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Finnmark 2007 Diary » week 4

Archive for the ‘week 4’ Category

An uncertain future…

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

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Temperature minus 8º and dropping, wet weather in store although a beautiful day and less wind. Yesterday was a hard day - 55 kms from Lyngen Fjord to Rostujärvi Lake. The weather forecast was bad, and Tom Frode considered returning, but once we’d climbed and sweated into the fields, there was no going back, too much time wasting. The strong vicious north-easterly wind turned the Vidda into a raging sea. The dogs carried on bravely, their speed much reduced, their bodies caked with wind driven snow turning to ice, our faces were not much better.

We got into the lake fishing camp after 9pm having put the dogs out and fed them. At 10pm Olaf Idivuorna came in to see us. Olaf is a Reindeer Herder, who also runs this fishing camp until the spring when he returns to his herd. His winter pastures for the reindeer are in Sweden, and his summer ones in Norway. There’s competition from Norwegian herders so there is trouble and strife, of course. It’s not easy making a living as a herder, you have to love it. Olaf’s wife works in a shop, and he takes this job at the Sámi fishing camp when he can leave the herd to free range. “If you live from herding only, you have 700-800 reindeer minimum,” he says, “and the kids, they help me now and again on their bikes riding herd, particularly in the spring calving time when they have to protect against predators, but I don’t know for the future,” he told me with some sadness.

Norway’’s greatest war hero

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

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We’’re continually delighted by the hospitality, openness and sheer friendliness shown to us by people here in the small coastal communities of North Troms. On Palm Sunday, in Furuflaten, we were welcomed by one of Tom-Frode and his wife Liz’’s closest friends Wiktor Sørensen, the Chief Executive of Norut in Tromso. During the course of three hours, conversation ranged from climate change to oceanography to fishing stocks. Then, at one point, some other friends, Bjarne Dalhaug and his wife, called by. Bjarne, now retired as headmaster of a local boarding school, will take up a position as director of a small museum devoted to the memory of Jan Baalsrud. He and his wife were personal friends of the Baalsrud family. Many people with a knowledge of Norway’’s heroic resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II will be familiar with this name – as was Adam, whose father Malcolm Munthe was something of a war hero in these parts himself, and who considered the Norwegians to be the bravest people he had ever met. Yet the name meant nothing to me (Euan) and in case there are others who may be unaware of Jan Baalsrud and who never saw the film ‘Nine Lives’ based on his exploits, or read David Howarth’s book about him, ‘We Die Alone’, it may be useful to give a brief summary of his wartime career.

In March 1943, aged 26, Baalsrud and some other Norwegian commandos packed a fishing vessel with eight tons of explosives and sailed into the Toftefjord. Their aim was to destroy the German air control tower at Badefost and thereby help liberate Norway from Nazi occupation. They were betrayed, however, and their boat was hit by a German ship. Baalsrud and his companions scuttled their boat and swam ashore through Arctic waters. Some of them were shot, two others were taken to Tromso and later tortured to death, and only Jan Baalsrud escaped. For several months he wandered the high tundra of Finnmark and North Troms, managing to avoid German search parties, who had put a high price on his head, all thanks to the bravery of some sixty local families who risked their own lives hiding and helping him survive. Finally, two Sámi brothers, the Baals, both reindeer herders, smuggled him over the Swedish frontier, though not before he had been forced to amputate his big toe because of gangrene. He spent several months in a hospital in Sweden before eventually making his way back to Britain to continue the struggle. Baalsrud received Norway’s highest military honours after the war and became a national hero. He died in Tenerife in 1989. Every year his memory is preserved by the local people here in North Troms who set out in July on a nine-day walk following the route of his evasion. In 2011 certain details about Baalsrud are due to be made public for the first time. Many wonder about the reasons for this secrecy and why there should be anything to hide.

