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Finnmark 2007 Diary » week 3

Archive for the ‘week 3’ Category

Meetings in Karasjok and Kautokeino Districts

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

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More than any other region in Norway, these two districts have been renowned as “traditional reindeer-herding” sites.

Climate change: Most of the herders we have met situate the climate shift within the last 10 years, but understandably they tend to be more concerned with weather than climate change. I.e. the event rather than the pattern as it refers directly to their livelihood… Thus they perceive the essential changes as providing for a rainy January, later winters and early springs, with more snow, warmer winter and spring temperatures. This shift has a significant impact, especially on the spring migration to calving grounds and summer pastures that in the traditional Sami calendar has taken place in mid-to-late April. Nowadays herds start migrating as early as March 20. This is because of early snow melting and ice flow: for reindeer need frozen rivers and lakes, and calves need hard snow in order to reach the summer pastures which are usually on the sea coast some 200 km North of the winter areas. Migration usually starts when daily temperatures go over +10 degrees Celsius, and night temperatures over -10 Celsius. Still, most herders confirm that 2006 has been a “normal” or “rather good” year for the herds as there was little ice on the pastures and temperatures were not very low. This seems to be the optimal combination -: mild temperatures with no rain (and consequently no icing). Herder’s problems with global warming do not concern the temperature rise but the nature and dynamics of precipitation in the autumn-winter season.: Most problems seem to start with rain in January followed by cold weather which then guarantees: ice! As one of the herders put it; the snow-covered winter pasture is like a “fridge”. Reindeer can easily “open” the “fridge door” by digging through the snow to the lichen, but they cannot cannot go through ice: a frozen pasture is like a “locked fridge”.

Social drivers of change: Herders’ perception of “change” looks even more at government policies on agriculture and on environment. For example, the dramatic increase of some reindeer predators such as the lynx is attributed to the recent government strategy on wildlife protection. This particularly bothers the reindeer herders as they often perceive themselves as victims of urban-based animal-protection political lobbies. Another issue is the comparatively recent government regulations on slaughterhouses. All herders agree that it is far better to slaughter reindeer “in the corral”, close to pasture, instead of transporting them long distances in trailers to town-based big slaughterhouses. The mobile slaughterhouse appears to be the best option for them, but it is almost impossible to run a small slaughterhouse with economic profit because of excessive health requirements from the government. Actually the health rules on slaughterhouses are the same in Norway as in EU but the general feeling is that the interpretation of these rules is far more restrictive than in Sweden or Finland. For example, reindeer owners in the latter two countries are allowed to castrate male animals in order to protect their shape and weight after the autumn (copulating season) but herders in Norway are not allowed to do so! They are required to ask specialized veterinarian services which are so expensive that actually no one officially does performs animal castration (although we have heard than Ellen-Anne, our Sámi translator’s personal teeth have been used on occasion.. People in the area were accustomed to using small or mobile slaughterhouses… until the government health inspectors appeared 7 years ago.

International politics have also had significant impacts on reindeer-herding in the region. Since 1950s, the Finish-Norwegian border has been fenced against reindeer border crossings.. Previously, herds had moved to well-protected (against cold, wind, and predators) wood areas in Finland for winter grazing. But after the border-fencing, they had no choice but to stay throughout the winter in the Norwegian mostly treeless tundra and highlands areas. The only exception we saw was the Pasvik valley in the Northeast (see the first expedition days) which is a naturally protected woodland area similar to the winter pastures in Finnish Lapland and Karelia.

Cost of living, mass consumption, and technological pressure on lifestyles are other significant drivers of change. 30 years ago, herds were definitely smaller because families had less material needs. As Per Ailo Logje, one of the most respected herders in the Kautokeino area, put it “Even twenty years ago one family could live with a herd of 400 animals. Today even doubling that size won’t provide the same standard of living.”. A small house close to the winter area and good reindeer sleds for transport were quite enough material support for human happiness. Today, such material status would be unacceptable for a reindeer-herding family. Social and economic competition impose the use of powerful energy-consuming snowmobiles and four-wheel drive vehicles. Expensive gasoline, houses for both winter and summer areas (but not of similar quality it’s true), are among the basic requirements for a decent social status. Technology increases the needs, and demands for more cash. This puts pressure on herds as they have to be both bigger in size and more productive. Finally, this pressure is expressed in the pastures themselves and their plant distribution, and thus overgrazing occurs, although not one herder will refer to this. Nevertheless, all herders agree that “life is easier” today and older herders are happy to see their grandchildren developing life and work enhancing opportunities beyond the reindeer herding. Such opportunities, we noted, tend nonetheless to be taken up by the girls more than the boys on whom greater pressures are exerted to follow their fathers into herding immediately.


High on the Vidda

Monday, March 26th, 2007

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Latitude 69º, 04 minutes, 32 seconds north Longtitude 22º, 09 minutes, 02 seconds east Elevation 507 metres.

We’ve made our first destination high on the Vidda in the tundra with a stiff wind blowing. A strong north westerly wind blowing and temperatures minus 9. We’ve come from Kautokeino to Saitejauri high in the tundra. Seen herds of reindeer but otherwise its like being in the sahara only white. No trees and a viscious wind. Just been down to get some water with the sledges from the river at the bottom of the valley where we’ll hunker down for the night.

