Tuesday, 23 December 2014
Reindeer are daft but so cute!
A 30km snowmobile safari; at night; in search of the elusive northern lights. A Russian guide who is an ex national park ranger with a wonderful gentle manner and dry sense of humour; who endeared himself to us immediately because of his wonderful mockery of Brussels and EU Eurocrats.
Snowmobiles are like wild horses, they have a mind of their own and need to be ridden firmly. Simple machines, they have a throttle and a brake......don't forget which is which.........unless you want to shoot off track.....and they require some firm steering and control. Heat vents keep engine heat directed at your hands; the windscreen deflects windchill but is often useless to see through as it completely ices over and thermally lined jumpsuits and boots are a must.
The tracks were bumpy and rutted, narrow and hemmed in by large pine trees laden with snow. The headlights cast a warm orange glow across an unforgiving landscape. You had better understand winter snow survival skills out here. An accident could spell disaster in minus twenty degrees at night! When it becomes so bumpy, standing and absorbing the shock through your bended legs is advisable.
Occasionally we came to junctions with indecipherable wooden signposts. Snowmobile tracks look very much like railway tracks......they remind me of the simple wooden toy train tracks my son had as a three year old. We whizzed through the forests, well crawled in places. Periodically forest tracks would appear at right angles to ours, long straight lines disappearing towards the horizon. At such junctions would be found tall rickety wooden towers, reminiscent of the watch towers around WW 2 prison camps you'd see in films like 'the great escape'. There for elk hunting, hunters use them to shoot downwards onto the elk. If you point your rifle at the elk from a horizontal position and miss.....the bullet will travel some two miles. This way, if you miss the bullet buries itself into the ground. Thy say travel broadens the mind; it always fascinates me what trivia I learn when I travel. I'm sure knowing this snippet will come in handy one day.......or maybe not.
Every so often the trees would thin and disappear and we would shoot out across frozen lakes, windswept expanses of white punctuated by snowdrifts. It is surprising even at night how much light is reflected off such areas. Your eyes adjust quickly after engines are switched off and the warm headlights fade. A tip.....avoid snow drifts. Snowmobiles don't like snowdrifts!
I don't think the other party with us were too happy to hear tales of wolves and bears eating the local reindeer but we enjoyed the tales. Our midway stop was at a traditional reindeer herder teepee. The Finnish name for them is unpronounceable and frankly unspellable too but they are basically same as native North American Indian tepees but with reindeer skin instead of buffalo. A metal fire cooking pit with swingable levels so that kettles and pots could be swung over the fire as and when, some wooden storage boxes, exterior seats carved from snow and covered with reindeer hides and some small wooden tables completed the scene. Surrounded by small pines the air was dry, crisp, freezing and utterly silent.
Utter silence is a strange phenomenon. We so rarely ever encounter it in our busy lives. For some, it is un-nerving. For me, it is enchanting. This silence became punctuated by the crackle and hiss of dry pine kindling as it burst into flame. At minus twenty, little heat is given off but the roar of a fire, the steam rising from an old blackened kettle and the rattling of its lid as boiling point is reached are welcome distractions from your eye lashes freezing together! The hot syrupy juice was devine and the ginger cookies had just the right level of snap, crunch and tang.
Our guide shared his thoughts about European bureaucrats and how it seemed amazing that Brussels had Eurocrats who lived there and imimately understood reindeer herding and the need to avoid shooting wolves that killed 50% of new reindeer calves each year in Finland. Russian sarcasm, so funny! My daughter, a conservationist did laugh but I also knew she was biting her tongue.....itching to get in there but I think frozen eyelashes, sore throat and brightly red burning cheeks from windchill silenced her. She certainly made her views known back in our hotel; conservationist sarcasm, equally as funny as the Russian variety. I am sorely tempted to invite the guide to dinner in a local cafe and let the two of them loose on each other. It would be a brilliant encounter!!! I'm not sure who would win.
We also enjoyed the sudden stop, mid narrow track, because reindeer refused to budge off the snowmobile track. Very funny animals, rather like sheep in their behaviour! Our guide got off shooed it out of the way, climbed onto his snowmobile and turned to find said reindeer back in front of the vehicle, and mysteriously joined by another. Ten minutes this game of shoo and return played out. I came to realise that reindeer are kept in herds and modern day herders use quad bikes and snowmobiles to deliver hay and food. So at 10 pm in the dark, some friendly, caring herder would of course be doing a food drop....daft animals, cute but clearly daft! On the other hand, how more Christmassy can it get.......deep in the enchanted forest, snow laden pine trees and reindeer stuck in deep snow surrounding you, expecting food and a present laden sleigh to arrive at any moment!