Going to the Reindeer Racing World Cup in Kautokeino every year has become a family tradition. As we are always in Alta to visit family during Easter, driving to the Sami Easter Festival is just a quick tour through the North Norwegian landscape – through the gorge, past the frozen waterfalls, along to the frozen lakes and past the Finnmark plains – it’s a beautiful drive that I love doing over and over again.
Ears and Nose, Fingers and Toes
Because the town centre of Kautokeino is fairly flat, especially the reindeer racing ground, it can get very chilly standing out there on the snowy plain. One thing I have learnt about the outdoors in Norway is that getting cold can make you miserable. It is hard to enjoy yourself when all you can think about is going home and toasting up in front of the open fire. The best way to prepare for the Norwegian outdoors is to prepare for the worst. I do this by having two of everything – two hats (beainie and hood, especially to cover my ears), two gloves (finger gloves and mittens) and two pairs of socks (one cotton and one woolen). I also have leggins and snow pants, as well as a jumper, scarf and ski jacket (that covers my neck). This is perfect for the outside but, of course, when you go inside (a lavvo ) you will probably need to take off a layer.
Warms drinks and food also goes a long way. It is very common in the Nordic countries to have a hot lunch to warm the soul. The Sami have a special hot drink called Buljong which is a water soup that warms you from your finger-tips (the mug is nice and cosy in your hands – the steam also warms your nose and face) right down to your toes. You can have tea or coffee – I like to bring a flask of home-made hot chocolate, the warm milk has a soothing effect. At the reindeer racing site there is also a cafe that sells all types of drinks and yummy cream cakes.
It’s fun to get to the races early to watch all the racing business going on. The reindeer are prepped and taken to the waiting area – usually lead by Sami-cowboys on their snowmobile. The organisers have unusual ways to make things usual (and official) – like the weighing of competition sleighs. Just a bathroom scale does the trick. The sled is held by the weigher who then stands on the scales – just too cute!
The competition lasts the whole day. The heats are first and usually there is a break for the tourist division. Then its the finals. There are other activities throughout the day also which are called out over the speaker, however, if you don’t understand Norwegian you might miss a lot. It’s handy to have a native speaker with you but if you don’t have that luxury, walk around to see what is happening.
Note: Even though most Sami speak English, it is very hard to ask someone what is going on because usually no one knows. Everything seems to be run from the seat of their pants – unfortunately no one knows whose pants. It is very easy to get bounced from person to person when asking for a time or schedule of events. At times even the MC would announce activities that where non-events. As mentioned above, the best way to know what is going on is to walk around the field. When you see a lavvo with smoke coming out of the top – go in for a meal. When you see activity – racing, lassoing – go watch. When you see the Sami bring out the sleighs this means it is getting close to the tourist reindeer racing division.
Reindeer Sleigh Rides
If you aren’t keen on competing then you can have a reindeer sleigh ride. As the kids were a little anxious about racing we thought this was a good opportunity to get them used to reindeer first.
This activity is not only fun for the riders but great for the reindeer. The reindeer that are used for the sleigh rides are usually calves that are in training. The rides give the calves good exercise and practise being around people. This is important as it will settle the reindeer for competitions if they become racers or will help them to be herded by tourists during herding tours.
The sleighs are tied together and guided by the Sami. The ride can be quite jerky as the snow can be thick which makes the reindeer have to hop through the snow. The lead reindeer often goes his own way which can make your sleigh slide go into a gully and the Sami have to pull him onto high ground to lead everyone out again. But it is all great fun and the kids love it.
There was one little calf holding everyone back. Because it was his first time out (being only six months old) he was tied at the back of the train. Even though he had no weight to pull he still found it very hard to follow the others as he was a little unfit (he sounded like he was having an asthma attack) – I think he was just working it for the crowd to get some extra attention from the kids. At every stop the train made he would snuggle his nose into the kids lap, hanging his head on their arm. The calf certainly knew how to milk it – and being so cute definitely helped. Their new found friend gave the kids the confidence they needed to compete in the big race.
One of the traditional Sami events is lassoing. This is a practise essential for reindeer herding but it is also now an organised sport and coincides with any reindeer racing competition.
Different comps have different rules but this one was not only about accuracy but also technique and speed. After throwing, the competitors had to wind up their lasso and throw again. The rope had to be wound a certain way to make it open and zip-lock the peg when thrown. It seems very much like a kids game but it was very impressive watching these big men throwing these tiny ropes around a little peg 20 metres away.
The Sami kids were obviously akin to lassoing too. They were running around chasing each other with their lassos. Most often a kid would loop another to the ground and jump on them for the final victory.
Since the kids didn’t have a lasso on hand, they reverted to what they knew best – the rugby tackle. Most people would shake their head if their kids started pumbling each other to the ground but in the snow, on an open plain, in the middle of the Arctic, with the worlds most easy-going people, tackling kids was just normal.
Tourist Reindeer Racing Division
At no particular time, the Sami started preparing for the tourist division. This year there was no official organiser – the Sami who wanted to earn a little extra cash lending out their reindeer and sleigh to some excited tourists rock up to the starting line. They handed over their reindeer, you jumped on, the starter led your reindeer onto the track, and away you went.
The kids got to race each other. Link was off to a good start and Boo lost her reins to the snow on the get-go. By half way they were neck and neck (Boo had no control – lucky her reindeer had the sense to just follow Links). The MC announced (in Norwegian) “Link is in the lead! I’m not sure which one Link is but he has the fastest check-point time!” The crowd laughed. I guess the kid’s unusual English names stumped the Sami MC.
The kid’s faces were beaming all the way across the finish line. With red cheeks from the cold breeze and water droplets on their faces from the snow the reindeer had kicked up on them, their smiles were fixed for at least ten minutes after the race.
Even though the race only lasted four minutes it made their whole day. When asked what was their favourite thing to do in Norway the kids will tell you “definitely reindeer racing”.
You can read about my first time reindeer racing in the post World Reindeer Racing Championships in Kautokeino.
There are also tourist activities available at this time and throughout the year in Kautokeino: reindeer herding, fishing, Northern Lights tours, dog sledding, hunting, overnight stays in Lavvos, firesides with Sami chanting and, of course, reindeer racing.
Sami Easter Festival
Norwegian Easter Holidays
For Sami Activities
Info website for Kautokeino (Norwegian)
Kautokeino City Council (Norwegian)
Official Finnmark Tourism Site