Runs with the reindeer
Riikka Kenttälä knows what it is like to live in harmony with the Lapland nature – and reindeer. From the age of 13, this young entrepreneur has also showed others what's it like to sit in a sled pulled by reindeer and watch the Levi landscape go by.
THE GROUNDS ARE like a scene from a century ago: houses built from wood beams that have beco-me grey, old tools hanging from the outer walls. Two Finnish Lapponian Herders appear.
A young woman walks behind them with a smile on her face. She is Riikka Kenttälä, seventh in the Kenttälä family to live by the picturesque Ounasjoki river.
- Welcome to Sammun-Tupa!
Riikka sits at a wooden table outside and the dogs jump on the table. A girl dressed in a ski outfit comes to pet the other dog.
- This is Inka and this is Unna, Riikka introduces the dogs.
She says that this used to be a cottage of a forest ranger and that her grandmother’s uncle lived here - far away from habitation. Back then the only way to get here was by rowing along the Ounasjoki river or walking along a footpath by the shore.
Riikka’s parents inherited the place in 1982 and opened a café for skiers. Ten years later they began the reindeer tou-rism business and started a sauna rental business. By then, there was a narrow road leading to the place.
- My mother had a tiny, old red car and I remember it was a bumpy ride driving down that road, Riikka says.
Many other things were different in her childhood, too. The Levi slopes had only T-bar lifts and less visitors. Riikka knew almost all residents staying at the holiday cottages and played with their children. Now there are hundreds of cabins.Even though there were few visitors back then, the Sammun-Tupa café had plenty of customers: cross-country skiers circling the fells and dropping in for a coffee and a sweet pastry.
And they still do. You can hear the Gore-Tex and lycra fabrics rustling. The ski trails go right by the house. People take their skis off and stick them up in the ski rack. The ski boots are stomping, people are going in and out.
Let’s step in.
THE WOODEN COTTAGE smells of sweet pastries, old artefacts hang on the walls and there are colourful handi-crafts for sale.
A rosy-cheeked family enters and buys pastries.
- We are selling those like hot cakes, Riikka says.This is where Riikka has been working ever since she was a child helping with everything she could. At 13 she began arranging reindeer safaris – though customers had no idea that the entrepreneur pulling the reins was so young.
- I’ve always been tall for my age, Riikka laughs.
Riikka knew what she was doing. The safaris could be 12 kilometres long and lasted for hours. She made coffee on an open fire and chatted away about life in Lapland in fluent English and a little bit in German.
She did not hesitate taking the sled through testing terrains.
Riikka has literally grown up in nature wandering in the woods and the wilderness. As a teenager she ran off in the fells when she felt she needed a moment to herself.
- When I got mad at my parents.
Riikka says she had the urge to leave for a while right after upper secondary school.
She went to Kokkola (southward by the sea) to study and got a degree in marketing.
When she came back north, she did not waste any time. She started to develop the marketing of Sammun-Tupa and bought her godfather’s reindeer. She already had some of her own so now she had even more reindeer. She started to systema-tically develop excursions and all sorts of activities around reindeer.
- I wanted to offer even more high-quality services and host smaller groups.
Anything to do with reindeer, of course.
Riikka cannot imagine life without them.
RIIKKA TAKES THE LEAD. She shows they have taken the reindeer “in” to their feeding spots – meaning they are not running around the fells where they usually roam free the entire summer and autumn.
Riikka remembers the name of each and every one - Nemo, Lauha, Nasti, Rölli... – and describes the characteristics of each one.
- Each one has its own personality and you have a one of a kind bond with everyone.
Lauha is one of her favourites.
- She is the one I most often choose for an excursion.
This means that people who participate in the Sammun-Tupa reindeer safaris are often being pulled by Lauha.
Another reindeer Riikka was really close with was Ukko-nen who passed away recently at the age of twenty.
- I’d been out and about with him since I was nine, Riikka says.
Reindeer herding is an art form of its own, a different world and culture. There are traditions and knowledge – some of which you don’t share with outsiders.
- A reindeer herding cooperative is called paliskunta. It’s a community, Riikka explains.
There are 57 communities in Lapland that take care of the reindeer belonging to herders in a community. If you want to become a reindeer herder it’s not going to happen just like that.
- No one will sell you reindeer if you are a stranger and an outsider.
Riikka says that first you have to hang around and get to know people.
Perhaps it’s easiest to marry someone who has reindeer, Riikka laughs.
Or, you can just enjoy them and enjoy the ride here at Sammun-Tupa: sit in the sled and let the reindeer take you through the snow-covered woods and the icy shores of Ounasjoki river.
Riikka says that even though she grew up in the magic that is the Lapland nature she is still sometimes amazed by it. The beauty is something else.
- In October I saw the northern lights, huge patterns dancing for over an hour changing colour and rhythm.
The full moon also has an effect on Riikka.
- The forest looks like an enchanted fo-rest, she says, like Narnia: Magical light that is so bright you can see the colours in the dark. With such a contrast between lights and shadows, the shadows of the trees become jet black and longer than usual. Even snow mounds look different from what they look like in the moonlight usually. They look as if they have become alive.
If this takes Riikka’s breath away, ima-gine the effect it has on people visiting Lapland for the first time?
IT’S AN HONOUR for Riikka to have the guests leave happy. Sometimes it takes a bit more work. At first, this year looked like it was going to be a challenge, Riikka says. It was not snowing. No snow means no reindeer safaris – and there were numerous bookings made in advance. Riikka did not twiddle her thumbs but instead of a sled ride, she took people to feed the reindeer and have “a chit-chat” with them. And at the end, everyone got to enjoy coffee on an open fire in a kota hut.
- Everyone left very happy, Riikka says.
- I felt like a winner.
It finally began to snow covering the moss that had become brown, the hay on the sandy shores and the pink stone fields on the fells. The river froze over. The guests got to experience something that for many is the highlight of their trip: sitting in a reindeer sled and enjoying the silence of the intact wilderness.
Riikka tells how everyone returns from the ride happy with the beautiful scenery, reindeer and the coffee made on an open fire. But most of all they praise Riikka and the entire Kenttälä family.
- They say the best thing about us is that we are just the way we are. Genuine.
Levi's oldest ski café
A historical, traditional house and grounds
An authentic reindeer farm
Open daily 1.12.–31.4. and throughout September
In addition to the café, The Sammun-Tupa grounds offer lots of services: you can rent a sauna, go on a reindeer ride and have a party in one of the old houses on the estate.