The first lesson in Reindeer Handling 101 was what it's like to be gored by a rutting bull reindeer.
"I was one of those guys who thought, 'Not me; not my bull Eli,' " said the professor of the course, Tom Scheib, warning against the dangers of complacency. "But then he had me up on his brow tines, pinned against that big old wood sled in the yard. I was hanging on, but I could feel the tines moving around under my ribs."
Scheib, a 58-year-old man crowned with a wild mess of white hair and a wiry white beard, is the kind of storyteller who doesn't just say the words; he relives them.
At this point, his pale blue eyes were bulging and a look of bewildered doom inhabited his face. His meaty fists grabbed the top of the antlers. His muscular arms flexed as he struggled out of his chair to keep from being further impaled on the points of the bull's massive antlers. His raspy voice repeated the train of thought that had roared through his mind at the time.
"I thought it was over. I've looked death in the face four, maybe five, times. I was in the Marines, served combat duty in Vietnam; I looked people in the eye, threw hand grenades, and here I was hanging in the rack of my 465-pound reindeer in my yard, withering on the vine. And here I was, this German, and these Finns here were going to bury me, and put on my tombstone, 'He was killed by his reindeer in his yard.' "
From his tone, I took it this would be a lowly fate for a German who grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm. He had married a Finn, but he did not want to be buried by them in Finland, Minn.
Fortune intervened, he said. About the time that he envisioned the Finns gleefully chiseling the embarrassing epitaph on his tombstone, a neighbor stopped by to buy a bag of corn, saw what was happening and distracted the bull. Scheib, bleeding from several puncture wounds, dropped off the antlers and rolled under the sled.
"And that changed my attitude" about the danger of reindeer handling, he said.
Perhaps, I thought, Rudolph shouldn't have felt so bitter about being left out of the reindeer games. I realized then that Reindeer Handling 101 was going to be less of a warm and fuzzy holiday experience and more of a hazardous odyssey into the heart of ungulate darkness.
The lesson on the unpredictability of rutting bulls was delivered in the best possible classroom: a working reindeer farm. From where we sat in Tom Scheib's kitchen, Eli -- the now-gelded reindeer -- was visible through the window above the sink.
It was a textbook example of the philosophy of North House Folk School, the university of craft sponsoring Reindeer Handling 101: To learn to handle reindeer, students spend a long weekend at Tom Scheib's farm, handling reindeer.
Instead of isolating the learning from the doing, as is often the case in academia, North House brings them together in a collegial, noncompetitive environment. North House was modeled on the Danish folk school movement of the 1800s. There are no grades. Learning is done for the love of learning.
Most of the classes at North House, which opened in January, are held in a couple of empty Forest Service buildings on the shore of Lake Superior in Grand Marais, Minn. To learn to make a birch-bark canoe, you make one alongside a master builder, who is also building one. To learn to make a Norwegian knife, you sit down beside a Norwegian knifemaker, and follow along from the shaping of the handle to the sharpening of the blade.
When I got the North House class schedule in the mail last spring, I carefully considered the options. I really would like to build a birch-bark canoe someday. And I thought the Norwegian knifes looked beautiful. There were classes in basket weaving, rosemaling, snowshoe-making. But my love of the obscure was requited when my eyes met the words "Reindeer Handling."
"This course is for reindeer owners or those interested in learning about this draft animal of northern Scandinavia," it said. Participants would learn "the basics of leading a reindeer and how to drive a reindeer in harness," along with how to raise and breed reindeer, if we were so inclined.
Reindeer farming had not crossed my mind as a career option, but I could see the value in spicing up my lackluster resumé: "Types 60 words a minute, speaks some Spanish, can handle reindeer if necessary."
So I ponied up the $225 tuition (which, as it turned out, included a spot for my sleeping bag on the floor of an empty cabin owned by a friend of Scheib's), and in early October, I drove up the North Shore to the tiny village of Finland.