Reindeer farm and sleigh ride

It was sub-zero in Rovaniemi but there is no such thing as bad weather: just inappropriate clothing. We took lots of clothes and were nice and toasty. I dressed the way I did in the Antarctic several years ago: lots of layers.

Walking on the snow and ice from our guesthouse to Rovaniemi town centre was not as bad as we’d expected. It took about 20 minutes. Our first destination, Arktikum, a science centre and museum, offered a glimpse into Lapland’s rich history and culture. We didn’t have time to see everything but found out that the three-museum pass would allow us to return here another day to learn more about the region.

We had lunch at the museum’s cafe. This was another all-you-can-eat delicious buffet, similar to the one at Haltia Nature Centre. I didn’t know much about Finnish food before coming here. I assumed it would be meat-heavy because of the climate — and we certainly saw a variety of reindeer, fish (salmon), and other meat dishes. However, in the buffets, the emphasis has been on lots of grain, pulses, and vegetables with some meat.

It turns out that traditional Finnish cuisine often includes healthy ingredients such as wholegrains, berries, fish, and vegetables. Schools emphasise physical education, ensuring that children learn the importance of regular exercise and staying active from an early age. Finland’s natural environment encourages outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, and swimming. In Helsinki, on the way to the sauna, we saw many people jogging even though it was dark and cold — and the ground was covered in snow. Then there are the famous saunas, an integral part of Finnish culture, which help you relax, improve your circulation, and relieve stress.

After lunch, we returned to the guesthouse and waited to be picked up for our reindeer farm visit and sleigh ride. The person arrived on time. We went to her office in Rovaniemi’s centre to pick up some more people and then went to the farm, which took about 30 minutes. We had booked with Wild About Lapland, who were friendly. We later learnt that we could have paid much less if we’d booked directly with the farm via Sieriporo Safaris.

After a brief intro to the farm and feeding the reindeer (which I enjoyed), we all got on our sleighs (two per sleigh) and covered ourselves with blankets. The ride was about an hour. We’d been extremely lucky it was a clear, crisp day with blue skies and pure white snow. The landscape was stunning.

When we stopped for a brief break, the reindeer behind me drew up next to me. I had to duck as it swung its head since the horns were huge!

After the ride, we were greeted with a steaming cup of delicious berry juice (possibly lingonberries). We listened to a talk about the farm and reindeers as the juice warmed us up.

The Sami, who live in the north of Finland, have herded semi-domesticated reindeer for over a thousand years as part of their transition from hunter-gatherer societies to more settled pastoralist communities. However, the large-scale commercial reindeer farming is a more recent (20th century) development.

There is a difference between reindeer and other deer. The reindeer have a thick, dense coat that keeps them warm in a cold climate. When the reindeer were pulling us, they would occasionally scoop mouthfuls of snow to hydrate themselves. The male and female reindeer have horns (only male deer have horns). These horns are shed and grow back. Sometimes a reindeer loses just one horn (e.g., in a fight), and the head becomes lob-sided because the weight of the remaining horn pulls the head in one direction. I lifted one shed horn, and it was very heavy!

On the farm, reindeer are trained for four years but not all go on to pull the sleighs. Once deer are captured, they are marked then released. The card below represents the left and right ear markings for 72 reindeer; it helps owners identify their reindeer. The trained reindeer are more valuable than wild reindeer. If, for example, a car driver kills a trained reindeer, the government gives extra compensation to the owner. There’s a tagging scheme that verifies the trained reindeer.

During winter, the reindeer stay at the farm since they are fed, and food is scarce. However, even when released they’re tempted to return because of the guaranteed food.

For those with gun licences, they can hunt some animals but not all. Reindeer, moose, foxes, and rabbits are examples of animals that can be hunted. Some animals, such as wolves, are protected. If a wolf, for example, attacks a farmer’s reindeer, the farmer must get the government’s permission to kill the wolf.

On average, wild reindeer live for about 10 years but some reindeer on the farm live much longer. There were a few that were 18 years old.

After we returned from the reindeer farm, we went to tourist information in the town centre to get the bus timetable for going to the famous Santa Claus Village and Arctic Circle latitude line.

It was still bright, so we went for tea and cakes at a cosy cafe. After sunset, we walked slowly back to our guesthouse. The compressed snow and ice made our path more treacherous now even though in some places gravel had been thrown on the pavement to improve our grip.

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