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from the November 2017 issue

Journey toward the Island

Norway’s Laila Stien tracks a group of Sami herders guiding their reindeer on the seasonal migration to the north, fighting obstacles both natural and man-made.

Soon the journey north will be complete. The destination is the island. The terrain is rocky and steep but conceals herbs and grasses that are good for the animals, salt-rich growth they need after the long trip from the inland’s snow-covered lichen plateaus.

It’s daytime. The people are resting. Soon they’ll see the ocean.


The nights have been long and arduous. They had been waiting for milder weather followed by frost and snow crust. But the early spring stayed cold, dry, and lovely, so the snow remained deep, giving easily. A condition that meant hard work for people and animals. Yet they had to leave. The animals were becoming restless. Instinct was driving them north. The herdsmen had camped with the reindeer the last few weeks. They’d remained alert to everything happening, their attention constantly focused on the distant clang of bells. Anxiety for what might be stirring frequently drove them to the tent opening with the monoculars. Any dispersal within the flock signaled the animals were beginning to move north, which meant quickly breaking camp.


One evening they left after sundown.

Nine nights and days have passed since then. The hard-packed, glittering crust never emerged. Instead they’ve struggled their way through loose, heavy snow, fighting a hard battle against the deep, white, and soft element. At times their snow scooters and fully loaded sleds have gotten completely stuck. The head of the household, for his part, has traveled on skis. Up at the front of the herd at first with the lead reindeer following on a rope. But the last few days, he kept behind the flock. The reindeer were moving along nicely, directing themselves. Alert and energetic, he followed the animals. Exhaustion occasionally overwhelmed his limbs and made his movements uneven, stiff. Still, he’s tough and he knows it. He demands from himself exactly what he knows he can render.


The final parts of the journey have been somewhat easier. They’ve left the evenly rolling plateaus with deeper snow for the higher mountain regions. Here the landscape is sparser, more windblown, naked without the twisted dwarf birch trees that livened up the milder country they left behind them. Here the mountains are bare, a promise of spring to come.


Up until now everything has gone well. All the reindeer are still with them. What remains of their journey now is to cross the open sound toward the island. They’ll need to reach their destination before the current appears again. At three in the morning it should be possible to swim the animals over. If they don’t make it during the half hour the swirling water rests, difficulties can arise. Animals can die. It’s happened before. Many times. Most recently last year. At that point the animals were so depleted after the bitterly cold winter just before Christmas. The pastures had been thoroughly iced over. It didn’t even snow until well after New Year’s. The journey to the ocean drained the last bit of strength right out of them. Forty animals drowned. The people will never forget it.


This year, though, everything looks bright. The animals are fat and vigorous, their pelts glossy. The females are pregnant. Hopefully they’ll calve on the island. This year the people don’t dread the swim. Just a tingling excitement––no fear.

The last part passes quickly. Almost too fast. The familiar plateaus are now behind them. Their feet will not touch the lichen landscape again until autumn. The island is a foreign place. Its people are not their own. They have only a handful of relatives there. The summer place isn’t their home. Not completely.

They settle down for a short night and breathe the sea air. Everything smells so different.

The time is near. Everyone is prepared. They’re a large group and everyone knows their tasks. The children as well. It all goes smoothly. Soon the herd is inside the barrier that two of them have hauled and set up in advance. Two small boats bob out on the water and a third rowboat waits close to shore. A relative sits on the thwart with the oars ready to hand. Water drips from the oar blades. The man in the boat knows what they expect of him, these Sami folk. He has done this every year since he learned to handle a boat. The head of the reindeer-herding family approaches the water. The lead reindeer ambles tamely behind him, bound to his master by a rope and many years’ teamwork. The herd follows them. A pair of year-old calves stop and turn to scrape with their forefeet at the stony slope, but soon they trot after the other animals––trusting. The head of the group soon approaches the water’s edge, climbs into the boat; the islander takes a few strokes, at first a bit hectic and fumbling, but then long, powerful strokes. The reindeer starts to swim, follows the boat and follows its master. One by one the animals set out and the herd glides forward atop the surface of the still, smooth sea.


This is a solemn moment for those standing on shore and watching. Most of the group has remained behind. There are just a couple of men in each boat. No one says a word. For a long time, the people just stand there, motionless. Finally, they sink onto the fine sand, dig out the tobacco, the matches, exchange a few words––easy, smiling words. Their eyes follow the bobbing pelts. They cast quick glances at each other. Steadily drawing away is everything of significance, everything upon which their life depends. Out there is life itself. They know this half hour before the herd reaches the island is a fateful one. They’re painfully aware of it. They don’t relax yet. They’re at the mercy of the sea, that capricious element; at the mercy of fortune or misfortune, chance or fate. They wait.

