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Sleeping on Birch Branches in Samiland

July, 2015

This month I traveled to Northern Sweden and joined my friend Fredrik Prost's community for the annual marking of their reindeer calves. It was an amazing experience I will never forget.

Annual marking of reindeer calves in Samiland, July 2015

Though the Sami have given up many of their traditional ways, many persist and in the coming months, I will share aspects I found inspiring or educational.

Fredrik finishing working on his new knife. More of his work here.
Notice the inclusion of our Stretchsit cushion alongside some other basics from the modern world!

Traditional Sami housing is a tepee or lavoo, with long birch poles forming the main structure (these used to be transported from place to place by domesticated reindeer), and stitched reindeer skin providing the cover. The top of the lavoo is open to let smoke from a fire escape.


A Sami family in Norway around 1900


Today most Sami live in regular houses or cabins with varying degrees of modern facilities. Fredrik owns a summer cabin in a village inhabited by his paternal relatives; we visited a village inhabited by his maternal relatives where he does not own a cabin. We stayed in a traditional lavoo though we still had many modern conveniences with us.


Soon after arriving at the village (after a five-hour trek that was a good reminder for me to up my game in fitness and strength!), we cut young birch branches to create a floor. I used my newly acquired knife that I had commissioned Fredrik to make for me.


Fredrik (and I, not visible) cutting small birch branches to create a traditional mattress.
Notice the great hip-hinging (that pre-dates my teaching him good posture)


The birch branches help elevate you off the cold ground (this is the Arctic, where the ground remains cold all year round) and away from the gap at the lower border of the tepee. They are also supposed to soften the surface you are sleeping on but I can’t say I noticed that effect very much! 

The birch branches arranged in the traditional fashion on either side
of the central area which includes the kitchen, fireplace, and entryway (not visible)

We had carried in thin foam pads that went on top of the birch branches which were then topped off with reindeer hides from one of Fredrik’s cousins. His cousin Monica also lent me a rakas (this means “love” referring to the privacy it affords you in a communal tepee).

The rakas, suspended from the tepee poles, provides protection from mosquitoes and 24-hour daylight.
It also offers privacy in a communal tepee.

This is so much better than the miserable mosquito net I had brought along from REI - it blocks out mosquitoes very effectively (thank goodness!) and light (foreigners who stay in the Arctic longterm report having much more trouble with 24 hours of daylight than 24 hours of dark in the winter). My cocoon's space under my rakas served as refuge and a place where I could read Alexander Hamilton (highly recommended and a wonderful balance for my otherworldly experience).

The view from inside my cocoon under the rakas.
It was good to discover that mosquitoes are not good at navigating gaps
at the bottom of the cover though they'll find any hole higher up. 

It can be challenging to sleep on the ground, especially when some parts of you stick out (like my hips or some mens’ shoulders), or when your joints have been recently challenged (as mine were from carrying a heavier backpack than I ever have and trekking through swampland with heavy knee-high rubber boots). There’s not much give in reindeer hide and birch branches, and your spine and other joints are forced into some degree of distortion. This need not cause problems if your baseline spinal length is long and your joints are calm, but this July I was much happier to sleep the way much of the world sleeps - with a three quarter turn in my torso, one knee bent and the other straight, one forearm providing for a second pillow and the other helping keep my shoulder from collapsing forward. Ahhh - I had some comfortable long sleeps in Samiland...


Turning the torso as one unit, as shown above,
allows for comfortable sleep on hard surfaces


I’ve known theoretically that it’s important to periodically check out from one’s usual scene, but it’s only when I actually do it that I fully realize just how important it is. For the first week of July, I had nothing much firing between my ears - no thoughts of things to do, no urgent insights, no place I needed to go or people I needed to see. I just experienced life similarly to how the Sami do.


Fredrik's cousin Ulf, a full time reindeer herder, checking the weather
and resting between stints of reindeer herding


I visited neighboring cabins, went to the sauna and the ice cold lake after, joined the community in the reindeer marking (more about that later), made fires and cooked food, lay around a lot, went for a walk...




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That sounds amazing!

About the sleeping position: what is the left arm underneath (the one we can't see) doing? where is it positioned?

It's providing additional thickness, as needed, so the head is neither angled up or down uncomfortably. The arm could pointing straight up above the head (this is what I usually do), or be folded at the elbow so the forearm or hand are under the pillow acting like a second pillow. 

Thanks for sharing Esther! It's really fun to see a trip like this through your eyes, and I love learning how the rest of the world sleeps as well as your take on it Smile


I'm glad this is interesting to you - it certainly was to me! I'll share other posture/wellness lessons learned in subsequent posts. Thanks for commenting!

Another question about the sleeping position (going to be on the floor for a few days soon): how does a fuller chested woman make it work?

You turn your body thourgh an angle that your body, including your breasts, finds comfortable.

It is environmentally friendly and  very good for healthy sleep. The knowledge and many years of experience of peoples give us rational and simple ideas that we can apply in life.

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