Jessica Oreck is a filmmaker whose work focuses on issues of ethnobiology. Her first feature, "Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo" was released in the US and UK in 2009. Her short film "Venus" played the Sundance Film Festival in 2011.
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I love old Westerns. The character of the cowboy is infinitely appealing to me. I love the idea of a man alone in a great expanse of space, in tune with the weather and the needs of his animals. He knows the stars and the landscape almost innately. He is separate from the driving rush of civilization, his time exists for daylight and moonlight. He doesn’t have a Blackberry.
I wanted to find that type of man (or woman!) – a modern cowboy.
When my parents moved to Helsinki, I spent about three weeks traveling around the north of Finland, searching for the manifestation of this idealized concept of the modern cowboy, but I was consistently disappointed.
Knowing that I was getting frustrated, my mom, helpful as always, said something along the lines of, “Well, there’s this really nice man down at the farmer’s market who sells reindeer meat, I’m sure he knows a family of herders you could get in touch with…”
I was skeptical, but I did end up meeting “the nice man from the farmer’s market,” Jari Etelälahti, in April 2010. Before I could even open my mouth, he said, “I know just the family. You’ll love them. I’ll meet you in Rovaniemi in two weeks.”
Two weeks and plenty of indecision later, I meet Jari in the parking lot of a hotel in Rovaniemi, the largest town in Lapland, more than thirteen hours from Helsinki by train. We get into his car, almost total strangers. A few hours later we arrive at the house of a man named Hannu. Hannu says something in Finnish. The three of us climb into his car and continue north.
An hour later we are in the middle of the woods. We switch to snowmobiles. An hour later we are at a tiny cabin even deeper in the woods. There is no electricity and no running water. Hannu lights a fire. I shiver.
And then I hear the sound of a snowmobile approaching. Moments later, Aarne Aatsinki saunters in. The three men sip coffee and speak Finnish. Without a word of explanation, I am loaded onto the back of Aarne’s snowmobile. I don’t know where to put my hands. His snowmobile is obviously for hard riding, not carrying tourists. I wrap my arms around him in the most polite way I can figure.
We zip across frozen lakes, up mountainsides, take in vistas. We reach a giant fence, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. “Russia,” Aarne says, pointing to the other side. Later in our ride, we are stopped by some border guards who greet Aarne and skeptically study my papers.
More mountains, more vistas. And then, without warning, Aarne stands up quickly, leaving me dangling on the back of his snowmobile with nothing to hold onto. I hear Aarne say quietly, “O-ho” and then we are falling down an incredibly steep, though thankfully short, cliff. We land and Aarne turns off the snowmobile. I dismount ungracefully, shaking. He laughs at me, but in a protective way, while he checks his engine.
As I stand there, trembling, something catches Aarne’s eye and he hikes a short distance up the cliff. He waves me over, points to a track in the snow, and follows the trail to a tiny opening I hadn’t even noticed. Producing a flashlight from within his thick clothing, he peers into a cave and says to me, “Ahma.” I nod, mystified.
It starts to snow. Thickly. Aarne turns his snowmobile and we meet up with Jari and Hannu at a nearby hut. Aarne lights a fire and someone fills a kettle with water. In a few minutes we are all drinking coffee. Jari explains to me that, on our way off the cliff, we must have startled a wolverine (one of my first Finnish words: ahma) leaving his lair. In Finland, wolverines are highly protected animals and it is illegal even track them. Jari expresses his concern for Aarne should the border guards see his footprints.
I ask Jari how long we’ll be here. Jari ask Aarne. Aarne pulls open the door a few inches, looks into the blank, white sky and shrugs his answer in Finnish. “Two hours,” Jari translates. Two hours later, nearly to the minute, the snow stops, the sky clears, and I am back on Aarne’s snowmobile, Jari and Hannu behind us.
Aarne stops several times simply to listen. It always sounds silent to me, but at one point he turns off the path and we crest a hill. Dozens of reindeer are spread out below us – my first sighting of the animals in the wild.
Aarne eventually takes me back to the tiny cabin where we met and shakes my hand goodbye. I tell him I will return in September to meet his family and follow them for a year. He seems to think this is a good idea, and smiles – though I am pretty sure he had no idea what he was getting himself into...