The Adrenaline Rush of Herding Reindeer

As winter approaches in Finnish Lapland, daylight rapidly retreats. The Sámi—the estimated 80,000 people who are indigenous to the region and live in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia—prepare for winter by bringing their reindeer down from the mountains. More than 7,000 reindeer herders, known as boazovazzi, or “reindeer walkers,” work together to herd 500,000 reindeer from their grazing pastures. Once the animals are down from the mountain, they are separated by their owners in large herding pens. Some reindeer go to the slaughterhouse, while others are kept for breeding. A select few males are neutered and trained to work, either pulling sleds or racing.

“I wanted to capture the eerie isolation of the Arctic landscape and the sheer adrenaline rush and excitement of the herding,” Eva Weber told The Atlantic. Weber’s short documentary depicts a three-minute slice of life as a Sámi reindeer herder. The filmmaker fought the limitations of the project—only a few hours of light to film each day, a remote destination, cameras that constantly fogged due to the sub-zero temperatures, and sound equipment that failed in the cold—in order to capture the ancient tradition of reindeer herding in the North Pole. “It really was a very tough shoot.”

Encountering reindeer up close was a transformative experience for Weber. “The reindeer make the most incredible noises,” she said. “You can hear them from a long distance, and it is beautiful.” Once in the herding pen, Weber was struck by the energy of the animals. “I will never forget standing in the middle of the animals running around us in circles as they were being separated. We were standing in the path of the running reindeer and barely being brushed by them. Moving at that speed and with those antlers, it’s amazing how they manage to avoid obstacles in their path.”

According to Weber, Scandinavian folklore relishes in the mystery associated with Lapland. “It’s a land of magic and myths, ruled by the ancient animistic beliefs of the Sámi,” she said. “According to Sámi mythology, spirits are present in everything, from rocks and trees, foxes and reindeer, and the Northern Lights in the sky.”

“There is a dreamlike quality to the land, and for half a year, the landscape is transformed magically to resemble a wintry fairytale,” she continued. “During this time, you can’t tell whether you stand on land or lake, beneath the sky, or in it; you can see the color of the air and hear the hum of silence. There is something about isolation in an expansive space that blurs one’s boundaries.”

But if you are ever lucky enough to visit Lapland, remember to refrain from asking how many reindeer a Sámi herder has. “It’s rude,” said Weber. “It is like asking a Westerner how much money he has in his bank account. The Sámi say their money ‘roams around.’”

“Reindeer” was directed by Eva Weber. It is part of The Atlantic Selects, an online showcase of short documentaries from independent creators, curated by The Atlantic.

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