I am standing in my mukluks on the frozen and slippery Mackenzie River for an hour, squinting through the viewfinder of my camera into an expansive Arctic tundra, my frostbitten finger like an icicle ready for the shot. I know this is the moment of a lifetime. Today 3,000 reindeer will make their annual crossing at Swimming Point, from their wintering grounds at Jimmy Lake to their calving grounds at Richards Island.
There are about 150 people, more people than I have ever seen gathered together at Swimming Point, 20 minutes southwest of Tuktoyaktuk and one and a half hours north of Inuvik. Most are from communities connected through the ice road. Anticipation is building with murmurings about the reindeer’s imminent arrival.
A fine line of dots break through the vast whiteness in the distance.
“They are coming! They are coming!” Every one exclaims as we run across the ice road.
Then with the grace of ink spilled and spread ing gently on paper, the dots grow bigger, joining up. Moving in synergy, the reindeer billow forward, their furious legs kicking up a cloud of snow dust. The magnificent spectacle is oddly quiet for its size. The 3,000 reindeer move with purpose, flowing past us as one dark amoeba over the banks and up the hills with the herder guiding by skidoo. He is wearing a gakti, the Sami traditional clothing for reindeer herders, complete with a lasso.
Gleeful with excitement, the spectators break out of their trance as the reindeer drift out of sight. Minutes later, Henrik Seva, the Sami herder, returns to embrace his wife, Anna, before jumping back on his skidoo to follow the reindeer.
The photos and videos my husband and I posted went viral; it seemed the rest of Canada was just as interested, so we wrangled a chance to meet Henrik at the reindeer calving grounds the following week.
There are no words to describe the awe and sense of immense fortune to be surrounded by reindeer in their natural habitat under a bright Arctic sundog. They were grazing in scattered groups across the hilltop, and it was surreal to have them edge closer as we sat by the fire making pie-iron grilled cheese sandwiches. Our curiosity was mutual.
Henrik spoke in a lilting, soft voice with a tinge of Inuvialuit accent. When Henrik arrived in Tuktoyaktuk 14 years ago, he was 49. An elder David Nasogaluak taught him English with guessing games.
“Tuk is an indigenous community. Sure I felt some connection but it was a different culture, a different way to live,” he says.
Herding in Tuk was especially challenging on exposed tundra, unlike where he herded in Kitkiojarvi near the Swedish-Finnish border above the tree line. Henrik carries a Swedish passport but prefers to say he is a Sami from Sapmi. He was born near Muonionalusta, an island in the river that separates Sweden from Finland.
The reindeer herd was first brought to the Mackenzie Delta area via Alaska almost 80 years ago, when caribou numbers dwindled and the government sought to supplement food sources. Back in the day, herders patrolled on skis, travelling 20 to 30 miles a day to keep up with the reindeer. During the summer months the reindeer are left on Richard Islands to range freely. It is Henrik’s 11th winter with the reindeer. He has been with the reindeer longer than some of their owners. For seven months of the year, he carries on his Sami traditions in this Canadian setting, mostly alone.
“Reindeer is my life. I have grown up with the reindeer, so did my dad, so did my granddad. We have all been reindeer herders. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not work,” says Henrik.
The Sami calendar is broken into eight seasons, based on life cycles and migration patterns of the reindeer. We were in spring season, and the herder was consumed with ensuring the fawns arrive healthy and safe. “Even you are not out on the land, your mind is there and you think about what is best and what to do to help the reindeer. I try to take care of reindeer best as I can and that’s my purpose. When I feel I’ve done what I can, I feel good,” he says.
“My priority is herding. You are like a living fence. You have to know where the reindeer are and bring them back. It can be difficult when wolves chase them. I’ve lots of help with the Inuvialuit here. They are good hunters and they take care of the wolves. Skinning and butchering the meat is part of the job too,” he says.
“When you stay in a cabin like I do, you can spend weeks by yourself.” In a typical season of reindeer herding, you carry on the traditions sometimes for days in complete silence, with only the company of your journal.
Spending so much of his time on the land alone with the reindeer has made him one with nature, completely at ease in just being.
“Usually the reindeer come much closer. The relationship is built on trust. I used to yoik. It’s our singing style and to make sure they recognize my voice,” he laughs. “They are not fussy, even if they are 3,000.”
“Part of the time I felt alone too and it would be nice to have somebody close to you,” Henrik’s voice lowers, “and that’s how Anna came into my life.”
Anna Johansson lived in Montreal and had an equestrian background. She literally skijored into Henrik’s life. She came to the Northwest Territories to become a Kennel Master, guiding dog sled tours for Arctic Chalet. Three years ago her boss sent her up to Henrik’s cabin to plan tours, and by the end of that weekend Anna knew Henrik was “the one”.
“Everything is great about Henrik. He’s very calm and very happy, and very wise and he puts up with me and my plans and my projects and we laugh a lot. He’s very unique, very special, very supportive and the coolest dude. He’s handsome, with the curly boots and the knives and the big belts,” Anna gushes.
“He did say his mother was married to a reindeer herder and all of the women who are married to reindeer herders have a hard life because their men are always with the reindeer, always thinking about the reindeer. And it’s hard but I think you marry a reindeer herder because it’s so amazing to be with somebody whose day-to-day life is perfectly aligned with their purpose. It gives him this wonderful confidence that he is doing the right thing, and it gives him an energy… he knows who he is, what he does and he’s really good at it.
Anna has been a vegetarian for over 30 years but she and Henrik do not find that to be a discordant point. “I grew up on a farm with horses and dogs and donkeys and cows and you just can’t eat your friends. So it was easy for me to stop eating meat. Henrik, however, harvests in a traditional Sami way with a lot of respect to the animals. He makes sure they have a really good life, a really quick painless death, and then he skins them so beautifully. I have made exceptions to my vegetarianism and I will eat reindeer meat that Henrik harvests. It’s important for him that I respect his way of life and he’s never asked me to eat the meat,” she says.
Henrik smiles, “I knew there were people who were vegetarians, but I had not been involved with people like that before. But sure I can respect that everyone has their choices and it’s fine with me. Let all the blooms bloom.”
“It’s a beautiful Swedish proverb. Basically you have to let everybody blossom and bloom. And that’s the way Henrik lives his life,” says Anna.
An ancient connection
Reindeer herding is when people in a limited area herd reindeer. Currently, reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal that naturally belongs to the north. Reindeer herding is conducted in nine countries: Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Mongolia, China and Canada. A small herd is also maintained in Scotland. There are about 30 reindeer herding peoples in the world and 3.4 million semi-domesticated reindeer. The intimate connection between humans and animals is perhaps best embodied by this relationship as reindeer husbandry represents a connection ancient in origin and practiced almost identically wherever it is found.
Reindeer herding in Sweden is now divided into 51 Sami communities, from Karesuando in the north to Idre in the south. Each Sami community has an east-west geographical grazing area (50 to 200 kilometres in length) divided into summer, spring, autumn, and winter grazing lands. Agreement on population totals for the Sami in Sweden vary, but it is estimated that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 Sami living in Sweden, 900 active reindeer herders, and approximately 3,000 people who can exercise special Sami resource rights. It is estimated that there are approximately 300,000 reindeer in the Swedish territories.