Bjarne Dalhaug also mentioned some other brave Norwegians who performed other heroic deeds working for the resistance. One, for instance, by the name of Ovesen, made no less than forty-nine crossings through the heavily guarded North Sea from Western Norway to the Shetlands in small boats, transporting resistance fighters who subsequently worked for the Allied cause. I wonder, but have no means of checking at present, whether this was not the subject of another book by David Howarth, ‘The Shetland Bus’…

Today we aim for the border with Sweden, with our new Sámi interpreter and guide, Marja. She and her family live and herd a little North of Kiruna, and thanks to her efficiency we have a number of meetings scheduled in the mountains. We said farewell to Ellen-Anne yesterday before she returned to her herds in Kautokeino. A tear or two were shed! The weather reports are severe. There’’s a strong North Easterly blowing and heavy snow falls. Luckily, at least to start with, the wind should be coming mostly from our backs, but we’’re likely to be out of contact range for the next days. This means that when we’re not exhausted the reports will be coming in over satellite phone!

The sacred Sámi stone

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

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The sacred Sami stone, the size of a small cathedral, set in a drifting snow-steeped valley swept round a lake of icy curves, blue as bounty, where the fish are best! This giant stone’s nooks and crannies were filled with small offerings given to the gods - a fly fishing hook, coins, small tools, a set of reindeer antlers, batteries! Tom Frode’s friend had borrowed the antlers as a dare some years before. He’d been hounded by misfortune thereafter until an old Sami woman accosted him one evening in a bar, and told him to return them. He left his friends, and hurried off, returned the antlers in a snow storm, and later found his friends to explain. No-one else had seen the old woman dressed in an out-of-date costume.

The sacred Sámi stone


A fishing hook in the stone








Healers and seers

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

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Latitude: 69 degrees,06 58 N
Longitude: 20 degrees,06 01 E
Temperature: -8
Time: 9am
Date: 30th March 2007

The journey proceeds, meetings continue with these hard-working, joyful spit-in-the-palms-and knuckle-down people who find no contradiction in being semi-nomadic farming workers since ten thousand years ( ie not prone to hasty working decisions) AND deeply imbued with a motivating sense of their their own culture, qualities, and potential. Of course they can also be drunkards, hooligans, and as mediocre as the rest of us, but luck brings luck and we seem to be meeting the young and the best.

They make us laugh and wonder, as they do themselves. It’s good, for example, to meet healers, weathermen, soothsayers, finders, and seers with a strong sense of the comic, solid practicality, and simple humility at the powers that they’ve been given to use - without payment. From all over Finnmark, from Oslo, Stockholm, to places such as Tokyo and Washington their patients call them. We’ve met a couple of these modern community workers, or magicians, recently…or Shamen, or Noiade (in Sami) - a young man and an old woman.

The first we bumped into in a cabin on the mountainside by Dittnujauri close to the Finnish border. A short inoffensive looking fellow of 32 in specs with thinning hair and a slight facial tick. His friend told us that he should have been organising the plumbing at his new house, but that he’d gone skiving into the hills for a bit of fishing.

Nils Ainar Samulsen is a third generation healer,working closely in the context of the Laestedian Christian brethren. He asked us thoughtful questions about our journey, beaming short-sightedly at our answers and enthusiasm, and commenting with generosity and openness to opinions different from his own. He still trains with the army as part of their Fast Reaction Emergency Force. Apparently the bigger guys in his squad thought he offered a butt for some good laughs. They challenged him to a run across the mountains with extra heavy packs. Good-naturedly he accepted, and over the fifty kilometres of the course ran them into the ground and off their feet. He’d spent his life in the hills, working with his sheep, and travelling on foot among the villages, as his father and grandfather had done before him, to help people with his healing, with some plumbing on the side! He works face to face when he can, but otherwise long distance, and is considered a leader even by those who are not of his persuasion or religious convictions.

