Updated: May 28
First you have to catch one, which turns out to be pretty easy if the reindeer are in a corral. The Sami people of Sweden have an agreement with the reindeer. They track and tag the wild heard year round—thousands of them. In the winter, when it's more difficult for the reindeer to survive, the Sami take in the weaker and older reindeer. The reindeer stay in a corral and are fed by the Sami. In exchange, some of the reindeer pull sleds.
In times past, the Sami actually used reindeer to pull loads from place to place. Nowadays, reindeer sledding is a tourist activity, done to educate people like me about native life. Reindeer aren't inclined to pull a sled. They will do it only if there is a set track. Otherwise, I think the reindeer would just run off in some random direction.
My Sami guide handed me a rope and led me into the corral with the reindeer. After he lassoed one by the antlers, I had to attach my rope to the reindeer's collar. Then I carefully led the reindeer to a sled. The guide's assistants attached the reindeer to the sled, and I was told to stand firmly on the brake and not let the reindeer take off. My reindeer didn't actually seem like he was going to run off anywhere, but I didn't want to find out.
To drive the reindeer, the driver stands at the back of the sled, on the runners. The rope serves as a way to coax the reindeer, although it's difficult to see how such a lightweight rope can be felt through the thick skin of a reindeer. Mostly the driver shouts "Hut, Hut" at the reindeer and hope he goes. You need a lot of hope to get a reindeer going!
The track was several miles long. It went through woods and out onto a plain flooded with sunlight and pristine, sparkling snow. The scenery was spectacular. At first I wondered how I would stay on the back of the sled, but my reindeer slow. He was so slow that I jumped off the sled and pushed occasionally—not so much to help the reindeer as it was to keep myself warm in –30 Celsius. When I finally got my reindeer to speed up, I realized it wasn't anything I was doing. The corral was in sight. He wanted to be home.
After the one-and-a-half-hour sledding adventure, our Sami guide took us to a canvas tepee and cooked a lunch of reindeer meat served with lingonberries on traditional Sami bread. Delicious!