In Lapland, Finland’s largest region, hunting and reindeer herding traditions go back hundreds – if not thousands – of years. We visited the area to find out more about them and see how thermal vision could improve daily life in the Arctic Circle. Here, we met Ari Maununiemi – a passionate hunter, reindeer herder, and nature lover. While they often say that people from the North are cold and heartless, these are the last words that could pop into your head while speaking to Ari.
I am a reindeer herder from Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland. I live with the reindeers and spend a lot of time hunting and fishing. My ancestors have been living in this area for the past 400 years, so you can really say I’m deeply rooted in this land. My work, my hobbies, my family – everything is here. I like to say I live in paradise, but I work like I’m in hell.
Tell us more about the reindeers.
For my whole family, reindeers are and have always been a passion. I’d say we don’t do this for money but rather for pleasure. Of course, I sell the meat, I do the butchering by myself, but… I think reindeer is an animal that is only half-wild. It lives in the wilderness most of the time, but it always belongs to somebody. If you saw one, you’d see it is marked – I do it with a knife. That’s how we recognize whose animals they are.
Now, the reindeers are returning home because the winter has come. However, sometime around April, we will open the gates and let them go back to the wilderness. As humans, we are only helpers who can feed them and protect them from lynx and wolves during the winter.
How do you mark a reindeer?
I use a knife for it, and it must be extremely sharp; I don’t use it for anything else. Each person has their own mark, and you must register it. Nowadays, we can do it online with our phones. It is useful – I have recently found a reindeer that travelled 150 kilometres away from its home. I checked the mark on the app and called the owner, who then came and picked it up.
With time, you get really good at recognizing whose animal it is. Now, I can tell that from 40 meters away. This, of course, requires a trained eye and a good memory – we have 200 marks in this territory, so there’s quite a bit to remember.
Hunting is a tough skill to learn, but, spending so much time in the woods, I can confidently say I’ve gotten good at it. I learned how the animals behave. And surely, there are instincts. All of us have hunting instincts.
Well, no two days are the same. It depends a lot on the time of the year. Now, I’m feeding the reindeers, taking care of them, looking around to ensure they feel well. I am also training some males to pull the sleighs – that’s the main way of traveling in Lapland. But it is also fun – I do it for some clients, my family. And I even try to train some crazy males to participate in ski competitions and reindeer races.
This routine will continue until spring when I let all the reindeers go wild. Then, I like to fish in the lakes and have fun with my family. In summer, we go to the forest with the other farmers – there, we’re looking for baby reindeers and marking them. It’s not an easy job, though – there are days when we must walk 20, 30 kilometres.
However, the peak comes in September. That’s when mating starts, and we have to act fast. We need to count how many reindeers we have, and we also start selling the meat in autumn.
Tomorrow, we have to collect 10 reindeers and take them back home. They’re roughly 45 kilometres away, so we’ll need to drive up there and transport them. We know there are still some unmarked babies, but that doesn’t make me happy – they will soon split from their mothers, and once they do that, we can’t really prove they are ours.
We cooperate with the other farmers to catch those unmarked reindeers, and then we have an auction. Whoever pays the highest price gets the reindeer. I recently just bought one – it was for my son. It’s a very strong reindeer – and I know it because it survived the last winter in the wild easily, although it was still a baby. Usually, surviving isn’t a problem, but nowadays, the population of lynxes and wolves is very high, posing a big threat to the reindeers. Of course, that’s the way nature works – we always need to have natural predators.
Oh, and there’s another fun thing we do in winter – we go on safaris on the lake. We don’t have much snow, so we can’t go into the forest, but the lake has roughly 40 centimetres of ice, so we can ride safely on it.
You emphasize a lot that it all comes from your family. How little were you when you started learning? When did you realize this was what you were going to do?
Reindeer herding has been in my family for about 200 years, and I got fully involved when I was about 20 – so that’s how much time you need to learn everything. It is rooted so deeply in the family that you learn naturally by practicing. I’d spent time with both my father and my grandparents and learned from them.
