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The great journey across the Finnmarksvidda plateau

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For the Sami people in the north, the reindeer migration marks the transition between winter and summer and is a tradition dating back centuries.

The long journey toward summer

Published: 6 April 2018

If you find yourself on the Finnmarksvidda plateau near Karasjok in late April, it is easy to believe that you have reached the end of the world.

The only thing that breaks the silence out here is a slight, northerly breeze, and a rumble underfoot as several hundred reindeer thunder down the mountainside.

Right on their heels - spread out in a horseshoe formation around the back part of the herd - are five members of the Gaup family on their respective snowmobiles. 
"Look at that," says Klemet L. Gaup and points toward a reindeer buck that is straying from the herd along with four females before it turns 45 degrees and disappears toward a nearby scrub. 

"It can happen in a second if you aren't attentive."

A centuries-old tradition

It is more than 50 years since Klemet went along on his first reindeer migration, a tradition that has been passed down in the Sami Gaup family since the early 1900s.

At a spot ninety kilometres above the northern horizon lies the herd's summer grazing area and the ultimate destination of this journey, which is where the animals will calve and fatten up for colder weather and their instinct to migrate will again guide them southward.

It is also where the family can take a long-awaited summer holiday, but first, they must endure several days of travel over the mighty Finnmarksvidda plateau through raw nature, long days and short nights. 

Klemet smiles from behind his shaggy fur collar and then punches the gas and speeds after the strays. One of spring's greatest adventures has just begun.

Annual event

The reindeer migration is an annual event in Finnmark and a time when over 100,000 reindeer follow their natural migration pattern from winter to summer pastures. 

They are accompanied by Sami herders - also known as reindeer-herding Sami - who from time immemorial have had these animals and the migration as their livelihood.

Klemet says that although their skis have long since been replaced by snowmobiles, and most herders have permanent residences throughout the year, their core values remain the same - now just as before.

"It's all about being close to nature, and preservation of our history and traditions. Reindeer herding is a way of life," he says. 

Strong family ties

On the day before the migration, there are three generations of the Gaup family gathered around the campfire on the plateau.

Grandmother Marianna Sara places thick pieces of lavvo-smoked meat over the flames while her grandchildren practice lassoing an antler stuck in the snow.

"It's all about family," says Klemet. 

"We share everything and work together on everything."

Sitting beside him is his eldest son, 23-year-old Niillas Ivar Gaup, who has taken over the operation after his father. He has also grown up with the herd.

After getting started at age one while fastened to his father's snowmobile seat, he has grown into an experienced and hardy reindeer herder as an adult. His lips are cracked after long days in the sun, and he has two deep scars across his right hand.

"You don't come home from a job like this without a few cuts and bruises," he says.

And, although the operation has officially been taken over by the eldest son, his father naturally remains a part of the annual migration.

"I can't stay away," says Klemet.

"The herd is still a fundamental part of my life."

A real adventure

The reindeer migration has long been inaccessible for most travellers, but in recent years, a few adventurous tourists have gotten the opportunity to experience this tradition first-hand

Liv Engholm of the company Turgleder and Engholm Husky Design Lodge, brings tourists along on guided tours of the mighty landscape.

She says that the reindeer migration today stands as one of the most memorable experiences that Turgleder - and Finnmark - have to offer.

"It is a real adventure for truly adventurous people," she says.

Liv says that people come from all over the world to be part of the migration, but it is always wise to have realistic expectations.

Adverse weather conditions, the consistency of the snow layers, or other reindeer owners on the move, can strand the herd for days. This makes it essential for Turgleder to have other options available. 

"We are constantly in contact with five to six families. Reindeer migration will always be an unpredictable undertaking, but this also increases the likelihood of our finding someone who can receive us," she says.

"The Real Deal"

Liv Engholm of Turgleder says that when the tourists are not along on the migration itself, they spend time together with the host family, listen to stories, learn about Sami culture, feed the animals, help out in the camp, and live the lifestyle.
"The experience is not contrived or luxurious," she stresses.
"This is 'the real deal'. Here, you live like a herder, eat like a herder and sleep like a herder. None of what you are doing exists to please tourists."

For the travellers, this experience provides a rare glimpse into one of Europe's oldest living cultures. For the reindeer-herding Sami, tourism provides them with a welcome side income, not to mention the opportunity to share ancient traditions with the outside world.

 And the demand just keeps on growing: National Geographic Travel designated the reindeer migration in the north as one of 50 "Tours of a Lifetime" in 2014, which was shortly after that followed up by Rough Guide's "Top 20 Animal Encounters".

Long working hours

During the night, the temperature drops and the fire in the lavvo burns down to a glowing ember pile. In the distance, the sound of snowmobiles on the mountain can be heard.

Tomorrow is the first full day of the migration, and the family keeps a constant and watchful eye on the herd, which can be spread across several kilometres.
"Sometimes we go up to 24 hours or more without sleep," says the youngest son, 18-year-old Jovnna Issat Gaup, as he hits the sack with a yawn after the night's feeding session.

"But, you get used to it eventually."

After a quick breakfast and getting the sleigh packed, the reindeer and the family are moving at full speed across the plateau.

The snow is firm enough for the reindeer to get a grip, the sun is out in a cloudless sky, and there is not so much as a breeze to rustle the bare birch trees. 

"If it stays like this, we will cross the Karasjok river before the day is over," says Niillas satisfied.

Sorting in "the mill"

Before crossing the river, on the other hand, the herd must go into "the mill".
"It's not as bad as it sounds," laughs Niillas. 

Because of the vast land areas, it is common for animals from different herds to become mixed in with each other over the course of winter. Niillas estimates that between 20 and 30 of the animals that are now grouped together with the Gaup Family's herd actually belong to other reindeer owners in the area.

The "mill" consists of a series of interconnected enclosures, which become smaller and smaller in size, and which end in a circular sluice.

Here, 30 animals at a time are allowed into an area where representatives from different families are gathered together to single out and pull out animals from their respective herds.

Today, around 20 people showed up, and in mere minutes the whole area smells of reindeer fur and boiling coffee. 

"This also provides the families a chance to greet each other," says Niillas. 

"Reindeer herding can be a lonely profession. It is important that we spend some time with each other once we have the opportunity."

The smell of summer

The reindeer enter the mill 30 at a time and are confidently pulled out by their owners and sorted by ear markings: A unique signature consisting of notches and curved sections that are cut into the ear on each animal with a knife.

Klemet explains that some of the reindeer have not been ear-marked after their birth, and this must be done before the journey continues.

While her father holds the reindeer's head still, youngest daughter Sunna Marja Gaup kneels in the snow and cuts a notch in the calf's ear with steady movements.

A couple of strips of blood and fur are left in the snow when the animal is released, staggers back on its feet and returns dazed back toward the enclosure.

When it is all over, the animals appear restless and are obviously ready to move on across the Karasjok river and further along toward the summer pasture.
"They can almost smell it now," says Klemet and smiles. 

"You can sense it in the general mood. Spring has arrived. We're on our way now."

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