This is a kind of amusing relation of a first reindeer ride in Finland. This was published in St. Nicholas, December 1927. I like the sort of “Go on a reindeer ride,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.” type of tone that the author has toward his friends. This is an interesting read.
A Reindeer Ride In Finland
By J. E. Conner
Former United States Consul in St. Petersburg
It was midwinter when I landed in Kuopio, Finland, one of those exquisite, miniature gems of places scattered throughout that lovely land. Snow lay everywhere to a depth of a couple of feet, and the jingle of sleigh-bells rang with a sharp ping, like the crackling of the ice-crystals when Jack Frost is at work.
“Oh, yes, you must have a reindeer ride,” said my Finnish friends. “for this is Santa-Claus land and we have just the outfit for you.”
Palmo, the reindeer, stood and stared at me, with fore feet wide apart and antlers lowered in a manner that might have been meant as threatening. I decided, however, that he was engaged in a critical examination of the Lapland outfit that I was wearing for the occasion, since he had a right to be critical and I had never seen one before. At any rate, he showed no other signs of hostility, so I prepared for the ride. Those Finnish friends of mine (shameless creatures), told me that though the reindeer is a very gentle and docile animal, as long as you let him have his own way, he is naturally irritable and likely to become ugly when opposed, and then nobody knows what might happen. “Beware of his fore hoofs,” they said, “not his heels. He never kicks, he is not built that way. But he has used his fore feet for ages to paw away the snow from the moss, and those hoofs are very strong and sharp, and he can do you a lot of damage with them. If he gets angry and turns on you, just grab his antlers and hold on to them until help comes.”
Palmo was scarcely more than four and a half feet high, and I figured that I could hold my own with any reindeer of that size without any help, if it came to a rough-and-tumble.
“Now another thing,” said my hosts, “don’t be alarmed when he strikes out from the beaten pathway and makes straight for the north pole. It is instinct that guides him, just as it is with the wild water-fowl in your own country. When you have ridden as far as you like, just roll out in the snow. He’ll stop all right—you will see why in a minute.”
All this and more the tenderfoot in Finland must expect to put up with as good-natured joshing well deserved.
The reader has observed that I have spoken of only one animal, and not of a team of six or eight as might be expected. Moreover, there was no sleigh. My journey was to be in a sledge—a very different kind of conveyance from a sleigh. To begin with, the sledge has no runners like a sleigh, but sits down flat-bottomed in the snow, like a bath-tub with a sharp keel below to assist in keeping it erect. Rather, it is like the forward half of a short canoe cut square across the middle, the back boarded up, the pointed end forward, and the reindeer hitched thereto. Seated in the bottom of this contrivance, the greater part of your weight is comfortably stowed below the “water-line,” or more accurately, the snow-line. This helpful circumstance tends to prolong what might otherwise be a very short journey. There is barely any room enough forward to stow your feet and legs, and of course, no room at all for another person. In fact, if you will obey instructions to the letter, you will let your feet hang over the edges of the forward end, one on each side, to preserve an even balance, and as occasion requires, dig them into the snow, much as a boy does when coasting downhill on his sled.
There are other circumstances of reindeer travel that makes this means of locomotion unique. You see, the reindeer is, after all, a deer and must needs travel after the fashion of his kind. That is to say, when he gallops so beautifully over the snow as the story-books truthfully tell us, he bounces up and down, first one end up and then the other, like a rabbit. The story-books fail to tell us what an inconvenience this is to the driver, for the sledge must needs follow in like fashion in a succession of leaps and bounds, which to say the least, is very disturbing to the equilibrium. Imagine yourself, seated in the bottom of your snow-canoe, using your utmost endeavor to hold yourself erect while leaping forward like a porpoise riding the swells of the sea, each moment uncertain whether the next leap will land you or the sledge on top. If the snow were frozen with only a slight crust on the surface, such a ride would be out of the question; but with a nice soft cushion all around ready to receive you—bravo! it is a rare sport.
The method of hitching Palmo to this sledge was simplicity itself. A single strap, or thong, attached to the forward end of the sledge, passed straight through between his legs to the neck, where it was fastened to a similar strap around his neck, by way of a collar. Perhaps the exigencies of reindeer travel will permit nothing more elaborate in the way of harness, but it certainly leaves much to be desired. For evidently, with your steed bounding forward as already described, he will unavoidably get beyond the trace, and then there is trouble. He must travel astride that thong, or stop. He can’t turn a sharp corner on the run. He can’t even swerve to the left or right without danger of capsizing the driver. Really the Laplander ought to be shown how to do it better, if that is possible.
But then, don’t imagine, my sophisticated American hostler, that you would have an easy task by substituting a whiffle-tree with two traces instead of one—oh no! For the truth is,—yes, I must tell a plain unromantic truth,—when the reindeer gallops so gracefully over the snow, his hind legs are spread so scandalously wide apart that you couldn’t keep him in the widest of traces—he must needs straddle them. And then your sledge is so low that—well, there is no other solution of the matter, unless you can reform the reindeer’s habit of spraddling, ungainly as it is,. Sorry to spoil a romantic picture, but you can solace yourself with a side view instead of one from the front or rear.
The means of guidance is likewise simple—just another thong attached to the same collar around the animal’s neck, and a pull to the right or left is supposed to be all that he needs or will heed. But—and here is the significant thing—this same guide is tied tight to your arm, not put into your hands, mind you. So that when you do roll out of the sledge, as you will do sooner or later,—they all do it,—you are an animated hitching-post to prevent the reindeer’s answering the call of the wild. He doesn’t need to be told to stop when he finds you are rolling in the snow, he just stops.
The costume is entirely reindeer skin—boots, trousers, coat, and cap. You crawl into the coat through the basement entrance, just as you would into a sweater, draw a string as tight as you can stand around your neck, and a thong around your waist for a girdle, and there you are. You could roll in the snow all day and it couldn’t get inside of that coat. The cap, a large, square, droll-looking affair, is large enough to accommodate a good-sized cushion inside of it, which fits down, oh so comfortably, on a cold day, over one’s noble dome. But the face and ears fare no better than in other lands—to protect them seems to be impossible.
All was now ready. I sat down in the depths of the sledge; my friends tucked the blankets and robes about me; the whip was used; and off we went. And may I be switched with that same whip if Palmo didn’t forsake the beaten path and make as straight a bee-line for the north pole as I could have done myself. Instinct or not, I don’t know. But he did it. The way led across a frozen lake with a good depth of tempting soft snow all around. It was exciting while it lasted. To stand upright in a canoe while shooting the rapids of a river, is the nearest approach to a reindeer sledge-ride that I can think of. But it would lack those comfortable cushions spread out to receive you in the inevitable end. It couldn’t last long, and it didn’t. While I was doing my best to keep erect and to steer Palmo in the desired direction, I suddenly found myself rolling in the snow. Palmo stopped, turned around, and stared at me reproachfully. I felt that the reproach was undeserved, but anyhow, the sport was over for that time. Palmo was outside of his proper connection as a means of transportation. My friends hastened forward to relieve me, and Palmo continued to stare.