A Month in the Life of Reindeer Herders

About this time of year, professional reindeer herders and tourists alike get together to celebrate Reindeer Herders’ Day across the Yamal region of Russia. Lasso throwing, sled racing, and reindeer meat eating abound.

Photographer Dmitry Tkachuk, who was born and still lives in Tyumen’, Russia, wanted to do a story on the event, so he traveled to one in Nadym. While he was there he met the Nenets, who are nomadic herders in northern Arctic Russia. He wanted to know more about their lives following reindeer on the tundra, so he asked them if he could come along.

They agreed. Tkachuk traveled with the Nenets through the Gulf of Ob to the village of Yar-Sale on the Yamal Peninsula. Their way of life isn’t easily observed—the region they inhabit is extremely remote. When Tkachuk was with them, he said the nearest settlement was almost a hundred miles away.

In Nenet culture, herding is traditionally a man’s job, but Tkachuk was more impressed by the women. “They carry all the household responsibilities,” he says. “They put up tents and disassemble them, they cook, they collect wood, they split wood, they burn it, and they make all the clothes.”

“This is a very hard way of life,” he says. The Nenets endure temperatures as cold as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit at nighttime, and they’re basically in a permanent state of exercise—between constantly rebuilding their chums (rawhide tents), keeping warm, and herding reindeer.

The cold was hard on Tkachuk, but his hosts shared their deerskin clothes with him—hide is one of the only materials that can withstand the extreme temperatures. It’s so insulated that he says walking a hundred feet or so in it is enough to get warmed up. And when a short walk isn’t enough, there’s always work. At one point, he says, “I was so cold that in order to warm up I had to go catch reindeer and put harnesses on them.”

His camera didn’t handle the cold as well as he did. He had to take special care that his breath didn’t create ice on the LCD screen, and when he entered a chum he had to remove the batteries and warm the camera over the wood stove to prevent condensation from forming on it.

Tkachuk traveled with the Nenets for a month, learning the rhythms of their routine. “I wore their national dress, harnessed deer, roamed, didn’t bathe, and ate raw meat. I did everything as the Nenets do.” In the end, he said his favorite part of the experience was something that can’t really be pinned down. “I better understood their freedom.”

Find more of Dmitry Tkachuk’s work here.

See more photos of the reindeer herding life in the National Geographic magazine story “The People Who Walk With Reindeer.”

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