Why Rudolph might bring me back to Finland 20

Sharing is caring!

Finland shocked and surprised me. As you may recall, my primary purpose for taking this winter trip to a final destination up around the Arctic Circle was to see and photograph the Northern Lights for the first time in my life. I spent ten days in Finland and the only clear sky I received was on the first day, as I took a train north from Helsinki to the Phyä-Luosto region.

Primary plan failure.

I am already making tentative plans to go back, but the Northern Lights might only be my secondary focus of the next trip.

What do you know about reindeer?

I dare say that I didn’t know much more than they pulled Santa’s sleigh and the unpopular ones had red noses before I took this trip.

The first thing I learned about reindeer is that they are delicious. 

If I counted correctly, I had nine dinners in Finland. I believe that I had some version of reindeer meat in six of those meals. Frankly, I could have easily had it a few more times and been happy.

a few of the reindeer meals I had (also helping to prove I am not a food photographer)

a few of the reindeer meals I had (also helping to prove I am not a food photographer)

In the hierarchy of “best meats I have ever eaten,” reindeer slides into a firm second place on my worldwide list, only trailing southern African game meat such as kudu, springbok and zebra — all of which are currently tied at the top of the list and requiring me to head back down there to do more tasting.

Where is Argentinian beef on my list, you ask? Incredibly overrated.

But it wasn’t just how tasty reindeer were that fascinated me; it was the whole culture that surrounded them.

reindeer sleigh ride winter finland

I took a nighttime reindeer sleigh ride… but no photos, so here’s a daytime one for you

Sami Culture, Reindeer Herding and more

The Sami are the native peoples of this Nordic area, spread out over northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and some of Russia. They are spread out over about 150,000 square miles of land up at the top of the world, speak a variety of dialects almost unrecognizable to each other though not separated by much distance, and back to the point of this post, have herded reindeer for centuries.

There are somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 reindeer wandering free in the Lapland area of Finland, depending on the time of year.

Although they wander about freely — they are all owned.

I had the chance to talk to a few reindeer herders during my visit, both Sami and non-Sami. What I learned has just made me want to go back and learn more.

reindeer knives and wood cups

some of the Sami craft works, including knives with reindeer horn sheaths and handles

Most of the reindeer owners in Finland have a very small number of them. Government statistics show that about 4,100 people, or approximately 75% of all reindeer owners, have fewer than 50 reindeer and the income from reindeer herding for these people is only a supplementary income. There are less than 1,000 families making their full-time living from reindeer herding, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of reindeer in the culture (Source).

Some more reindeer facts:

  • Both sexes grow antlers, which (in the Scandinavian variety) for older males fall off in December, for young males in the early spring, and for females in the summer.
  • Reindeer hooves adapt to the season — in summertime, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become sponge-like and provide extra traction. In wintertime, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing the rim of the hoof, which cuts into the ice and crusted snow to keep it from slipping.
  • Mating occurs from late September to early November. Males battle for access to females. Two males will lock each others antlers together and try to push each other away, which is why their antlers don’t fall off until after the mating season in Autumn. The most dominant males can collect as many as 15-20 females to mate with. A male will stop eating during this time and lose much of its body reserves.
  • There is a website dedicated to international reindeer herding. It is run by the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry and I admit that I geeked out and spent a couple hours browsing around.

But what interested me the most was the whole herding concept. Finland is divided into 57 regions for the purposes of reindeer herding by the Finnish government. The animals wander about freely, but twice a year they have a massive, nationwide reindeer roundup to bring them all together in each of the regions.

In May, the reindeer are all brought together because they have just recently birthed calves that needed to get their ownership mark. Each herder has a unique mark that they cut into the reindeer’s ear, so that each herder knows who owns each and every reindeer wandering around.

In October, they round all the reindeer up again, this time to cull the herds (you can read that as “get some meat onto my dinner table”) to keep them to an overall population of about 200,000 total in Finland. They do these roundups in modern times using helicopters, snowmobiles, dogs and more and it sounds like a huge, fantastic spectacle…

Ergo me talking to them about going back this October to see it all in person, though I wish I was headed up to Lapland for Christmas instead!

I want to go back and talk to more herders about their lifestyle, talk to chefs about cooking reindeer, talk to more Sami about how reindeer played a role in their culture and still do, and see a couple of these massive roundups in person.

Am I the only one that finds this stuff totally fascinating?? What do you think of it all?

Sharing is caring!

About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

20 thoughts on “Why Rudolph might bring me back to Finland

  • Cailin

    I’m totally with you on the African meats, kudos and springbok being better than reindeer but reindeer meat is still really really good. I’m not sure if I would like to see the whole process from field to table but it would be cool to visit them and be pulled by one in a sleigh some day 🙂

  • Jennifer

    Reindeer is indeed delicious! Did you also know that asking a Sami how many reindeer they own is like asking someone how much money they make? Also fascinating to me is that reindeer antlers are the fastest growing tissue in the animal kingdom.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I did know that. Similar to asking a farmer in the States how many acres he/she has. Basically, asking them how much money they have.

  • Sam

    There are no doubt many people reading this and thinking “how could you eat reindeer?!” It’s interesting to me how people’s views of what meats are acceptable to eat is so culturally skewed. Also, I didn’t know both sexes of reindeer grew antlers; thanks for teaching me something!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Food is definitely a regional thing. Similar to people wondering how you can eat snake or other things in other places around the world.

  • Amanda

    Nope, you definitely aren’t alone – I found this really interesting, too!

    And now I really want to eat some reindeer!!

  • Corinne

    Once when I was visiting St. Paul, Alaska the men were going reindeer hunting, and I tried and tried to get invited to go along. No go. Not for women. I’ve wanted to do this a long time.

    I love reindeer sausage!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Interesting. Hunting down where I am from in Arkansas is mostly men, but no prohibition on women going.

  • Tom Summerfield

    Hah, Reindeer are awesome. That is all.

    Well I gotta say that second pic of Reindeer steak looks amazing. Then I saw the next pic of him dragging the sleigh and I felt guilty 🙁

  • Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans

    As I read this post, 2 questions came to mind:

    1) Outside of Lapland, can you buy reindeer meat in an ordinary Finnish neighborhood market? AND

    2) How do the roundups work? How do they go about rounding up a bunch of reindeer who I’m guessing may have roamed a considerable distance?

    What a unique post!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Dana, you can buy it in normal markets, but the demand is so high that it is tough to find.

      As to the round-ups… I want to go back, just to answer that question!

  • Red Hunt

    Haha…I agree that reindeer are damn tasty animals. My tasty animal list is topped by Camel though, instead of African game meats.
    But…back th the living reindeers, they are pretty amazing animals aren’t they? I’ve wanted to go on a reindeer sleigh ride for a long time now….

  • Arianwen

    Have you had cuy? Where does that fall on your list of meats? I think you should definitely go back for some reindeer herding. See if they’ll let you ride in one of the snowmobiles!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I didn’t actually try it, because I asked about a dozen people about it when I was there and the vote was 12-0 that it wasn’t any good. Probably will try it next time there, though.

Comments are closed.