Finland in winter is harsh, but man and animals live side by side, existing as they have done for centuries. The Siberian huskies are descended from sled dogs, one of the oldest breeds of dogs.
Driving through the snow laden landscape away from Posio and into the Riisitunturi National Park, the warm orange glow of the short morning above the arctic circle warmed the landscape. The trees were heavy with fresh snow. Bending under the weight of the hoar frost coating the boughs in crisp icing sugar. Arriving in the clearing, the energy of the dogs was palpable. Their busy ‘chatter’ filling the woodland, echoing around the trees. Those not working were there to welcome us to their woodland.
Nerves started to build as instructions were given for driving. These six dogs were all mine. If I failed to get my foot on the brake or corner accurately we would be gone onto the fells dragged behind a team of enthusiastic dogs. My boys were wrapped in reindeer skins and snuggled deep inside the sledge. Thankfully unable to see my nervous concentration they were ready for a massive adventure. Slowly we headed away. Hesitating to take my foot off the brake I could feel the power of this team, straining and ready to explode through the forest.
I was too terrified to think about the stunning landscape. We were heading upwards out onto the open fell. The dense woodland thinning. The only noise, the scooping of snow as the dogs rehydrated themselves and the metal runners sliding over the compacted snow of the frozen trail. All the noise from before our departure was gone, they were happy, doing what they wanted to do.
Eventually we stopped. I had thankfully caught up with the lead dogs. My eyelashes were frozen and my cheeks were burning but snuggled deep in the sledge the boys were loving every minute of the adventure. A brief pause to allow the dogs to rest and for me to gather my nerves that had been scattered along the track and then we headed off again. Heading further onto the frozen fell the midday light was changing constantly. Oranges turned to pinks and the blue in the north became intense. Downhill into the woodland, the track followed the tree line. The woodland becoming dense again as we headed back to the camp. Branches heavy with snow hanging over the track were knocked as cornering became less accurate. A game of snow roulette, who was going to get a face full of snow as it fell.
Finally our camp came into view. The smoke from the fire spiralling up from the top of the teepee. Warm glögi provided a much needed warmth from within after time in the frozen landscape. Happy boys who rated my skills below par, buzzing with excitement were extracted from their nest.
In contrast our visit to the reindeer farm was peaceful and these gentle creatures were the complete opposite to the over excited huskies. Palosaari Reindeer Farm is family run and is between Ruka and Kuusamo. The reindeer are farmed for their meat and skins although a small number are kept for racing and chores around the farm. The antlers from both male and female reindeer are used for tools and decorations. The farm was beautiful with a red sky and a peaceful setting.
Reindeer driving is a totally different experience to the madness of the dogs. Slow and steady the reindeer plodded along. Taking in the view, stopping for a snack on some lichen that had been dropped and making their way along the tracks in their own sweet ways.
It was hard to think that these docile creatures were actually farmed. Their meat, skins and antlers are all useful to the Sami people with everything including soap being made. Beautiful carved tools, warm rugs and delicious sausages cooked over an open fire were explained. It was an interesting adventure into a whole different way of life.
Reindeer calve in May and the calves are slaughtered in October in a similar way to lambs at just 5months old. Heading into the paddock the reindeer were keen for lichen. Hand feeding this little delicacy was a hazardous occupation. Antlers were enthusiastically nudging towards small boy eyes, still attached to the oblivious reindeer it was a game of duck and dodge.
These reindeer were obviously loved by the farmers. Their care is their livelihood and despite the temperatures it was clear to see the relationship between these gentle creatures and their owners.