Image: Golli.

In Reindeer Country

 In Culture, Magazine, Magazine Intro, Nature

Words by Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson

Photography by Golli

18:21. All around us are rocks. The wind blows in our faces. Craters, hollows, and dents dot the stony grey hills. For all we know, we’re in Mordor. It beggars belief how any animal can eke out a living here, let alone a herd of reindeer. We’ve been told they’re up here, but as of yet, there’s no sign of life anywhere.

Hush. Siggi has spotted them. The whole group drops to the ground. The tension rises, hearts are pounding, and breathing has never felt louder. The silence is deafening. A few moments pass and peculiar clicks start to break the silence, growing louder and louder. They’re near. All of a sudden, we see them, two hundred antlers poking over the top of the hill barely 40 meters from us. The hunters crawl along the bare rocks, ready to strike. A shot goes off. It’s a miss. The herd gallops off, bar a few large bulls standing menacingly and staring at the shooters before heading off. The chase is on.

A herd of immigrants

Reindeer shouldn’t really be here to begin with. A barren and isolated land, the only land animal to have migrated here naturally is the arctic fox. Industrious Icelanders imported reindeer to Iceland in four groups from 1771 to 1787, from Finnmark in Norway. The idea was that the animals would strengthen Icelandic agriculture, with plans for a Sami family to be imported to teach Icelanders the ways of their semi-nomadic reindeer herding lifestyle.

This never came to be, so the reindeer have roamed wild since they first arrived. The first three attempts to bring reindeer to the Westman Islands, Hafnarfjörður, and Eyjafjörður, respectively, mostly failed. A combination of harsh winters, a limited food supply, along with overgrazing brought them down every time. It wasn’t until the fourth attempt that they succeeded. Today, reindeer only live in one area, East Iceland. The final group, 30 cows and 5 bulls, landed in Vopnafjörður in 1787 and flourished. However, once the reindeer were settled, the enthusiasm died down and Icelanders never followed through on their plans to utilise the immigrant species in an organised manner.

The reindeer have been counted each year since 1940 and their numbers are at an all-time high: over 7,000 animals in the summertime. They see quite badly, having evolved over generations to prioritise UV light, which allows them to spot predators and nourishment easily in the tundras of the world. With no natural predators in Iceland, they don’t need to worry about spotting them. Other than humans, of course.

Guiding light

Even though the East Icelanders never learnt the Sami way of reindeer herding, there are plenty of people who make their living off the reindeer. The first time I see reindeer guide Siggi Aðalsteins, he’s dressed for the part. “How much camouflage is there in the world?” I find myself thinking.

The next time I see him, the evening before heading out to the hunting grounds, he’s wearing a colourful night gown and chomping on cod liver. We say goodnight. My first sight upon waking is him chugging a bottle of cod liver oil. He runs on fat – it’s essential for a man who spends his days hiking for hours on end, following herds of animals through the wilderness.

For a dedicated reindeer guide such as Siggi, each day starts with a reading of the recap of the previous day’s hunt from the Environmental Agency’s website. “Eiríkur with one, hunting a cow. Felled near Hvammsá. That’s not at all where they got her,” says Siggi. “Not everyone knows geography,” his son Aðalsteinn laughs.

The season is a near 24/7 gig for the guides. They barely stop to sleep. For these men, hunting is life. Each day, new hunters arrive, ready for their one hunting day of the year. They’ve passed a marksmanship test and won the golden ticket in the reindeer hunting license lottery. By now, they’re eager to get their hands on a reindeer. Siggi himself guided 92 separate kills last summer.

The hunt is on

10:13. The day starts in Digranes, in the far northeast of Iceland. The plain is wide open, the kind of place which has never experienced calm air. Today is no exception: the wind beats your face with the sharpness of a morning chill. Apparently, a herd had been spotted in the area. On the way here, we see a council of ravens devouring a fallen sheep. Rat-tail fluttering in the wind, Siggi inspects the horizon for signs of reindeer. “They’ve hung out here all summer long. They’re on show for one or two days before they get lost in the Digranes fog again.” Before we know it, the hunters are off. Today, Siggi is guiding Þorsteinn from South Iceland, and Miroslav from the Czech Republic. The tracks of their six-wheelers are the only sign of human activity. We hike along the peninsula, coming upon the tracks every now and then, in between marshes, mounds, and lakes. Reindeer moss crunches below our every step. Camouflaged men disappear quickly in a world of brown, grey, and a hundred shades of green. At first, it feels like you’re all alone in the world. A few more hours up on that heath and I realise how wrong I was. Rock ptarmigans, whooper swans, great northern divers, golden plovers. The wilderness is brimming with life, but unfortunately for the hunters, there’s no reindeer. The hunt in Digranes was unsuccessful.

Cut to the chase

6:43. After the missed shot earlier, we’re on the chase. Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of the herd, who are heading for greener pastures, away from the bleak rock. Clear skies and fair weather are on our side. Siggi barks orders to the men, sending them left, right, and centre. Tensions run high. Still, everything comes to a stop, as nature calls for the main man. “Sometimes I’m with some fools who have no clue what they’re doing. You almost have to think for them, telling them which way to turn. Men hunt more for the sport these days.” Luckily, this is not Þorsteinn’s and Miroslav’s first rodeo.

The day goes on. As minutes turn into hours, the reindeer are proving elusive. The sun is threatening to go into hiding behind the mountains. After a long trek, the trio find an ambush spot – a narrow corridor between rocky hills and Route 85, the road to Vopnafjörður.

Boom. The herd scutters away, moving surprisingly slow at first. One of the reindeer falls behind. The Czech has struck it. Þorsteinn has another in his sights. But we’re right next to the road and a car appears, matching the speed of the herd, the driver watching the fleeing herd in astonishment. The hunter doesn’t take the risk. We observe the herd dart away, leaving the wounded bull behind.

It’s a strange sight, seeing such a mighty animal go down. Weirdly, I feel no guilt. The hunt somehow felt like a natural process. I zone out, lost in my thoughts. Siggi calls us. We move on for another shot. The herd is now moving towards the hills, a lone sheep joining them. Þorsteinn and Siggi settle into the moss. The herd doesn’t see them, edging closer and closer. It is absurdly near, 47 metres (155 feet) away. Boom.

Siggi Aðalsteins with two hunting bulls. Felled in Kinnaland. – August 27, 2019. Environment Agency of Iceland.

This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.

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