America, except he lives a half hour from the nearest village. I ask about the lasso he is wearing on his torso. “That’s how we round up the reindeer calves,” he says. He places a reindeer skull on the ground, coils his rope, walks back 15 feet, and throws it in a perfect arc, lassoing me. “Now you know how I caught my wife,” he laughs.
Petri demonstrates his lasso technique on a reindeer skull.
Surrounded by nothing but silent forest is this home, a barn with reindeer hides drying, and a small pen where a skittish reindeer looks at me. Petri is taming this particular reindeer for tourist sledge rides. I wonder what it would be like to live so close to nature all the time. He told me that his father won’t spend more than two days in Helsinki because it’s so noisy.
“So,” I ask, “Will your son grow up to be a reindeer herder?” “It’s difficult to say,” Petri answers. “There’s so much logging now. And because we’re so far north, it takes 300 years to grow a new forest. Look.” He pulls a piece of lichen off a tree, and holds it out to me. “If they cut down the trees, the reindeer can’t eat lichen. Then we’ll have to feed them lots more hay which costs money for gas for the snowmobile.”
“But can’t the reindeer herders object to the logging?”
“We do, but there’s much more money in it so we can’t win,” he says sadly.
That night, I am thinking about what Petri has said. I open the terrace door of my hotel room in Inari Village and stare up at the night sky. Northern Lights are dancing like a giant green apparition, awe-inspiring across the entire expanse of sky.
Maybe the trees will be cut eventually, but no one can touch the Northern Lights.
The natural food of reindeer is lichen that grows on trees, now much less abundant due to increased logging.
Lapland Tourism, www.laplandfinland.com; Finland Tourism, www.visitfinland.com.
Lapland Activities for Visitors: To visit a reindeer farm, take a wilderness reindeer safari, or participate in other activities such as husky safaris and ice fishing, see www.saariselka.fi/inarievent.
Where to Stay in Lapland:
Tunturi Hotel: close to wilderness trails, cross country and ski trails;
Kakslauttanen Igloo Village: choose from hotel rooms, ice hotel rooms and heated glass igloos. This has one of the largest smoke saunas in Finland.
Hotel Inarin Kultahovi: an ideal place to watch the Northern Lights from your terrace or down by the river.
Read other Travel with a Challenge feature articles by Margie Goldsmith:
Patagonia’s national parks by Foot and Horseback
Exploring French Polynesia by Freighter
Finding Common Ground in the Middle East
Hiking the Hills Beyond Petra, Jordan
Horseback Riding Holiday in Tuscany, Italy.
With ski holidays, santa holidays and many more options, Inghams offers different types of great holidays to Lapland.
Margie Goldsmith is a NYC-based writer who has visited over 115 countries on 6 continents. She is a contributing writer to Elite Traveler, Art & Antiques, Women’s Running and healinglifestyles.com. She also writes for Parade, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, MORE, Robb Report, and the Washington Post, among others. Berkeley Press published her novel, Screw Up, and her essays appear in Travelers Tales, In Search of Adventure, and National Geographic’s Sacred Places. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.