The Cycle of Life // Being a Reindeer Herder in the Arctic

Today I have a special treat for you: my boyfriend Simon guest blogging about Sami reindeer herding! Many of you said that they wanted to read more about Norwegian culture in my last post and while reindeer herding isn't necessarily typically Norwegian, I'm working on it and have invited Simon to share a few things about Sami culture in the meantime.

I did an interview with him half a year ago about what it means to be Sami and he wanted to tell you more about what it means to be a reindeer herder today. Now of course, not all Sami are reindeer herders and very few still do this as their main job.

As you might know, Simon is living the city life in Tromso while his brother is doing the reindeer herding business in Nordland full-time. The whole family however gathers each summer during their vacation to help marking the newborn calves in the mountains.

Long story short, Simon's taking over:

After last time, I thought that was it. I didn't think I would write another post, but as the supportive boyfriend that I am, I wanted to help Vanessa so she doesn't stress so much about writing posts (much appreciated!). And if that means that I have to suffer through a lot of proofreading, then so be it! (juuuuust a little....)

Since a lot of you guys found it fascinating to read about the Sámi and what life as a Sámi is like last time, I thought I could write about reindeer herding, through the 4 seasons: summer, spring, autumn and winter.

Only that in the Sámi way of life, it is actually 8 seasons: spring/winter, spring, spring/summer, summer, autumn/summer, autumn, autumn/winter and winter.

During these 8 seasons, the reindeers have different needs because of the climate and their typical lifecycles.

To make this easier for you though, let's stick to four seaons and start with summer since that is coming to an end in the Arctic right now.

Summer

In the summer, we mark the baby reindeers that were born in April/May. Usually we have the marking event in July, so they are around 2 months old by then. First we have to gather all our reindeers, which can take between 3 and 6 days, depending on the weather.

Luckily we have a cabin in the mountains in the area where we gather them so we can at least sleep warmly and have the possibility to dry our clothes. We leave early in the morning and get back late in the evening. How long we are out, depends on which area we go to in order to gather them, but I have been out walking between 8 and 10 hours.

When we've gathered the herd, we have to move them to the marking area, which is a valley that creates a natural barrier, meaning that there is only one way in and one way out. In order to get there, we have to cross maybe 3 or 4 valleys. This means going up on one side and going down on another.

Do that 3 or 4 times and you’ll get an idea of how exhausting reindeer herding really is. Even though I grew up with this, I'm in really bad shape - I am always the last person. Doing this when it's sunny and really warm is no problem. Try to do this when it is raining and windy: generally just freaking cold!

Then we will build a fence to isolate the reindeer. Sometimes there is a patch of snow that we can have the reindeer on when it is really warm so they stay cool.

We then start to mark the reindeer by making small cuts in their ears (they don’t feel anything; it’s like getting a piercing in your ear). We do this in order to see who owns them. Each member of the family has its own individual mark to use on his/her reindeer.

Then they will get a plastic piece in their ears which shows their individual number which depends on the gender: even numbers for girls and odd numbers for boys (yes, we check).

Then when every calf has been marked we release them from the fence and they are free to go.

Autumn

That makes us come to autumn which is also the mating season. During this time we also mark the calves, because you cannot be sure that you got them all during the summer.

We also slaughter some reindeer for meat. Other than that, it is not that much going on. We go to the mountains to check up on them from time to time.

Winter

Then comes winter. Winter is the most stressful time for reindeer herders. It means low temperatures, snow and ice. During this time we gather the reindeers in fences so we can transport them to a peninsula at the coast, which will give them better temperatures.

At that time we also slaughter a lot of reindeer to either sell the meat or keep it for ourselves.

Sometimes during the winter, the food the reindeer can find is so bad or scarce, that we have to keep some in the fence and feed them. Those reindeer become really tame. Vanessa and I were at my hometown last Easter and we had some reindeer in the fence, so she got up close and personal with a lot of them.

Unfortunately, we cannot look after every single reindeer every minute of every day and the polar night does not help either. We only have a couple of hours of daylight each day at that time. The problem here is that the reindeer really like the taste of the salt that is spread on the roads so the cars have a better grip. This means that they will go on the roads and get hit by cars or trucks.

I remember one time when we were really unlucky, because one truck hit a whole group of reindeer.

Spring

Then comes spring - the season of rebirth. This is the time when the calves are born. During this time, the most important thing is the spring moving. That is the time when we go with the pregnant lady reindeers and take them to better grazing areas.

Fortunately for me, lady reindeers that are heavily pregnant don't go so fast, so I'm able to follow them.

During this time, the snow is melting and the rivers get really huge. One time, we had to cross a huge river and I had two dogs with me. The bigger, older and more experienced dog jumped into the river and went 5 meters downstream before she managed to get to land.

The other, smaller, younger and less experienced one, did not dare to jump in the water at all. I had to carry her over the river and the water reached the upper parts of my thigh - and I'm 185cm tall. That should give you an idea of how big the rivers can get.

Over the course of spring, the calves are born and the cycle begins again.

Big thanks to the best boyfriend in the world!

Do you have any questions about Sami culture and/or reindeer herding? Simon's happy to tell you all you'd like to know!

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