Snowmobiles Are For Sissies


Travelling by reindeer, Archangel, Russia. Late 19th century photochrom
Image: Library of Congress

As Christmas scenes go, it takes some beating: skidding through the crunching snow, a pearly landscape peppered by fir trees gliding by, and a magnificent creature taking the strain of the trip. With the festive season well and truly upon us, we thought it would be a merry idea to spruce up the occasion with a post on the joys of riding in a sled pulled by reindeer. Everyone knows of the flying beasts that star in the Santa Claus myth, but what’s the reality of this form of transport for the true-life Dashers, Dancers, Donners and Blitzens – and what of its history?

Coming through! People being pulled by reindeer today
Image via Food Job Blog

While reindeer hunting has been practiced since stone age times, the history of reindeer husbandry is not nearly so long in the hoof. Even so, for centuries Arctic and Subarctic people like the Sami, indigenous to Scandinavia, and Nenets, native to Russia, have been herding these cold weather adapted deer, where their usefulness for transportation over the snow and ice was married to other purposes – meat for food, and hides and antlers for making tools, clothes and dwellings.

Why have we stopped? Family travelling by reindeer sled in Alaska, 1900
Image via Old Picture of the Day

Historically, reindeer have been tamed for milking and pulling sleds – harnessed as draught animals due to their great physical strength. In the late 19th century, they were introduced as semi-domesticated livestock in Alaska by Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson as a means of providing a livelihood for Native peoples. Reindeer were imported first from Siberia, and later also from Norway, and a regular mail run in Wales, Alaska, used a sleigh drawn by the antlered ones.

What do you mean I’m not going fast enough? Across a frozen river in the Arctic
Image: casa de mermonkey

Today, driving reindeer sleighs is a practice born as much of choice as necessity. Six-day reindeer sled safaris through the “magical winter landscape of Swedish Lapland” are sold as “steeped in the traditions of the Sámi people”. And while in the 21st century the Sámis rely more on snowmobiles than reindeer for winter transport, for the herders who guide such expeditions, the reindeer is central to their way of life – as a cultural symbol, as an animal their families have worked with for generations, and as a source of income, not least from Rudolph-inspired tourism.

Merry Christmas to all our readers! Reindeer at Lammintupa near Ruka Finland
Image: timo w2s

Sources: 1, 2