Updated: May 6, 2019
A first encounter with a reindeer in Finnish Lapland
I admit it – I traveled half way around the world under the guise of “studying abroad” to see reindeer. Perhaps it was some kind of childhood fantasy stemming from my spirited belief in Santa Clause. Perhaps I just wanted something else to photograph. You would think that my love of diving and underwater photography would put me somewhere tropical. But no, here I was in the middle of the arctic looking for reindeer, dive gear almost uselessly in tow.
Within a week I had amassed a pleasant group of friends – Jorrit, my rambunctious foreign-policy afflicted Dutch roommate; Jake and Emily from Vermont who never knew each other but always seemed to cross paths; Hélène the French Canadian, and rather secretive, artist; and Victoria – an enigma of enigmatic proportions. Notably none of whom were Finnish. As it turned out, Finns don’t speak much.
A few weeks into the semester I still had not seen a reindeer. But others in our apartment complex had, so I chalked it up to bad luck....
It was a crisp autumn afternoon and all the friendly people decided it would be a good idea to go for a walk on some of the trails surrounding town. So we started up a small, forested hill, and lo and behold – two reindeer! One had a slick white coat, nimbly little legs and was pacing around, almost nervously. The other was resting in some grass near the trail. Its coat was brown and just slightly disheveled. It looked at us warily but made no attempt to move.
As we slowly approached with growing curiosity, the white reindeer galloped in circles around us but didn’t leave. It would run ten paces to the left, stop, and then go back to the right. Eventually it calmed and watched us from a distance. The brown reindeer remained planted in the grass, resting as if waiting for sleep with its head resting on its legs.
Finally, we were only a few feet from the creature. I watched it with my camera ready, but something told me to refrain from taking a photo. Reindeer don’t just let people walk right up to them. True to modern form, the group began taking selfies with the tired animal. I still couldn’t help but think something wasn’t quite right.
“Hey guys, something must be up with this reindeer. Why would it let us get this close?”
We paused and looked at it. Almost on cue, the deer lifted its head and its eye twinkled. It tried to stand up. As the weight shifted to its front leg it collapsed and gasped for breath. It tried one more time. Again it collapsed. It looked back at us, and its tongue rolled out of its mouth. The deer’s head violently twitched, culminating with a soft snap. Its neck appeared to bend, almost as if it was broken by a larger force. It lay back down in the grass – dead.
Mouths agape, we looked at each other horrified.
Victoria was the first to speak with distraught confusion, “Well, what do we do?!”
We saw a Finn walking by on the trail. Much to her bewilderment, we approached her at once with a story about this dead deer. “Perhaps you should try to call someone,” she suggested.
Jake got out his phone and started surfing the internet. “I found a reindeer hotline number!” He dialed his phone, spoke to someone for a few minutes, and hung up, incredulous. “I told them about the reindeer, but they just asked if I was ok and if I was getting attacked by a reindeer. They said that they’re a hotline for people who are being attacked by reindeer. Maybe we should just call the police.”
We called the police.
In a small Arctic town, it doesn’t take too long for the police to arrive. They were there in minutes with shotguns shouldered. We brought them to the reindeer, and without speaking (as is the Finnish fashion) they poked it with the butts of the guns.
Without saying more, they slunk away.
The poor white reindeer paced back and forth, mourning the loss of its companion.