There’s something so special about reindeer. Maybe it’s their hard work with Santa, or their crazy horns or the fact that south of the arctic circle they’re an interesting rarity.
They are less adorable to the folks up in Inari who have to dodge them with their cars each morning. As one local told me, “Of the top 3 stupidest animals in the world, Reindeer have got to be up there.” The role of reindeer is more function- they are both a livelihood and a major food staple in Finland.
I won’t talk about how delicious a good reindeer steak is (or reindeer pate, or reindeer carbonara, I had quite a few iterations during the week). Instead I’ll show you what you really want:
I didn’t have to wait long to see a reindeer. Not five minutes after we pulled away from the Ivalo Airport two befuddled deer wandered across the highway. I was too slow to snap a picture but it didn’t matter, I was on my way to see literally hundreds of reindeer at Reindeer Farm Petri Mattus.
My gracious host, Petri himself greeted me with extra warm clothing and a helmut so I could ride in his snowmobile pulled sleigh. I made a fool of myself almost immediately by asking what I later found out is a terribly rude question, “How many reindeer do you have?”
“Do I ask you how much money YOU have in the bank?” He shot back. Lesson learned.
Despite my uncouth rudeness Petri was a pretty cool guy. Unlike some of the other reindeer farms up north which operate huge Disney-fied 50 people at a time “reindeer safaris,” Petri (who is part Sami) makes his actual living farming his herd. For the right price he’ll take a handful of people out to educate them on the actual realities of reindeer farming, but it’s definitely not his main focus.
Today I was the only person in the wooden sleigh, draped in reindeer furs (reindeer fur is incredibly warm due to the hollow, air filled hairs). Petri took me out to feed, and meet some reindeer.
Reindeer are kind of great to farm because they mostly just fend for themselves, eating just moss hidden underneath the snow. As long as they get enough to eat they will never freeze. Petri took me to an area where he provides some supplemental bales of food for hungry reindeer. Although most of the deer are spread out over his vast acreage, today we came across nearly 100 of them lazily milling by the extra food.
Petri shook the feed bag he’d brought along and all the reindeer turned at once. Then they started running. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a reindeer stampede?
For a minute I had flashbacks to the mean bully deer at Nara, but despite their menacing horns even the hungriest deer seemed pretty harmless. I even fed a couple out of my hand.
Most of the meat from Petri’s reindeer is sold regionally. Every part of the animal is used, even the reindeer horn is sold to china as an aphrodisiac. Petri laughs, “I will tell you a secret though, the horn is not the aphrodisiac, the meat is. And in Finland we eat a LOT of reindeer meat.”
After I take about a billion pictures of the reindeer, who largely ignore me in their quest to eat as much lichen as possible, Petri shows me how to build a fire in the snow. Never know when that might come in handy. He makes tea and we chat about reindeer, Finland, life. It’s quite pleasant even though it’s several degrees below freezing out.
I’ll leave you with one last gem I stole from Petri:
“People always ask me, what do you do during the light nights in the summer, and during the dark days in the winter? I tell them that in the summer we fish and have sex. In the winter…. we fish less.”
I visited Inari as a guest of Visit Finland and Northern Lapland Tourism.