The herd has made it almost halfway across. The boatmen have hauled a year-old calf into the boat. It looked like it was beginning to swim in a ring, like it had lost its sense of direction. Otherwise, the glossy brown, antlered mass slides forward––steadily forward.


On the mainland, a tobacco pouch circulates between hands. Suddenly a boy leaps up, swift, speechless. He shields his eyes with his hands. The others stand up as well. What is it? What does he see? They strain their eyes. It’s so far away. They can’t be sure. Can it be . . . no, no, it’s not possible. The boy curses. Desperate oaths. What else can he do––sit here on the mainland and watch. Watch it happen. The women pray to God, stutteringly, brokenly, then wordlessly. They turn away and turn back again. Both want to see and don’t.


The men in the boats have long been aware of the enormous threat approaching them. The ship. It was the head of the group who spotted it first. Saw the large hull gliding along before they were halfway across the sound. Stood up in the rowboat, waved his cap, calm, sure they could avoid it. Knew the pilots guiding ships through the sound here are local people, people who understand, who will grasp what’s about to happen, should know, should understand. React.

But the ship shows no sign of turning.

He waves his cap more and more frantically, waves with both arms now, standing on tiptoe in the boat to make himself more visible, shouting. In vain. Of course he knows they cannot hear him. Gives the order to row hard, row with everything you’ve got, but at the same time gives the order to hold back, row slowly. There’s no way they can win.

And the ship steams forward. Comes closer and closer.


It is completely silent in the other small boats. They’ve seen what’s coming. They slowly move the oars, take a couple of strokes. A complete stop will bring confusion to the herd. They’ve seen it before. They saw it last year when the animals were exhausted. They lost their sense of direction and began to swim in a ring––round and around until their strength ebbed and they sank to the bottom.

They take a couple of oarstrokes. Right now it’s fine. Right now there’s hope. They’ve quit waving their arms. Anyway, it’s too late to get the ship maneuvered off.

The ship bears the Norwegian flag. They all see it. Wonder at it in the midst of their despair. A blue hull. It glides slowly, slowly forward. Glides past them.

Then come the waves, these violent forces they have expected and feared. To begin with, a small roil. The boats rhythmically rock with the first easy swells. The animals as well. They don’t seem to react. Then the waves sharpen, surge. They strike the rowboats, whip the men in the face. With wool mittens they wipe salt water from their eyes, are able to see again and find the reindeer at the front are already struggling, casting with their necks, stamping at the white foamy spray, trying to turn. Everything happens so quickly. All at once the columns are broken. The rhythmic movements are gone. Antlers lock together. Reindeer bumps into reindeer. Each fights in its own direction. The goal is no longer obvious. There is no goal. Only the desperate preservation instinct. Chaos.

The surges roll high and choppy. Continual.

In the boats there’s not much they can do. The head of the household hauls on the lead reindeer. Bids the rowers: row hard now, row for all they're worth. Stay on course, stay on course no matter what. He jerks and hauls at the rope, but the reindeer will not turn. The animal pulls in the opposite direction, it’s still strong, still has energy. There’s no point. Some of the animals are already lost. They don’t know how many. The man drops the harness, there’s no way to restrain the struggling animal. They concentrate on hauling two year-old calves into one of the rowboats. Exhausted and terrified, the calves lie and float with the waves close to the boatside.

Disheartened, they recognize that the herd has formed a pattern in its fight for survival. A pattern they’ve seen before. A terrifying pattern. The animals are swimming in a large, disorderly ring. They know the ring will eventually tighten. Yes, they know it. There’s nothing they can do. The ring closes in the depths.

They continue to row toward the island and can only hope that some of the animals will follow. With tired relief, they see that parts of the flock have actually broken out of the deadly circle. Yet many animals still remain behind them. It hurts too much to watch. They row. Fix their eyes on the animals following behind––the strongest. At least these shall be saved. Must be saved.

The waves are no longer so white and foamy. They’re subsiding. Soon the current will return to the sound. That can also be a struggle. Too much time has passed. Can they do it?


They will! They’ll overcome the rest!

They continue to row, trembling with sorrow and rage, shaking their fists at the blue hull receding into the distance. But they don’t know if anyone can see it.

 © 2017 Laila Stien. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.

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