Saturday 18 February 2017

Visiting the Sámi Village of Rávttas


One of the biggest selling points of our stay at Björkliden Fjällby was its unmatched view of the Lapporten, a U-shaped valley in the stretch of mountains overlooking Abisko. We were told that according to old Sámi folklore, this natural spectacle was considered the gateway to Swedish Lapland, where the indigenous peoples of Scandinavia have lived for millennia out amidst the ice and snow. On our last full day north of the Arctic Circle, we travelled over an hour on a Visit Abisko bus to get a taste of Sámi culture, on a journey that took us far past the Lapponian Gate. 

Day trips to the sameby of Rávttas is a typical part of the itinerary for visitors to Abisko, providing a fleeting glimpse at the traditional lifestyle of the Sámi. Historical records of these people date back centuries, with Tacitus in Rome writing about them hunting through the forests and mountains in 98 A.D. Reindeer husbandry came in later centuries, but soon became a cherished resource intertwined with their lives and culture.  

In a land of polar night and the midnight sun, seasons are affixed to the rhythms and movement of the herd - a year-long business of calving, marking, grazing and corralling. Today, all the reindeer in Sweden are owned by the Sámi. Inherited from generation to generation, the reindeer form part of their birthright. There's no such thing as a wild reindeer, as all of them are from one herd or another. At this point it must be noted that asking a Sámi how many reindeer they own is as crass as asking a rancher how many acres and cows they have, so don't do it. 

A sameby is often referred to as a Sámi village, but clear all mental images you may have of quaint log cabins perched on snowy knolls - it's more an administrative union than anything else. Like people everywhere across the world, the Sámi are thoroughly modern. Of the approximately 20000 Sámi who live in Sweden, less than 10% are actively involved in reindeer herding, even if they own some livestock. Many are also keen to stress that as much as they are Sámi, they're also very much Swedes. 

There's a delicate balancing act between the need to preserve and share Sámi culture, while also acknowledging that this isn't necessarily how most Sámi live anymore, explained our host. Even the everyday reality of herding reindeer is more than a little different to how it was done in the past. Dressed in a traditional kolt, he told us stories of reindeer herding in the 21st century, which involve lots more ATVs than you probably imagined. 

So if you're looking to see something exotic and utterly unchanged, this isn't for you. What you can expect though, is a learning experience about the naturally evolving traditions and culture that the Sámi remain proud of. And of course, you'll learn more about reindeer than you knew before. 

Visiting Rávttas isn't complete without getting up close with some reindeer, and that's exactly what we did. The first reindeer we encountered had massive horns, from which strips of fur hung off, the underneath looking surprisingly red and raw. Reindeer are the only species of deer where both the males and females grow and shed antlers each year - when these grow in, they're rubbery masses of blood and marrow covered in fur, which is then rubbed off against trees or bushes once the antlers harden. 

Male reindeer typically lose their antlers after the mating season is done in early winter, while the females keep theirs till spring. If you've ever visited the LA Zoo during Christmastime, you'll notice that all their Santa-ready reindeer are female, which means one thing: Robert L. May hadn't the first clue about reindeer biology. The only way Rudolph wasn't female, according to our host, was if he was a castrated male. Most male reindeer herded by Sámi are castrated young, which reduces aggression and tension among the herd and make them easier to manage. 

Each of the reindeer has its own distinct personality, and we were able to see it most clearly not while we were feeding them nutrient-rich moss, but during the reindeer sled ride. It was a simple set-up: One person to a sled, pulled by a single reindeer. The somewhat grumpy one I harnessed turned out to be the Ferrari of reindeers, careening down the snowy path with reckless abandon. All the children were enthralled, and immediately demanded that one. Those who ended up with a gentler ride had to contend with  reindeer that stopped in the middle of the ride to have a curious nibble through a patch of snow, slowed down to have a breather, or in one memorable incident, refused to move completely and had a bit of a poo. 

Sledding aside, we were also taught the art of lassoing reindeer, which doesn't involve splashy overhead rope spins, but a simple toss and pull. We practiced on a stationary set of antlers, which for some of us (I.E. Me), was difficult enough. The true test came when you had to try and catch the antlers when someone was running around with them. This, I did not dare attempt, though other people in the group tried, and were quite successful. 

We enjoyed lunch in a lávvu, where our meal of smoked reindeer meat was cooked in butter over a roaring wood fire. Wrapped in warm Sámi gahkku (The Lebanese family on the tour marvelled at how similar it was to pita bread), the reindeer was remarkably tender, and utterly delicious. A treatise on the benefits of reindeer meat soon followed, highlighting its virtues of being both low in fat yet high in omega 3 and 6 essential oils, as well as rich in minerals and vitamins like B12. There's also a particular trait of reindeer meat that's absolutely apt for the Lapland climate: it's apparently the only meat that can be frozen and defrosted up to seven times without any significant worsening of texture. Washed down with cool, tart lingonberry juice, we polished it all off in no time. 

When the meal was through, we settled in by the fire to listen to more stories, the smell of smoke sinking into our hair and our clothes, the only other thing we'd take back with us to Abisko. 

Friday 10 February 2017

Chasing the Aurora with Lights Over Lapland


We've made pilgrimages for stargazing before, certain that the heavens would open up and show us some magic. Yet we've been foiled each time - whether by moon, or cloud, or fog. Still, we persist, ever-hopeful, and when D announced that we'd be heading to Sweden so we could check off his and M's Bucket List dream (mine too!) of seeing the Northern Lights in person, we prepared ourselves for watching, waiting, and lots of prayer in the freezing cold. They say that staying 3 nights in Abisko gives you an 80% chance of seeing the Aurora, so being kiasu Singaporeans, we stayed 4 to up our odds. Off the Map Travel made most of the arrangements for us, designing our itinerary to maximize our chances.