But reindeer herding is life. You have to think of it that way. Then at some point, it becomes your passion. But it wasn’t always that easy – when I was little, my dad pushed me to work every day, so, back then, it wasn’t easy to decide that this would be my future – I thought I should be playing with the other children and do other fun stuff, but instead, I was working with my dad. Now that I have my own kids, though, I’m 100% sure I’ll make them do the same. I will take them to the woods, teach them to make earmarks, and cut meat. There is no school where you could learn this profession, so you have to live with these animals and make them a part of your life. But trust me, you get so much more back, it makes it all worth it.
And how different is your job compared to your ancestors’ 200 years ago?
The work itself doesn’t change a lot, although technology helps. When my dad was young, he had to walk more than 20 kilometres from his village to the herding place. Now, we have cars, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles that help us move quicker, so we can get more things done in a shorter amount of time.
GPS also helps a lot, even though the technology is expensive. The area where we are covers 2,500 square kilometres, so searching manually would take a lot of time and effort. With GPS, it is much easier. We get the records and see that there are 5 reindeers on a particular hill, meaning there are a hundred or more nearby. So we concentrate all the teamwork to that place and thus find many reindeers at once. This year has been really successful for us. Now it’s not even December yet, and we already have more than 90% of our animals. And sometimes, we would be searching until February. So sure, technology does help, it really speeds things up, but it doesn’t do the work. We still need to do the walking and other manual tasks.
Well, I always say I have good eyes, but I was really amazed to see the forest through Helion. I think it would be most helpful in looking for injured reindeers. In Lapland, a lot of them get into car accidents and then run deep into the forest to hide because they are wounded. It is practically impossible to find them in such cases because it is so dark here in winter, even during the day. So, Helion could be really handy here – spotting the hurt animals would be much easier, and we could help them heal.
I think thermal vision could also come in handy when we’re bringing the reindeers home for the winter. You know, at the end of December, when there are only a few left – it gets dark early, so it would extend the time we can spend looking for them.
Tell us about your relationship with nature. You surely need some survival skills – walking 20 kilometres in the wild when the temperature drops way below zero is pretty extreme. But perhaps being in situations like these make you respect and appreciate nature’s power more?
Of course, I have a strong relationship with nature because I’m a hunter, a fisherman, a reindeer herder. When we are talking about the human-nature relationship, we are also talking about something that goes to the kitchen, so I guess you could say I kind of use nature like a supermarket. But remember, we are very appreciative of it.
Nature doesn’t give you anything for free – you need to learn how to harvest the fruits and acquire lots of skills to survive. Right now, as we’re talking, it is minus 24 outside. To me, it’s nothing – my face isn’t even frosty yet! But when the temperature drops below 40, that’s when we need to think more carefully about what and how we do. But still, here in Finland, we treat cold differently – I remember back in 1999, it was minus 59 one morning. Our school bus still came to pick us up, no days off because of the cold here!
I hear it a lot – that it’s dangerous to live here, people always ask me how I survive. Well, think of it that way: you live in a big metropolis, and you always have to lock everything when you leave – your home, your car, your office. Isn’t that because otherwise, it would be dangerous? Here, we never do that. It is completely safe to be in the wild even with all the predators – wolves, lynxes, etcetera – because they never attack people. I’d say we live in the safest place in the world, even if it’s in the middle of nowhere. Nature is our home, and there’s so much to learn from it. I’m 35, and I’m still learning.
Do you have any stories about predators?
Well, they are surely not my favorite thing to see in the wild. When brown bears attack, it’s fine. They will kill the reindeer and eat it, and while it’s a cost for us, I understand that this is how nature works and don’t have a problem with it. But lynxes and wolves – they are brutal. They kill for fun. You can clearly see that – they kill an animal, eat some of it, and leave the rest for waste.
That’s why we have to protect our reindeers in the winter so much. Here, we have way too many lynxes and wolves, and we’re losing hunting dogs, reindeer, cattle, sheep to them. Unfortunately, we only have so many licenses for shooting them, so we must deal with it.
How many reindeers lost to wolves are we talking about?
It could be a hundred or even more throughout the year. The record I’ve personally seen was 12 reindeers killed by one wolf in one night, so imagine what they can do in a year. At least we don’t have packs of wolves here in Lapland – otherwise, we would lose all the reindeers.
