LAPLAND, Finland — There are very few reindeer crossing signs in Lapland.

This, despite the fact the northern tier of Finland is home to 200,000 of the herbivores — more on how I know that number in a bit — and hundreds of miles of paved and dirt roads.

There are, however, plenty of reindeer area warning signs along those roads. And that is because, as was explained to me by a resident of Lapland, reindeer don’t so much dart across roads in front of cars like say deer or moose. They just sort of wander along side and from time to time stand in the road watching traffic.

Earlier this year my friend Dr. Julie Pelletier was invited to present a paper at the Second Colloquium on Peaceful Coexistence hosted by the University of Lapland.

The conference site itself was in Pyhä-Luosto, about 600 miles north of Helsinki and 70 miles above the Arctic Circle.

Reindeer? Tundra? Near constant summer light above the Arctic Circle? When Julie invited me to tag along, I was all in.

I even managed to somehow convince her a road trip from Helsinki to Lapland would be super fun. Once out of Helsinki it was clear sailing and we were northbound with visions of the Arctic Circle and reindeer dancing in our heads.

The Finnish scenery was gorgeous, but in all honesty it did look a lot like driving I-95 north of Bangor.

Then we crossed the Arctic Circle — which was pretty hard to miss given the enormous metal ring in the ground marking its location and the multi-building “Santa’s Village” complex complete with official Santa post office, Santa restaurant and dizzying array of Santa souvenir shops.

But no reindeer, Rudolph or otherwise.

That is, not until we had crossed into Lapland the next day and spotted our first reindeer munching grass on the side of the road. Now I know what people coming to Maine and seeing their first moose feel like. Julie was driving and while she was safely pulling onto the road’s shoulder, I was grabbing my camera and preparing to do a tuck and roll out of the car.

Yes, we basically lost our minds at the sight of our first reindeer.

We were still pretty excited at the next dozen or so sightings. By the next day we were still stopping to look at them. On day three, we were barely slowing down.

They are basically everywhere. Majestic in their velveted spring antler glory and cute as the dickens as fuzzy newborn calves.

But everywhere — in fields, along the roads, on hiking paths and in people’s yards.

Remember, there are 200,000 of them. And we know this because every reindeer in Lapland is privately owned.

Every. Single. One.

They are owned by members of Finland’s indigenous Sami people — the only ones permitted to own the animals — and ownership is passed down in families.

“They are not pets,” Mari Martin, with the Pyhä-Luosto Resort Association, told me. “They are not scared of people, but you really can’t go up to them like cows.”


The reindeer, Martin said, spend the long, dark Lapland winter in large fenced enclosures being fed hay and other reindeer delicacies. Come spring, they are turned loose to wander the countryside and, presumably, play reindeer games.

Each one bears a notched ear, specific to the Sami family who owns it. Calves are born often before the females are turned loose for the year and are notched as babies.

In the fall they either wander back home or are rounded up by their owners.

They are raised for their fur, skin and meat — a delicacy not to be missed. Like moose and deer, they do drop their antlers which are collected and sold for a pretty hefty price to be turned into jewelry, carvings or knife handles.

As someone who has spent decades dodging moose and deer on Maine’s roads, I asked Martin about car-reindeer collisions.

They are not all that common, she said. But they are oddly welcomed.

“When a driver hits and kills a reindeer, they are responsible for compensating the animal’s owner for the cost of that reindeer,” she said. “So we are a bit happy when one gets hit.”

The reindeer signage, it turns out, indicates when you are in a reindeer husbandry area.

“Look at that,” Martin said as she drove me on a lovely tour of the area, pointing at a mother reindeer and calf standing placidly in the road. “This is what they do.”

As Martin slowed down, the animals wandered up to the car and plodded along side for a bit before turning up into the woods.

A few days later, on our drive south, Julie and I had a similar encounter when we came across two female reindeer smack in the middle of the road. We stopped the car and soon found ourselves in what is best described as a Jets vs Sharks “West Side Story” face off.

The two animals locked gazes with us and marched up to the car with no sign of giving way.

Thankfully, at the last moment, they veered off and continued up the road, thus saving us from having to explain to the car rental company how we got reindeer prints on the car’s hood and roof.

When it comes to that particular reindeer game, I honestly don’t know who won.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.