Time Out in Sàpmi

Story by Kicki Lind

Posted: July 5, 2018
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Real winter with lots of snow, northern lights and complete silence are just some of the reasons why people come from near and afar to Swedish Lapland. At Sàpmi Nature Camp visitors connect not just with themselves but also learn something about the Sami culture and its ancient traditions in nature.

Photo © Lennart Pittja

Swedish Lapland, December. The sky is a dark midwinter blue, it is shortly after eight o’clock in the morning, and a thick layer of fresh snow covers just about everything. Our host Lennart Pittja, dressed in warm winter clothes and a big smile, meets and greets us at the train station in the little town of Gällivare, situated in northernmost Sweden some 200 km north of the Arctic Circle.

This is the heart of Swedish Lapland, or, as Lennart prefers to call his native land; Sàpmi. Sàpmi is the Sami name for a region spanning across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and, in Russia, the Kola Peninsula. The indigenous Sami people have had their land here since ancient times.

"Sápmi is a nation without national borders," Lennart explains. "We have a shared history, a shared culture, and a common language. Sápmi is the name of the Sami land as well as of the Sami people."

Photo © Lennart Pittja

Reindeer Country

Lennart is of Sami origin himself, from the Unna Tjerusj Sami community to be precise. It is one of 51 Sami communities in Sweden, and it is reindeer country. The Sami have been herding reindeer since prehistoric times. Most still do, though not all family members will participate, and most will have to take other jobs as well to make ends meet.

"Nature is our culture," Lennart says. "The life cycle of the reindeer has characterized our lives for generations, and I have a strong emotional connection to the reindeer. My father was a reindeer herder, and when I grew up we moved twice a year to follow the reindeer between their summer and winter pastures."

Lennart has his own reindeer now but is based in Gällivare all year round.

"My brother is a full-time reindeer keeper and takes care of the reindeer on a daily basis."

Photo © Kicki Lind

Cozy Rather Than Cold

Leaving the town behind, we drive through a fairy tale winter landscape. There is not a soul in sight. During the darkest months, the sun never rises above the horizon, but that doesn’t mean there is no daylight. There is, and because of the snow, the landscape glows under a sky that shimmers in pastel pink, deep blue and purple.

A while later, we’re sitting comfortably outside on reindeer skins near a small and open crackling fire, overlooking a frozen river, surrounded by snow-clad trees and complete silence. The temperature is minus 15°C but thanks to the thick overalls that Lennart lent us we’re feeling cozy rather than cold.

Over the open fire, Lennart prepares a meal of fried vegetables and gurpi, ground and smoked reindeer meat. Meanwhile, he tells us what it’s like to be a Sami in the 21st century. His traditional Sami clothes are worn only on special occasions, like weddings and parties. He talks about land rights, sustainability, racism, and climate change.

"At least 15 years of climate work could have been won if there had been a different attitude to the ancient knowledge of indigenous people."

Photo © Lennart Pittja

Busy Doing Nothing

A snowball’s throw away from the fireplace near the river are five big tepee-like canvas lavvus. Inside, they have wooden floors, diesel-burning stoves, and proper beds. There is no running water or electricity, and you sauna rather than take a shower.

"You may think it’s a problem that you cannot charge your cell phone here," Lennart says. "Personally, I think it’s a big advantage."

In fact, most guests do too. While disconnecting with the distant, outer world, you reconnect with something close at hand but easy to forget: yourself.

"We have everything we need here to live life close to nature, the Sami way. There is only room for ten guests at a time and that is my conscious choice. People come here from near and far to "do nothing," and we all need space."

Putting on snowshoes or cross-country skis for a leisurely trip through the snow-covered ancient forest is part of Lennart's definition of "doing nothing." So we do. Lennart takes the lead and stops now and then to point out different lichens and traces of animals like ptarmigan, moose, and reindeer. We learn that the Sami have 300 different names for as many different kinds of snow. Today’s snow is oppås.

"It is cold, fluffy, untouched snow," he says.

Many of the different words for snow are related to skiing that has deep roots in the Sami culture. Different terms provide answers to questions like “does the snow stick under the skis?”, “how much does it stick?”, “is it slippery?”, “how slippery is it?”.

"My dad used to spend weeks on skis to follow the reindeer," Lennart tells us. Every night he slept under a spruce or in a traditional lavvu. Things changed big time with the invention of the snowmobile, and he was able to come home to the family every night.

Photo © Lennart Pittja

A Sky Full of Stars

As cities around the world continue to grow, natural wonders, like a sky full of stars, are becoming increasingly difficult to see. As darkness falls over Sàpmi nature camp and its surrounding forest and the frozen river, we stare in amazement at the northern lights.

"I think it's important for us to understand how things are connected in nature," Lennart says. "Something happens to us when we are out in the wild; it makes us understand that we are part of a larger whole. A sky full of stars or northern lights is a life-changing experience for some, as is the clean air, the wide-open spaces, the mountains and the silence. Out here there is time to talk, to think, and feel, really feel. My guests often comment on that. The pub in town has its charm, but it is not the same thing."

Near the five tent lavvus there is a little wooden cabin. Inside it, in the light of candles and a burning fire, we sit down for dinner. The main course is smoked char that Lennart fished and smoked himself. There is his homemade cloudberry tiramisu for dessert.

"Don’t worry if you hear some strange noise outside your tent tonight," he says reassuringly. "It’ll just be some reindeer passing by."