From the lofoten islands we headed further north and west to a part of Norway called Finnmark, a town in the area held the record for the coldest place in Norway, a bone chilling -51 degrees Celsius. En route we had to make an over night stop in a Swedish town called Kiruna, a mining town home to the biggest iron ore mine in the world. As we approached in the darkness we could see the lights and activity from the mine on the horizon lit up by flood lights like something from a dystopian world. It was hard to get your head round the size of it. That night we stayed in the car park of a shopping village, it wasn't the most picturesque place we had stayed but that far north in winter there were very little options. It was the coldest night we had to contend with whilst spending the night in the van, my phone had a reading of -28 however from experience the mercury usually reads a less.
From Kiruna we headed further north, across a small stretch of Finland where the crank case breather pipe on our engine froze over once again. shooting oil all over the engine bay. Luckily however we were close to a petrol station, where we filled up with oil cleaned the engine and got back on our way.
Before we knew it we had arrived in the small town of Kautokieno, a small village in the heart of the tundranous landscape. Sprawling with rolling hills and silver birch. We were eager to see what relationship we would build with this town over the coming weeks. 20km north of Kautokieno were the home of Ellen and Anders. They were to be our hosts over the next couple of weeks. We turned up and nobody was home. It got dark out before another ford transit trundled down the long drive towards the farm, we were anxious to meet the family. before long we had our own little log cabin, two fires inside roaring away warming it up from the bitter cold outside. The cabin had been empty all winter so thick frost covered both the inside and outside of the windows.
On our first night we were invited to the main house to enjoy our first taste of reindeer. Something which we would get used to during our stay. Anders was a reindeer herder, his herd were deep in the wilds of the arctic tundra. Where he would spend at least half of his time in a small log cabin tending to them and herding them when appropriate.
On our second day we got to know the family a bit more, Robin spent the day working outdoors with Anders. Clearing snow. organising the barn and starting fires. Lauren worked with the children, Anna and michael and met more friends and family members with plenty of tea and cake for good measure.
Kautokieno was home to many silversmiths. We had the oppurtunity to visit Juhls silver gallery. An amazing building set on the side of a hill home to an amazing gallery and workshops for silversmiths to perfect their art and make beautiful pieces which sit comfortably on the traditional dress of the Sami people.
The next couple of days carried on much the same. Helping out around the house and with the kids along with doing jobs outdoors. The Wednesday was Sami national day. Sami people are the indigenous people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and and Russia they have lived in the area for a Millenia and have herded reindeer for generations with strong tradition, entwined with their way of life they care for them much the same as they have for years. Colourful patterned clothing, food recipies passed down from generation to generation and a strong sense of pride for their way of life. All celebrated on the Sami national day.
The longer we stayed with the family the more we learnt and more of the Sami way of life we experienced, we were shown how to make reindeer sausages and other food using as much of the animal as possible. When living in the Arctic circle you have to use as much as you can from the surroundings, Tea made from locally summer-picked berries, soap made from left over fats from the animals, everything had a use and was kept or preserved for a reason.
Ellen had a number of reindeer skins which were in need of treatment to make them suitable for turning into clothing, mainly shoes. Firstly they would need to be scraped, taking off any excess sinews from the hide. Then treated and tanned using bark taken from the local trees. After they had been worked for a while they were then ready to be transformed into a pair of reindeer boots. Reindeer clothing was still worn by Sami reindeer herders, Simply because it is the best at keeping them warm, no other clothing comes close to that of reindeer hide. Whilst standing herding the reindeer for hours at a time in temperatures hitting -40 many of the herders will be wearing reindeer shoes insulated with a special grass grown in the area along with a sturdy pair of woollen socks, along with reindeer trousers to accompany the boots.
After a couple of weeks working with the family, we were asked by anders if we wanted to go with him to his log cabin in the tundra to help herd reindeer. It was an honour to be asked to go with him, not something Many outsiders get to experience. We packed up the backpacks, loaded them onto the back of the snowmobile and ventured off, before we ventured into the tunra we had to drive the snowmobiles up the river to the village, to collect two reindeer gifted to Ellen and Anders for their wedding, at first I wondered how we would transport the reindeer to the herd. Soon after we arrived anders was placing the reindeer onto the sled of the snowmobile, wrapped in more reindeer skin to keep them warm as they wouldn't be moving on their long journey.
The journey would take around 3 hours. Snowmobile was the only way to get to the cabin in the winter, ATV in the summer, the cabin was 60km into the tundra, through the twists and turns of the birch forests and ups and downs of the rolling hills and valleys. The fact Andres didnt get lost amazed me, with the landscape having no definitive landmarks to the normal eye he knew the route as if it was sign posted, testament to the huge amount of experience he hand in this landscape After a long cold ride I noticed what looked like a scaffold tower atop a hill in the distance, that marked the end of our jouney. I later learnt it was once used as a wind turbine to generate electricity for the cabins but it had long since fallen ill to the harsh environment.
Over the next couple of days we got an insight into life as a reindeer herder. Seeing how the herd is managed was fascinating, Using the snowmobiles to keep track of the animals. Seeing the other reindeer herders come and go, the whole atmosphere of the place was somewhat mysterious. Water was taken from a local stream using a milk urn and electricity was from a generator, fuelled using petrol hauled to the cabins in tanks on the snowmobiles
We soon had to leave the heard and head back to the family home. We left in the darkness, It was easier to see the snowmobile tracks under the light of the moon and the headlight of the snowmobile. Before long we were bombing along the Kautokieno river only a couple of km away from the family home.
The whole experience was something we won't forget. We un-packed the snowmobiles and lit the fires in the cabin and spent the night reminiscing and keeping warm.
The Next couple of the days had carried on as they were before. It was Robins birthday so we had a small birthday celebration, We wanted to leave within the coming days so we spent the remainder of our time washing our clothes and preparing the van to get back on the road. it had snowed quite heavily whilst we were at the herd. So digging the van out was also a big task.
On Monday we said our goodbyes, in Sami they don't usually say goodbyes, so it wasn't too emotional. We would be sad to leave the Ellen, Anders, Michael and especially Anna. We felt truly welcomed into their home and way of life and we will be visiting again in the coming years.
We hit the road, heading for Finland and our next adventure.