Hiking with the reindeer

Hiking with the reindeer

Five-year-old Hanna had only one wish for her birthday,” said Helena, my local Swedish host, “to see a reindeer.” Ever since the little Norwegian girl made a trip to Renbiten in northern Dalarna region of Sweden, she has been returning every year without fail to celebrate her birthday with her favourite friend. She is so fond of the four-legged furry friend with antlers that when she was asked to write an essay in school about her best friend, she wrote a letter to Helena’s reindeer.

Hana is not the only one who is smitten by the Arctic deer. Even grown-ups can’t escape the charm of hiking with a reindeer. I visited central Sweden at STF Grövelsjöns mountain station, ready to live in the shoes of Sámis with Helena and Peter, who run the company Renbiten. “Ren” is the Swedish word for reindeer, and is run by this Sami family. A day before the hike at dinnertime, Helena and Peter acquainted the group, congregated from around the world, with the region. Dalarna lies along the borderlands between Sweden and Norway and has a large nature reserve where the reindeer still graze and reindeer herding is part of everyday life of Sámis — indigenous residents of Sápmi, a region encompassing parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Their language, handicraft, traditional clothing, and music, are distinctively different from other ethnic groups in Scandinavia.

At around 8.30 am, well-equipped in multiple layers with a backpack, we assembled to hike the Dalarna mountains. Peter pointed at the map and warned us about the 10-15 km route being wet, cold and muddy. But, the real payoff was the awe-inspiring countryside that showcased the ancient Sami lifestyle. 

While the group carefully listened to Peter, my eyes wandered off to spot a reindeer playing in the lawn. Noticing me, Peter assured, “Don’t worry. You’ll be hiking with that reindeer today.” Before Peter could complete his sentence, I volunteered to walk Santa’s sleigh rider. Lovis, the reindeer I was leading, was stopping every few metres for lichen and kept pulling the leash I was holding. But once we had walked for an hour on the trail, Lovis calmed down.

“Time for ‘Fika’,” suggested Peter, as we reached an area overlooking a giant lake on the lower side and towering barren mountains on the upper hand. Fika is a Swedish word for a coffee break that’s more about socialising than drinking coffee. As everyone gathered, Peter, a soft-spoken man with a wry sense of humour, started sharing details about his life. He runs Renbiten, an adventure and culture tourism company, which was started as a way of preserving and sharing traditional Sami culture. His attire reflected the man, a blend of traditional and modern. From his belt hung two knives and wooden cup — Sami symbols, but also very practical. He used his knife to share the dried, smoked reindeer meat and cup to drink water from the nearby stream.

He then opened the door of the Kåta, a Sámi hut, where his father lived with 10 family members while herding reindeer. It is hard to imagine how so many people fit into a shed smaller than 10 x 10 feet. After our ‘Fika’ break, we tramped forward, stripping off layers. At first, the trail was smooth and flat, but as we started gaining height, it became steep and strenuous. Even the landscape transformed from lush green forest full of shady glades and turquoise blue lakes to tundra-barren land of stones and mossy outgrowths. 

Once we reached the summit, Peter pointed at a calf marking area where young calves are marked in batches of 500, four to six times a year, mainly in June and September. As per Swedish law, Sámis must mark their reindeer. Taking another Fika break under the grey and blue sky veiled by the torn curtains of fluffy clouds, we learnt how to read nature and find tracks from historical activities like hunting pit systems, old Sámi settlements, and reindeer grazing.

As the dark clouds started gathering overhead, Peter signalled us to start walking to our destination — Tipi campsite. That small conical tent with a fireplace in the middle became our dining hall, living room and general meeting area. Thankfully, the heavy showers didn’t derail our outdoor cooking plans. Under the guidance of Helena, we prepared Pyttipanna (Swedish mixed food) for dinner. First, a few of us foraged wild berries (lingon, cloud and blueberries), and lichen from the garden while the others prepared Gáhkko, a traditional Sami bread, for the entrée. Once we gathered enough ingredients, everything, along with the reindeer meat, veggies, cream and cheese, was thrown into the pan to prepare Pyttipanna that is as delicious as is fun to make.

After dinner, as the full moon hugged the whole valley in its white glow and a bonfire warmed us, Peter hypnotised us with his haunting yoiking (a traditional form of Sámi song). Yoiking is said to be the oldest musical form in Europe. We called it a day, by sleeping in a Tipi on reindeer fur in a sleeping bag. Throughout the night, the rain drummed on the Tipi walls while we were snug inside.

The next morning brought a light wind, which had partially dispersed the clouds and the sun was out too. In the sunshine, the mountains on both the sides — Norwegian and Swedish — looked magnificent, and I forgot about the sleepless night, thunderous rain showers, the wet feet and the long walk. Like 10-year-old Hanna, I too wish to return soon to hike with the reindeer.

- When to go: Summers (May-Sept) is a good time for hiking, rafting and biking. Winters are great for snowmobile rides, skiing, snowshoeing, horseback riding, husky-sledging, fishing and ice skating on frozen lakes, and from November and March, to see the Northern lights.
- How to plan: Self-guided trips are common, but it’s advised to trek with a local guide as they know the inside-out of the region. From several days’ hike to just a Sami-style dinner at a Tipi, local companies like Renbiten can handle anything for any size — solo travellers to a group as big as a few hundreds.
- Accommodation: From campsites to country cabins, Sweden has abundant campsites, cottages, B&B, guest houses and hostels.

(A travel writer and public speaker, Archana Singh shares her travel experiences on www.travelseewrite.com)

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