The winter corral

Monday, March 26th, 2007

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Yesterday, we were in the hills outside Kautokeino with Ellen-Anne’s extended family at a winter corral, where the herders, under Per Ailo Logje’s leadership were marking the last calves who’d been missed out at the December round-up.Š We came down from the high Tundra on the snow scooters, past the Norwegian army bunkers and listening posts, and into the Taiga to see a clearing in the forest way at our feet. “This place has been used by the families at least since 200 years,” Per Ailo told me. It was a festive occasion. Young family members had travelled the 10-15 kilometers on skis to participate. Uncles, brothers, cousins, who had nothing to do with the herding were all there to celebrate, and we were honoured to have been allowed to come. “Do you know why it’s hidden in the woods?” Ellen-Anne asked me. I shook my head. “So not everybody knows what we’re up to,” she grinned. The granddads and grandmas were also there, one on crutches even, with their pet (as opposed to working) family dogs, to enjoy the gathering in brilliant sunshine, the excitement and fun. The atmosphere was electric, the young sizing up each other to check on the other’s lassoeing talents, the older already stalking those reindeer they meant to pull down for the traditional ear marking. Each family has a special mark, and each individual in the family has his or her own variation, and the reindeer, having no sensitivity in their outer ears, feel nothing when the cut comes. They were galloping around us now, tongues out ,antlers shaking, and bucking, humping, braying, grunting as they passed us in a flying mist of snow and fur. The sound and proximity of their movement, their broad camel-like hooves crunching through the snow, their breath streaming into sparkling clouds of steam, the sweet, pungent furry smell of the beasts, filled us all with a sense of magic, a brief intense perception of the joyfulness of life…Š

Elizasbeth Ursi Gaup, an academic at the Sámi University College told me that they’d all been brought up since birth to know that “First there was God to think about, and then the reindeer, and then they themselves, the Sámi, some way after!” We stood at the edge of the whirlwind of reindeer to talk. She told me that her field was environmental studies, and that her main focus was to prepare her students to be capable of outdoor life. I thought of our inner cities, and of how little knowledge our children have of the world beyond buildings, and of how little they actually care because that place, that environment, has no reality for them. “Sometimes those who come from the South are so stiff, so uncomfortable to be in the wilderness, to sit on the ground, to stretch out on the earth, that it seems to me they have forgotten which planet they were born on.” I asked her if she believed that understanding our natural environment can help us solve the questions of our own reality. “All I know,” she said, “is that children in cities are divorced from reality, and that they need to learn again, and that being out here, and feeling well, and learning to use their eyes and ears again will make them healthy!”

Ellen-Anne called me back to try to lasso my own calf. “A nice fat one please!” she asked with a hint of mockery. “But you haven¹t managed to lasso even one of your own calves,” I said to protect myself. “Never mind,” she shrugged, so I tried. “And you even managed a fat one!” she cried after my second attempt.

Scenes from the Round-up:




Saturday, March 24th, 2007

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11.45pm Friday March 23rd
Air temperature: minus 4 degrees
Snow temperature: minus 4.5 degrees
Lat: 68 degrees,56,51 N Long: 23 degrees,05,21 E

After our arrival in Kautokeino last night, perhaps the most important centre for reindeer herders, where the Sámi Institute for Indigenous Peoples, the Reindeer Husbandry Centre, and the Sámi University College are situated. We first settled the dogs in for the next three days. Tommy, Tom Frode’’s young assistant, is preparing a team for the Norwegian Dog-Mushing Championship next week, and will borrow some of our best dogs for the three day event. They get double rations to build up their fat content , and will sleep in straw to conserve energy and warmth. We sleep in cabins, three to each, and use the stop to wash properly, to wash and dry underclothes, to catch up on mail and to prepare meetings, to eat regular warm food, and to sleep longer!

Today has been busy with interviews and get-togethers. It’s odd but not strange to find that it needs time to create confidence, so we’re permanently at variance with the film crew who want interviewees to tell you everything in five minutes We met with Ellen-Anne’’s grandmother, great aunt, and uncle, respectively Bent-Anne, Karin, and Per Ailo who is a herder, writer, and philosopher on reindeer husbandry. Thereafter we met, Johan Mathis Turi, Secretary-General of the World Reindeer Herders Association, and our ally and supporter on this expedition, as well as Svein Mathiesen, head of the Ealat Reindeer project. They both have powerful convictions and much to say, not always comfortable to Nordic and Western ears, and also about confidence building!

