Reasons for wilderness huts 3/12: reindeer herding

Hiking in Finland
Jouni Laaksonen 23.12.2019

This series of twelve posts tells about various reasons there are behind wilderness huts in Northern Finland. The first post acts as an index to this series.

Reindeer herding is an old occupation in Lapland. The wild reindeer was an essential quarry for the hunter society before agriculture. Around 17th century the herding of semi-domestic reindeer arrived from Norway and Sweden to Finnish Lapland. Reindeer live their life in the woods and fells and bogs, but twice every year the reindeer herders collect all the reindeer to round-up sites. In the summer round-up the newborn calves are marked with the same symbol as their mothers, and in the autumn/winter round-up the reindeer are divided to those that are allowed to continue living and to those that are slaughtered to meat and money.

No, that sounds too crude. Reindeer herding is in fact a way of living. In old times the herders moved along their herds, though nowadays with motorized vehicles they usually come home each evening. Still, herding reindeer means you are very much in the wilderness, and you have to be able to cope with each situation weather, predators, vehicle failure or whatsoever brings up. In old times all parts of reindeer were fully used: meat for eating, even bones were broken and the marrow eaten, skin for teepee like ‘tents’, Lapp huts. Clothes were sewn from reindeer furs, and the needle was made of reindeer bone, and the yarn from reindeer sinew. Sámi culture is very much based on reindeer herding and it’s nomadic ways.

 

Reindeer herders’ huts

There are 54 reindeer co-operatives in Finland. This reindeer herding area covers over one third of Finland, the northernmost part.

Inside each co-operative there are numerous huts, and in total there are hundreds of reindeer herders’ cabins throughout Lapland. Most of these are locked, but some are open. Some remote huts are open and a well-mannered hiker may stay a night in such a cabin. Well-mannered means not only tidy, but also that he/she collects his/her own firewood and does not use the herders’ wood supply.  However, for someone arriving to Finland from abroad it’s not recommendable to rely on this kind of open huts.

However, there are also many reindeer herders’ huts that are nowadays maintained by Metsähallitus (Parks & Wildlife Finland). There are example photos of this kind of huts below.

 

Christmas in wilderness

As it’s Christmas now, I’d like to tell how we spent the Christmas in a reindeer herders’ open hut in 2012. Or, in fact I’ve already told about that trek, here. If you want to read about hiking during the deepest winter, go and see.

This time I’ll concentrate on the Christmas Eve:

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This me cooking the Christmas dinner. We don’t eat meat, so the most typical Finnish Christmas dish, ham, is out of question. We usually eat salmon and a special kind of smashed potatoes as our main courses in Christmas, and so we did this time, too. Add some ice cold river water to that, and there was our menu. Plus some chocolate rich dessert.

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And here we are, me and my wife, starting our Christmas dinner. We were spending the Christmas Eve night in Vieriharju open wilderness hut, which is originally a reindeer herders’ hut, but maintained nowadays by Metsähallitus.

There were no other hikers, so we had the hut and sauna all for us. It was –25°C, and the snow is soft and powdery this early in winter. Also the daylight time is short in December, so the conditions are much harsher for ski touring than for example in March or April. On the other hand, Urho Kekkonen National Park, where Vieriharju is situated, and all other wildernesses also, are very tranquil and beautiful.

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My wife making firewood in the yard of Vieriharju hut. If you want to stay warm in a wilderness hut in winter, you have to make firewood and heat the hut yourself.

Also in 1999 I spent the Christmas in a wilderness hut. About that hike you can read here. If you have ever felt there is too much pressure, stress, hubbub… too much materialism in Christmas, try spending the holidays hiking. A Christmas spent in a tent or a simple wilderness hut without electricity makes you remember what really is important in life.

Though I have to admit that for many, me including, Christmas is a family occasion. So this recipe won’t work for everyone, but if you have ever dreamed of this kind of a Christmas, go ahead!

 

Other reindeer herders’ huts

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This is what a reindeer round-up site used to look like. Nowadays most of the wooden elements are made of metallic wire, but the idea is still the same. There are long fences (left of this pic) widely apart, and the reindeer are herded into this fork of fences. These fences lead the herd into the large corral you can see in the pic. There are smaller corrals around the large one, one for each reindeer owner. Imagine all the reindeer running in the large corral, and when a reindeer herder recognizes the ear mark of his, he expertly lassoes this particular animal, and leads it to his small corral. Well, approximately so. This pic is from Sallivaara, in Lemmenjoki National Park, where you can still see this old wooden round-up system. And as there happens to be a treeless hill right beside the round-up site, you can see the entirety from bird’s view.

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There are a lot of old reindeer herders’ huts around Sallivaara round-up site. This is one of them, and this one act as an open wilderness hut for hikers today.

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Let’s see another example from Urho Kekkonen NP. This Härkävaara wilderness hut is also an old reindeer herder’s hut. Often the reindeer herders’ huts are large like this, housing something like ten or twenty men.

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The interior of Härkävaara hut. There’s plenty of room to lie down for a larger bunch of men.

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Not all of the huts are large, though. Huts used as shelters along checking the long stretches of reindeer fences are usually smallish. This Ahvenlampi open wilderness hut, two person cabin, is in Tsarmitunturi Wilderness Area, near the Russian border, and the border fence.

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Another example of a smaller reindeer herders’ hut that serves nowadays as an open wilderness hut. Manto-oja hut in Urho Kekkonen NP.

Merry Christmas everyone! Happy hikes in 2020!

 

 

 

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