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To an American sensibility, the reindeer are perhaps the most puzzling inhabitants of Oulanka National Park. Singly and in small herds, they move through the park grazing on mushrooms and lichens and green plants. The reindeer are soft gray in color, often with white hair growing down their legs to their hooves, which gives them the appearance of wearing spats. In this setting they look entirely natural, a Finnish version of mule deer or elk. And yet these are semidomesticated reindeer, sources of meat and pelts that wear ear tags and collars, whose owners will gather them in the fall and corral them through the winter.

All of Oulanka National Park is considered part of the local reindeer herding range. It's as though Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, which is just slightly smaller than Oulanka, were part of the local grazing district, and cattle were turned loose into its alpine meadows during the summer.

Corralling and feeding the reindeer during the winter has reduced the damage they do to the undergrowth in Oulanka. There is a feeling among some Finns, however, that the days of the reindeer herder are numbered, at least in this part of the country. The work is simply too hard, and the dividends too small.

For all its serenity—the quiet oxbows on the river, the deep stillness of the upland mires and spruce stands—Oulanka bears some scars of modern history. This is an old, old land, but a very young park, for Oulanka was established only in 1956. The locals can show you the sites of machine-gun emplacements high above the river, and they will remind you—with feeling that still seems very fresh—that the Finns fought the Russians bitterly in the early days of World War II. If you drive to the boundary zone, a metal gate blocks the road. But it does not block the geology or the biological communities that make Oulanka so rich. They continue across the border into what was once Finnish territory but is now a Russian national park called Paanajärvi.

Kari Lahti, the director of Oulanka National Park, talks to his Russian counterpart in Paanajärvi almost every week. Together they are trying to find a way to make the two parks one, from the visitor's perspective at least. Perhaps someday it will be possible to step into a canoe, slip away from the sandy banks of the Oulanka River, and drift into Russia, uninterrupted by anything more than a family of goosanders taking flight.

But you might not want to. Once you've seen a wood-ant nest, or the autumnal uprising of mushrooms, or the ground white with reindeer lichens, you may find yourself wandering among them in your mind, two feet tall in a realm where voles are the size of sheep and an acre of Oulanka is a whole world. 

Verlyn Klinkenborg's most recent book is Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile. Photographer Peter Essick covered Canada's oil sands for the March issue.
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