Into the field

At a young age, I gave up learning the names for clouds. I’d put myself in the category of people who are not natural taxonomists. Now I can only appreciate them in a whimsical, unscientific way. They are more than visible masses of suspended particles. (Indeed, I’ve wittered on about clouds before.)

Sputtering along just below the rug of clouds in our little propeller plane, the finery of the landscape stands out. Spots of snow scatter the peaks, valleys plunge into flexuous rivers. The land is so green, so fresh. The only word for it is ‘majestic’. My phone’s camera does it less than justice.

Approaching Lakselv by air
Approaching Lakselv by air

Lakselv

The little propeller plane runs a kind of bus service around north Norway. From Tromsø, we dropped a few people off in Alta, then continued to my stop: Lakselv.

Lakselv (literally: salmon river) is a crossroads town under the Porsanger fjord – the largest in its municipality, with just over 2,000 inhabitants. Non-locals archly refer to it as Laks Vegas. If it takes you 30 seconds to walk through the kjøpesenter, you’d be dawdling. I whiled away an hour with coffee and a Saami newspaper. I learnt nothing.

The car rental company lent me a modern, massive, hybrid Lexus. A hulk of a car. The Japanese Mercedes. It took four of us 20 minutes to figure out how to start the damn thing. Ridiculous beast.

Skoganvarre

The ramshackle, riverside campsite of Skoganvarre Villmark is basic in its charms. A fat man wearing braces (suspenders, for those of a certain cultural orientation) thumbs me towards my cabin. He has a jovial grasp of English and almost bubbles when he talks. A couple of reedy men, sipping from cans of Mack Arctic, pay me no mind. The site lies by a river, and rivers mean mosquitoes. The puddles outside my den don’t bode well either. This is my home for the night. There are no curtains. Time to pop the cork on my fieldwork survival kit.

Fieldwork Survival Kit
Fieldwork Survival Kit

Skoganvarre once was home to Saami tradespeople and herders of reindeer, cows and sheep. People would flock from many kilometres around to sample breads freshly baked in a stone oven. That was before someone came and ruined it for everybody. Someone always does.

During the ice seasons, herders would walk from the banks of the river Lakselva to a small island. Here they would pay ‘sacrifices’ (of money, possibly of meat) to a smorgasbord of natural spirits permeating the world of indigenous Saami religion. These places, these gateways to the spirit world, were once known as sieidis. Now they make good fishing spots.

Karasjok

Karasjok’s coat-of-arms depicts three golden flames roaring on a red shield: an important symbol to the local Saami. Another riverside enterprise, the town is one of the cultural heartlands for Saami people – along with Kautokeino, 130km to the south-west. Karasjok is home to the Saami Parliament, a Saami museum and the place to look for duodji (Saami handcrafts). It’s also a 20 minute drive from Finland, where petrol and steak are conveniently cheaper.

Here I meet my interpreter, Jon Mikkel – recently returned from a stint in New York, DJ’ing for the world’s only Saami rapper, Slincraze. A chef, reindeer owner, Facebook addict, musician, and occasional hunter of wolverines, Jon Mikkel is exactly what one hopes for in a local fixer: enterprising, sociable, keen, with a deftness for doing deals. Everyone likes him. Because of these qualities, we managed to interview seven herders in our first two days – seven more than I expected.

Like a substandard Louis Theroux, I employ an unrefined mixture of naïveté, eagerness and wonky smiles. The ITV version, I suppose. People seem to find my research project and me befuddling but mostly harmless. This is good, I think.

Sitting around kitchen tables and café tables, the sounds of spoken Saami draw me in. Saami languages are famous for their hundreds of words describing snow and reindeer, but those are just the numbers, the facts, not the feel of the language. The words flow around you like incense. The ends of sentences deflate to a whisper.

All I understand so far is ‘hello’ and ‘food’. The essentials.

In following episodes, I will natter about my first interviews, living on a husky farm, and a spot of mountainside manual labour…