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Ultimate North: Lapland

I'm told that a number of Sami families operate reindeer farms for tourists, but I am not interested in the packaged brand of authenticity. The museum, unfortunately, has a policy of not giving out the numbers of private farmers, and it takes a long time to convince the staff that I am not just another ethno-rubbernecker. At last an employee relents and introduces me to her boyfriend, Petri, who is an actual herder. (He calls himself a "reindeer guy.") Petri agrees to take me out for the day.

He is a friendly, laid-back man in his early thirties, with the kind of blue eyes you rarely see this side of Paul Newman. I climb onto the back of his snowmobile, and we speed across a white lake into the forest. Petri has attached a homemade wooden sled loaded with hay to the back of his vehicle. Lapland's reindeer are semi-domesticated—they live in the wild, but they depend upon herders for food as their supply grows scarce in winter. When we reach the place where his reindeer currently hang out, Petri climbs off the snowmobile and begins to call the herd. His shout, which is not quite a yodel and is extremely loud, sounds like "yes!" And, yes, they come wandering in, from every direction. A lot of them.

Reindeer are much smaller than I expected. Their long, thick fur comes in many colors, from mottled gray to brown to pure white, and they carry themselves with the dignity (and wariness) of wild beasts. As his herd ignores us in favor of the hay, Petri cuts twigs and small pieces of wood to build a fire in a hole cleared of snow. He uses a knife with a carved handle of reindeer horn. He is dressed in ordinary cold-weather gear, except for a wide belt decorated in the Sami fashion, and boots of reindeer pelt with pointed elflike toes.

Traditional Sami outfits, called gakti, are generally dyed one of the brighter colors found in nature—often blue—and decorated with even brighter beadwork and embroidery. Cap styles differ greatly, depending upon the village, and the embroidery is an ancestral code. You do not often find Sami wearing full gakti except at formal ceremonies, and great controversy surrounds the abuse of traditional clothing in the tourist trade; the Sami are sick of seeing watered-down versions wrapped around burger girls.

"I don't know about you," Petri says, "but I am hungry." He pulls out a slab of smoked reindeer meat, which is frozen solid. Petri cuts off a chunk of meat, which he spears on a long stick and tells me to hold in the fire. The point is not to cook the meat; it's already smoked. You just want to heat it until it unfreezes. Water drips from it as it warms.

Petri gives me the knife to cut off a piece when it is done. The verdict?This stuff is fantastic. I've tried reindeer in various restaurants here (Ru-dolph is on just about every menu in Lapland), but Petri's smoked meat occupies a whole different stratum. It's not easy to pin down the taste, but imagine wild pastrami.

Petri pulls a tiny, blackened kettle out of his pack: "Now I'll make us some coffee." Finlanders pride themselves on consuming more coffee than any other people in the world. Which is funny, when you consider how sober and laconic they tend to be. You'd expect them to be racing around, with shaking hands and crazy ideas. "Why do the Finns drink so much coffee?" I ask.

"Because it's good."

He pours the coffee into traditional Sami cups. These are fashioned from birch burls, and have a gourd-like shape with a bottom that prevents them from tipping when placed on the uneven ground.

"I like it here," Petri says. And I become exquisitely aware that I'm parked beside a fire on a handmade sled in the Lappish wilderness, drinking coffee in the clear winter air with a Sami herder and his personal herd of gorgeous reindeer. I like it here, too.

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