We’’ll attempt to précis some of their conclusions in tomorrow’s diary, when we return from taking snowmobiles into the Tundra to look at Ellen-Anne’’s father’s herds. We will be using snow mobiles because, and this is a small contemporary irony, they frighten the reindeer less than dogs…


Johan Aslak Eira, a young and gifted herder from the Karasjok region, in traditional gear on a contemporary vehicle, waiting to take us out to his herds (and, hells bells, can this machine move… until every bone in your body rattles)

An old man’s memories…

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

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Lahpoluoppal, on the the last leg to Kautokeino: Ule Henrik Gaino looks after the state fjæl huts where we stayed the night. He’’s a mere 67 years old but he’s lived and seen a lot. A wiry tentative body, strong ageless face, with the smile of a wise child about him, and gentle hands which moved and turned with his words. His father earned his living as a hunter, particularly of Ptarmigan his record year brought in over 3,000 birds– and he trained his son to be of the Vidda, not independent of it, and to watch and experience as a tracker and hunter.

Brought up in a Sámi family with no Norwegian Ule Henrik was forced to go to a boarding school at the age of 7 in Kautokeino. Here the terms lasted three months and the holidays a few days. He was not allowed to speak his own language, understood not a word of the language he was required to communicate in, but found himself chastised enough to acquire it speedily. After school, and the war years, he followed in his father’s footsteps. He snared ptarmigan for a living, as well as building and repairing fences for the Flyt (Nomadic) Same’s reindeer. His knowledge of the wild, and of the predators that lived in the Vidda brought him a reputation, and government work as a wilderness ranger. He was the man who registered all the dangerous animals living in the area, controlled their population according to government specifications, and was able to communicate with his fellow Same on the proximity of predators to their flocks.

Checking out the bear lairs in Spring was a heart-in-the-mouth exercise he told us. There was always the possibility that a female would still be there with her large cub, ‘so you had to prepare to run like hell.’ He’d also spend time canoeing on the rivers, checking on the fish stocks. And now, although he’’s retired officially, he’’s far too useful to be left in peace.

In his youth, before the road was built through his village, Ule Henrik remembers running home fast from playing in the forest because a pack of wolves had come too close. He also remembered how the Flyt Same would come to pick the lichen for winter feeding because his home area was the richest within the Kautokeino Commune for this wonderful foodstuff. Returning home at night, even with no moon (and after a few drinks) was easy because once close to the house, Ule Henrik says he would bounced through the springy lichen. Then they started using iron rakes to clear the lichen, which scraped the rocks bare so there was nothing left to grow for the next year.’ Even then, the lakes were frozen in October and the first snow fell on frozen ground. The reindeer could come into the winter pastures easily.

The road built in 1972 brought great change. More people looking for the lichen with their iron tools, and with them the warmer autumns, the later winters, the earlier springs which turned the herding upside down. ’Ule Henrik seems to have few if any prejudices, except concerning waste. He mentioned how symptomatic it was to see tourists making great gready fires in the wild, which you had to sit so far away from that you don’t get heat, while the Red Indians (as he called them) and the Same, make small fires which you sit close to and they keep you warm! His life at the heart of nature has given him joy, which seems to balance nicely with his financially demanding wife who insisted he demand a fee for talking with us, that we remove all dog shit from the snow before departing (which we habitually do without being asked), and that we pay extra for squeezing more people into the two cabins than booked. His view was that if we cleared the most visible excrement it would be enough, as her eyesight wasn’’t what it used to be… and as for the fee… he shrugged, so the film crew produced a small emolluement for their interview - worth every penny!


Notes from the sledge

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

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This report comes to you from the sledge as we mush towards Kautokeino aiming for our next overnight stop at Láhpoluoppal. This is our second day now in the wild as we mush from Karasjok towards Kautokeino. We’ve had two good days of travel - putting up the tents, suffering over a fire of birchwood, and climbing into our sleeping bags as early as 9.00pm to give us the chance of a good night’s rest, and to also save electricity. Darkness falls at around 6.15/6.30pm but we get good light in the morning from around 5.30/5.45pm.

We’ve had interesting meetings with herders in the Karasjok area who gave us a variety of views which were instructive, and showed us the flexibility and adaptability they have in their approach to their work, especially the variety of opinions there are as to how one should manage reindeer. They all, without exception, talk of changing seasons coming earlier. We will be meeting more herders in Kautokeino.

We’ve been living on NATO army rations these days out in the field which are an awful lot better than the adventure packs one tends to get, but its been somewhat like muesli soup for breakfast, vegetable soup for lunch, and fish soup for dinner, but healthy decent stuff. We are so tired, and so hungry, we’ll eat anything. Lying out the dogs on their lines, melting the snow for their food because its important they get enough liquid and don’t get dehydrated, and then put up our tents, and if we’ve got the energy make up a fire, sit round and have the dregs of the whisky we brought with us before going to bed with most of our clothes still on. As far as washing goes, in the morning we’ve just about managed to wash our teeth, and stagger towards the privacy of a nearby tree to answer nature’s call.

I think that’s all for now. We’ll soon give you a full update on our meetings with the herders. The generosity of the people here is remarkable, and they are willing to talk once they realise we are serious about understanding them. These extremely sophisticated, perhaps the most culturally vital people in the arctic, have economic advantages, and are probably the richest indigenous people in the arctic, but the fact remains their generosity to our questions, their interest in our efforts to speak to a wider public on their behalf, and their warmth and hospitability, has been deeply heart warming to us all.

The Eira family

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

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The Eira reindeer herding family from Karasjok who we had the pleasure of meeting.