What is your relationship with hunting?
Hunting is my passion. I have many dogs – bird hunting ones, moose hunting, even one for rabbit hunting. I got my license at the age of 11 and have been hunting ever since. Moose is one of my main targets, then come the ducks, even some pigeons in August, then we have grouses, capercaillies, rabbits. My wife makes my gloves – we hunt animals in the woods, and she makes gloves from them. We never waste an animal – we use all the possible materials.
To me, hunting is simple. Some people go to the supermarket, and I go to the forest. I hope hunting will be a part of my kids’ life, too. Because they grew up here, they still don’t have any cell phones or other devices, and we spend half of our time outside. My oldest son is only six, and last autumn, we were already walking 5-6 kilometres in the woods, hunting birds, rabbits – he’s really passionate and only six years old.
Are there any hunting peculiarities here that differ from other countries?
Nothing is truly different here; you just need to keep your eyes and ears open. It’s a tough skill to learn, but, spending so much time in the woods, I can confidently say I’ve gotten good at it. I learned how the animals behave. And surely, there are instincts. All of us have hunting instincts, but perhaps they are stronger in some people.
Can you tell us about living in the Arctic conditions?
Well, we are still 400 kilometres away from the Arctic itself, but I love the conditions, I love the different seasons. In winter, we only have four hours of daylight, and the sun doesn’t properly go up, we don’t have a sunrise or a sunset. The temperatures go up to minus 35 in January and February. It doesn’t really affect my life, though. I’m used to it, so I don’t get depressed. I work a lot, spend time with the animals, too.
But of course when the spring comes – it’s great. It is usually on January 25 when we finally see the sun after spending two months without it. It goes higher and higher, we still have some snow, and can enjoy ice fishing. The day lasts for 12 hours, and you wouldn’t believe how much I enjoy the sunset in March. Even though it is still cold, you can feel the summer coming, there is this smell in the air, the moisture.
We can’t harvest animals in spring, so it is the season when we make firewood for the upcoming winter. In summer, when we can, we love spending late evenings by the lakes. We then have sun for 24 hours a day, so, even though technically our summer lasts for 2.5 months, I like to say it lasts for five because the sun never really sets. This makes our vegetables – potatoes, carrots, onions – really delicious.
Autumn is my favorite season, though, because then we can harvest mushrooms and berries from the forest, hunt, and start with all the reindeer herding again. And as soon as the temperature gets to minus 5, you instantly know that winter is coming, you can smell it in the air, and it is such a nice feeling.
You’ve mentioned you had a few dogs, but Isku seems to be your best friend. Can you tell us about him?
I grew up with a dog because I was the only child in the family. Actually, we had Isku’s great great grandfather, who was a reindeer herding dog. But dogs also become family members. I’ve had many good human friends, but this is my best friend. Isku is now five, and we go hunting together, we go mushroom and berry picking in the forest, even when I go to the gas station, he’s with me in the car.
Dogs and animals are a very important part of my life, and they are important for my family, too. They are our friends, our colleagues at work, our helpers when hunting, our entertainers at home. Isku is a mix of a bird hunting dog and a reindeer hunting dog, but he is very professional.
We spoke about your work a lot. And what do you do when you’re not working?
When we have time with the family, we like to watch TV. But our TV is the fire – it doesn’t require anything but some wood and matches, and you can spend hours watching it, you don’t get tired. It’s also good for the kids – they relax as they watch the fire.
When I was a child, I would spend a lot of time with my grandparents, feed the animals, pick berries and mushrooms, and go to the forest. Now I understand that I had a great childhood, even though I didn’t have many friends, it was a very good life. I really want my children to have the same quality time. Nowadays, people spend a lot of time on their phones, computers, TVs. And to me, nature is my Netflix. I appreciate everything nature taught me over the years, and it still tells me new stories day after day. I wish everyone could forget their phones and go for a walk in the forest. That makes your mental health much better.
Do you have a story to share? Drop us a message: [email protected].
Nature is my Netflix. I appreciate everything nature taught me over the years, and it still tells me new stories day after day. I wish everyone could forget their phones and go for a walk in the forest.
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