Our main hope of seeing the lights lay in our visit to the the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko, a site which looks perfect on paper. According to Lonely Planet, it's the #1 spot in the world to see the Northern Lights. Perched 900 m above sea level at the top of Mt Nuolja, the Sky Station is situated far away from much of the light pollution of the town. Sitting in the middle of a ring of mountains, Abisko also possesses what the locals fondly call a "Blue Hole", a quirk of the local micro-climate. This means it receives far less precipitation than any other location within the vaunted Aurora Oval this far north of the Arctic Circle, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter. In other words: optimum conditions for Aurora sightings. 

Nature had other ideas. Peculiarly warm weather brought with it overcast skies, and all we got for our efforts the first night was a pale and sickly looking glow on the edge of a cloud for a couple of minutes, then nothing for the entire three hours I stayed up there. M & BB were too fatigued after our first run, but not to be deterred, D & I went back up the next night once we got word they could squeeze us in. After all, no quest is truly satisfying unless there are a few obstacles thrown in.

The drill at the Sky Station is simple: stay warm indoors, and listen to the talks on how Auroras are formed. If and when something interesting pops up on the live camera feed, charge outside with everyone else. Battling the elements, and in my case a nasty fever, we belly crawled up the side of the icy mountain in the dark the moment the alarm sounded. Ah, the crazy things we'll do once we set our minds to it. 

And then there they were, thin strips of green ribbon undulating in the night sky. Near the horizon, a hint of shimmering pink mist, flickering in and out of existence by the light of a full moon. Nothing like we'd seen in the pictures, but startling and magnificent nonetheless. In real time, we were seeing supercharged particles from the sun interact with the Earth's upper atmosphere, the energy released in the form of colourful lights - here one moment, gone the next.

The Sky Station had given us the briefest taste of cosmic lights, but it wasn't till our final evening that we were able to properly satisfy our desire to take in the Aurora, with the Lights Over Lapland nightly photography tourThere's a good reason why Lights Over Lapland run the top ranked activity for visitors to Abisko - while they can't control the Aurora, every other detail has been thoughtfully planned out. From equipment that will rise to the occasion when called for (Everyone in the group is armed with a preset DSLR and matching tripod, with a camera backpack for transporting things around. They even provide boot grips so you'll have an easier walk across the snow and ice), to professional guides who'll help you at every step along the way (We were mentored by Sarah and Andy Skinner, two amazing wildlife and nature photographers who taught us more than a few camera tricks), everything was ready for us. All we had to do was point at the Aurora as they appeared, and shoot. Together, our small group camped out for a few hours in Abisko National Park, just a stone's throw away from the lodge that the company is based out of. And finally, we got very lucky indeed. 

In Finland they have old stories about the Aurora being the sparks thrown off by the Fire Fox that runs across the sky, while here in Sweden, some Sámi tales say they're a manifestation of ancestral spirits, and something that needs to be treated with respect. The Northern Lights have also been thought to be the Bifrost, a bridge between worlds, or a portend of good things to come. There's something distinctly otherworldly about these mesmerizing arcs of light, dancing across the sky. The reality of how the Northern Lights are formed is no less spectacular, involving highly charged particles from the Sun hurtling towards us through space, and interacting with the Earth's magnetic field. The lights occur at an altitude of at least 80 km above the surface of the Earth, when solar particles impact with the atmosphere. Depending on the gas they hit, different coloured light is emitted - deep reds and blues for Nitrogen, or bright greens and reds for Oxygen. 

We were one of thousands who were compelled to go see the Aurora after reading the articles proclaiming the end of Solar Maximum and the beginning of Solar Minimum, supposedly marking the end of such spectacular lights for years to come. The actual science is not quite so doom and gloom, as Sarah explained to us over hot lingonberry tea. Yes, sunspot energy is moving towards a low, but such coronal mass ejections (the bursts of plasma streaming out of the sun) aren't the only things that result in Auroras. Magnetic activity creates coronal holes in the surface of the Sun, blasting solar winds in our direction that also create spectacular Northern Lights, and none of this goes away at any point in the solar cycle. It remains a matter of luck, timing and location, but you'll still be able to see the Northern Lights for years to come.

If you're a homebody, let me tell you now that the Northern Lights actually do look much better in pictures than in real life, mostly because our eyes can't distinguish colours at night as well as a good camera can. But when you're able to stand amazed under an intense show as we were, there's nothing quite like it. 

Some nights, the groups that go out are only able to glimpse little spots of lights, and have to stand focused and ready to be able to capture them. In contrast, it felt like we were at an Aurora buffet. At first, it was hard to decide which angle to start with - we were so afraid the lights were all going to dissipate. This led to a lot of frantic shots of various corners of the sky, swivelling the tripod this way and that. Eventually it dawned on us that we'd been gifted with the opportunity to take our time. For that night at least, the lights weren't about to disappear on us. As the Aurora came and went like emerald and silver curlicues stretching across a scrolling page, we were able to properly compose our shots, experiment with shutter speeds, pose for family photos, and even sprawl out on the ground to watch the show. I wouldn't call Aurora hunting a very relaxing activity, but on this night, it certainly felt quite an indulgent one. 

Eventually, when the adrenaline from seeing so much light finally wore off, I made myself comfortable in the tent where Sarah and Andy had built a nice big fire. As I lay on some reindeer pelts, there were the world's largest marshmallows to toast and stuff my face with, more cups of deliciously tart tea, and the satisfaction of an evening well-spent. 

One more thing crossed off the Bucket List - now onto the next adventure.