The second healer we met was an old woman of 76. Small, round, silver-haired, in a Norwegian cardigan with silver buttons, and black skirt shiny with age, she invited us into her cabin on the edge of the majestic Lyngen Fjord. Borkhill Robertsen, of the mild, unlined countenance, is a sea Sami, but comes from that generation that was so abused in the processes of Norwegianisation that she cannot, even today, admit to her origins. Humiliated as a child for being Sami, punished, in the boarding school she was forced to attend, for speaking her native language, she married a Norwegian, and passed on nothing of her culture to her children, except, that is, her strange talents to heal and to see… This was given, she said, as her father gave to her, at the age of 7 or 8, to whichever one of the children had come closest to death. She had been chosen, after nearly dying of meningitis. She, in her turn, had chosen her daughter earlier still, when the latter had nearly died of something like ‘Cot Death’.

Borkhill works with prayer and second sight. Her skills are used all round the world, particularly for arthritis, eczema, bleeding (internal and external), all forms of burns, as well as for general accidents. She was first asked to heal her sister at the age of 8, and thereafter a man with toothache. He frightened her so badly, that she ran out of the house and into the woods to get away. For hours she stayed away praying that his toothache would go away so that she could go home. He’d left, in fact, after a few minutes, her reputation grew fast, and what she’d feared then came to pass. Her work as a healer took over her life.

But one thing she’d deeply regretted, she told us, was that people could not hear her prophesies. She’d predicted a landslide in her neighbourhood, had asked her husband and another friend to tell the nine people, whose houses and lives would be involved, but none had listened and all died. To us this sounded biblical. On another occasion she’d seen aircraft, pouring bombs out of the sky, and seven and a half moons glinting. This before the first Iraqi war. She’d dreamt helplessly of the floods in Bangladesh, of local and international incidents. On climate change she had more success apparently, as people listened when she spoke of the sun burning more warmly. “But the warmth also comes from the earth,” she informed us, and together with the sun’s will grow.”

Why is it that sophisticated societies like ours no longer appear to have space for such people? And paradoxes are surely good for the brain…

Here we’ve met with Sea Sami folk living around the Lyngen Alps, in one of the most spectacularly beautiful parts of Norway. Tommorrow we leave for the last leg of our journey, first back with the dogs into the mountains, and then down into Sweden and across towards Narvik and the Atlantic. There are some difficulties between reindeer herders on either side of the border, because of encroaching and overused herding lands, and we hope to meet some of those involved, as well as local climate experts on the region.

In the high tundra

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

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Thursday, 29th March from Somajauri to Dittnulahku, the longest day we’ve had on this expedition climbing up the two peaks, one of 1020 metres and the next one 1050 metres. Last night we met a Sámi healer, and we hope to meet him for an interview in the next few days. Yesterday we just escaped the Finnish police when we rushed with the dogs to the sacred Sámi stone. The police could have impounded the dogs and us but we managed to cross the border before their three snowmobiles caught us up. Tomorrow we are hoping also to meet with some Finnish Sámi herders. These days in the high tundra, out of touch, out of reach, entirely operating on our own resources have been extraordinarily special.


Euan (journalist), Tom-Frode (guide), and Ellen-Anne (Sámi interpreter and reindeer-herder) recovering after escaping from the Finnish border patrol.

The snowflake lady

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

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Jovial and forthright in her views, Inge Maria Gaup Eira must be one of the world’s foremost authorities on snowflakes. The eponymous half-Inuit heroine of Peter Hoeg’s bestselling thriller ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ may have famously solved a murder through her ability to identify different types of snowflakes, for which she claimed there were thirty-two words in the Inuit language; Inge Maria Eira, however, thinks she might make an even better Sami detective, for in four years’ time, when she will have completed her doctorate at Tromso University, she hopes to have mastered (and published) the definitions of as many as 300 different single words which the Sami reindeer-herders have used over the centuries to distinguish the numerous different characteristics and consistencies of snow.

Thus, for example, the Sami word ‘cearga’ describes a hard snow that is not good for reindeer; ‘ceavvi’ is snow that is in the process of warming; ‘cuognes’ is snow that is hard and freezing, etc… ‘With knowledge of these words, people can learn how reindeer-herders were and are thinking,’ Inge Maria says. She is very much dependent in her research on the wisdom and memory of her uncle, Anders Eira, who will be ninety in September and who still tends his own herd of reindeer. To give us a practical illustration of her work,on a bright spring-like morning, the two of them went out onto their land and dug a four-foot hole in the snow down to the grass beneath. Though plentiful and very deep, the soft, powdery quality of that day’s snow was judged to be excellent for reindeer, who would have had little difficulty in delving beneath for lichen or grass with their hooves.

