Through the snowflakes, something stirs between the trees. Silently, softly, the chestnut shadows of the forest shift between the leaves.
My boots crunch through the ground, eyelashes flickering with white.
Ahead, with muted footfall and striking, treacle-bright eyes, the reindeer step towards us then wait as we approach, buckets in hand.
Up in the arctic circle, reindeer aren’t just found at Christmas.
They live here. Work here. Pay taxes here, or near enough given their contribution to local society.
I’m in the Finnish part of Lapland, a northern territory that spans the national borders of Sweden, Norway and Russia, the spiritual home of the Sami and stunning snow-scattered landscape to boot.
I’m taking my lead from Val, a tall, fair Finn from the nearby Harriniva complex.
He holds what looks like a Body Shop loofah sponge in aloe vera green but that turns out to be lichen, a fungal and bacterial mix.
It works as catnip for reindeer.
In the winter, when there aren’t many plants and it’s even harder to find them, the reindeer rely on lichen to survive.
“They can find it through UV detection,” Val tells me, “from underneath a metre of snow.”
That’s not the only impressive little factoid I learn while reindeer hoover up lichen from my hand.
Reindeer have hollow-fibred hair, their own down jacket, which allows them to survive temperatures of minus 50 degrees, a feat even in a country that considers minus 27 to be a breeze.
They can grow antlers at a rate of 2 cm a day and can run at a speed of 80 kilometres per hour.
But, of course, in conditions like this, they’re not just here to look pretty.
Through their meat, their fur, their speed and their everything, reindeer have helped men to survive beyond the arctic line.
A traditional farmhouse nearby dusts off the centuries to reveal thick-threaded Sami clothing in striking scarlet and black. Appropriately heavy and rusting machinery hangs on wooden walls, the sort that allowed farmers to thrive.
Sleds await, along with shovels and trowels, but a giant nutcracker stood out for its story as much as its shape.
A castration device, E.U. approved, no less. It replaces the more traditional method, whereby herders used their teeth, and not all that long ago at that.
The mind boggles. The men, I’m guessing, wince.
And I plod off through the snow to wait for my next appointment with Lapland reindeer: a twilight sleigh ride beneath the stars.
Disclosure: I travelled to Finland as a keynote speaker for the MATKA Nordic Bloggers Experience. I travelled on to Lapland as a guest of Visit Finland and Harriniva. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like: reindeer, snow, castration, the lot. Otherwise…well, what’s the point?!