TRAVEL

Imag­ine a bunch of wild, crazy and strong an­i­mals rac­ing across a cir­cuit in the Arc­tic. Come April and the rein­deer of north­ern Fin­land will com­pete on the ice of frozen Lake Inari. Cathy FitzGerald had a taste of the big event

Friday - - Contents -

With Christ­mas far away, rein­deer use the time off to race. Watch them on the frozen Inari lake in north Fin­land.

I’m in the far north of Fin­land. The sky is a per­fect blue; be­neath it, a few feet of ice lie be­tween me and the black depths of Lake Inari. I’m part of a crowd, a thou­sand or so strong. We watch. We wait. Whoosh! Huff! Crunch! Half-a-dozen pant­ing rein­deer fly by, each pulling a jockey, crouched low over cross-coun­try skis.

I’m here to make a Christ­mas ra­dio doc­u­men­tary for the BBC World Ser­vice about rein­deer rac­ing, a big thing in the Arc­tic Cir­cle. Ev­ery spring, com­mu­ni­ties get to­gether in for­est clear­ings to watch rein­deer haul rid­ers around 1km cir­cuits. The gath­er­ing on Lake Inari is the fi­nal meet of the Fin­nish sea­son; it’s here that the fastest 24 an­i­mals race to be crowned The Rein­deer King.

The lake cov­ers 1,040km of some of the most re­mote, sparsely pop­u­lated ter­ri­tory in Fin­land, form­ing a vast nat­u­ral arena amid the for­est. But the track, carved a few days ear­lier by snow­plough, is only a 20-minute walk from one of the few pop­u­la­tion cen­tres in the

re­gion, the lit­tle town of Inari – which makes it easy to sneak back to the hotel to warm up with a cof­fee or a sauna.

Dur­ing the rest of the sea­son, the rein­deer and their jock­eys race in groups of four to six. But on Cham­pi­onship Sun­day they whizz around a longer, 2km cir­cuit one at a time, against the clock. The world record at the dis­tance – 2 mins 26.90 sec­onds – be­longs to a rein­deer called Eurokas, set in 2005.

Train­ers spend many hours a day with their an­i­mals. ‘A good race rein­deer has to be strong and fast, but it also needs a big heart for blood cir­cu­la­tion and big lungs,’ Juhani Lakela tells me. His fam­ily has been herd­ing rein­deer since the 1600s. ‘And of course, the mind ...’ I hear a lot about rein­deer psy­chol­ogy dur­ing my trip. Good rac­ers are al­pha an­i­mals: wild, crazy, strong.

Some­times, rac­ers can be too in­de­pen­dent. It’s not un­usual for a rein­deer to get half­way around the course and then jump off the track and make a break for the for­est. ‘With horses you can be a leader and tell them what to do,’ says Anne Ollila, di­rec­tor of the Rein­deer Herders’ As­so­ci­a­tion. ‘With rein­deer you have to ne­go­ti­ate.’

Cham­pi­onship week­end, which takes place on 1-2 April 2017, is a big so­cial event for the rein­deer herd­ing com­mu­nity – a chance to catch up af­ter the long win­ter. Lit­tle kids in over-size sun­glasses are pulled around in sledges like tiny rock stars. A group of older rein­deer herders in huge furry hats chat as they browse the mer­chan­dise at the cow-bell

It’s not un­usual for a REIN­DEER to MAKE A BREAK for the for­est. ‘With horses you can tell them what to do,’ says Anne Ollila, of the Rein­deer Herders’ As­so­ci­a­tion. ‘With rein­deer you have to ne­go­ti­ate.’

stall. The snow­mo­bile stand is pop­u­lar: herders ex­am­ine the paint­work and check eBay prices on their mo­bile phones. There’s food ev­ery­where: I try rein­deer sausages and rein­deer stew; but my favourite is a rye bread sand­wich con­tain­ing potato salad, sautéed rein­deer and lin­gonberry sauce.

There are just a few tourists among the crowd, but I have a hunch that’s go­ing to change. Spread out along the lake­front, Inari is a peace­ful, empty place. It’s not ac­ces­si­ble by di­rect flight but the Visit Inari of­fice in the cen­tre of the vil­lage runs ac­tiv­ity pack­ages: aurora hunt­ing, win­ter fish­ing, husky trips, sleigh rides, snow­mo­bile ex­pe­di­tions. Si­ida, a big com­plex on the edge of town, is home to the Sami Mu­seum and North­ern La­p­land Na­ture Cen­tre, and has a cosy café. Hotel Inari is clos­est to the cham­pi­onship

ac­tion, in the cen­tre of the vil­lage with lake­side views. It’s smart, mod­ern and some of its rooms have pri­vate saunas. But my choice is Hotel Kul­ta­hovi, run by the Nikula fam­ily for nearly 50 years. It’s smaller but rooms have ‘aurora cams’, so you can keep an eye on the sky with­out freez­ing your toes off.

The hotel restau­rant, Aanaar, serves the best food in town, com­bin­ing rein­deer with flavours like choco­late and pine, and mak­ing use of lo­cally for­aged wild greens, lichen, fungi and berries. Lightly smoked rein­deer heart is a typ­i­cal main, served with mar­i­nated root veg­eta­bles, ju­niper, horse­rad­ish yo­ghurt and pine moss; desserts in­clude choco­late fon­dant with spruce nee­dle ice-cream.

Aanaar also hosts the big party on cham­pi­onship week­end. The rein­deer herders slip out of their ski suits and furry hats into smartly ironed shirts; mous­taches are trimmed and shoes pol­ished. A crooner in his 60s pre­sides: this is Eero Magga, fa­mous for his big hit, The Rein­deer Herder’s Kiss. As the ac­cor­dion pumps, the herders bob up and down and round the dance floor; I’m taken for a twirl by a chap in his 30s with per­fect man­ners and a good-size herd.

At mid­night I slip out­side into the frozen car park. I take a step and put a foot straight through the thaw­ing ice and into three inches of freez­ing wa­ter. But that doesn’t mat­ter ... up above, waves of green, pur­ple and red flicker like fire. It’s the per­fect end to the per­fect Arc­tic ad­ven­ture – the north­ern lights.

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The world record over the 2km cir­cuit is 2 mins 26.90 sec­onds, set by a rein­deer called Eurokas in 2005

Rooms at the Hotel Kul­ta­hovi (above and below right) have ‘aurora cams’ to check if the north­ern lights (below) are out

Rein­deer aren’t just on the race­track – they are also on menus, in­clud­ing at Aanaar, above, the best place to eat in Inari

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