Inge Maria is also helped in her documentation by six other reindeer herders in Western Finnmark who keep records for her of the types and characteristics of new snowfalls, as well as data of climate. ‘My aim,’ she says, ‘is to combine the traditional knowledge that men such as my uncle have with modern meteorological science.’ She, like us on the Finnmark 2007 expedition, is also involved in collecting data for the international snowflake project on behalf of NASA.



Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

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Latitude 69º 17 minutes 48 north
Longtitude 21º 30 minutes 13 seconds east
Temperature -455

A long day in brilliant sunshine moving through Ellen-Anne Siri’s family pasturelands, and we’ve now reached the eastern end of their reindeer summer pastures. We’ve climbed to 800 metres with the dogs, passing Finland’s highest mountain on the way, and have been very lucky to avoid snowstorms, whiteouts, and violent winds because this is a fairly desolate area in winter, but today its been like spring.

We’ve also visited their Seidigeathgi, the sacred Sámi stone, where offerings of money, reindeer antlers and other useful and precious things for the Sámi are still left, and tonight we spend on the mountain huts out here.

Traditional versus scientific knowledge

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

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Johan Mathis Turi and Svein Mathiesen are two very different human beings; the first a reindeer herder from the long tradition of Flyt Sámi, and now Secretary General of the World Reindeer Herders Association, and the second, a Norwegian Biologist and presently head of the EALÁT (a Reindeer Herders Vulnerability Network Study), explain themselves, and how it seemed the ‘scientists’ had not been listening. And then – this is somewhat of an over-simplification of course – the Sámi herders said, let’s change practice. If you wish to learn a little of what we know, come to our laboratory, come and freeze with us in winter, walk, and ride, and sled with us when we follow the reindeer from the winter pastures to the sea., when we spend sleepless nights riding round our herds during calving time to protect our beasts against the lynx ,eagle, wolf, wolverine or bear, or when we collect the animals for the autumn marking and slaughter. Then perhaps you will have looked and listened truly, and have learnt something. And then maybe you’ll have something to say which is useful to us…

“It’s a question of confidence-building, firstly at local levels,” says Svein, “and if you constrain reindeer herders’ flexibility and adaptability you will damage, and risk destroying both the economic base on which their livelihood rests precariously, as well as their cultural identity and survival.” Both he and Johan Mathis gave similar examples independently. The first concerned the Norwegian health laws on castration. All reindeer herding countries except Norway permit reindeer castration by the herder, but Norway insists on costly veterinary castration which means that its not done. Who cares, you might say, but as Svein points out, herds with castrated animals are less stressed, calmer, quieter. Johan Mathis Turi adds that if you don’t castrate the bucks they weaken and often die after 3 or 4 seasons due to exhaustion and poor physical condition after rutting. The second example which both men gave was in relation to government intervention. Svein expressed his frustration with government intervention by calling it post-colonial behavior “operating in a time-lag”. Johan Mathis was more confrontational.: “ the Norwegian government wants to control herding and the herders in order to diminish their authority, and independence. Other examples include the essential government control of slaughter houses, and the price of meat…

In many respects, contrary to Dr Dess’ views your diarist feels, State intentions rest on maintaining the Sámi community in a position of dependence, economic difficulty or insecurity (to push the young away from traditional livelihoods) and inferiority, while providing institutions like the Sámi Parliament which have no real power to make changes but provide excellent forums for the Sámi themselves to fight with each other. Divide and Rule in other words…

There is much more to be said on this and related issues. Other occasions will doubtless be found!

The herders:

Johan Mathis Turi


Karin Logje Siri


Per Ailo Logje - the acknowledged expert and reference point