Rudolph don’t sulk; pull Santa’s pulk
This Sámi-invented solution is still used by skiers in Norway—if not by Saint Nick
M. Michael Brady
A pulk is a boat-shaped, runnerless sled that evolved from the reindeer-drawn sleds (bul’ka in Sami, pulk in Norwegian) long used by the nomadic Sámi of the high north. Like toboggans developed by indigenous Canadians, pulks ride on top of snow.
The original Sámi pulks were primarily passenger sleds. The Sámi also made heavier cargo sleds (ahkio in Sámi) that evolved to the akia rescue toboggans used by ski patrols in Alpine ski areas.
The origin of pulks is unknown, but they were first mentioned in the accounts of travelers on the fur-trade route from Great Bulgar to the White Sea, some 200 years before it was obliterated by Genghis Khan’s expanding Mongol Empire. They were next mentioned along with skis, in the writings of 16th- and 17th-century scholars traveling in Arctic regions.
Foremost of these works is the travelogue Opera Lapponia by Johan Scheffer, a professor of mathematics and language at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, published in 1674 upon his return from his travels among the Sámi (who consider the word “Lapp” derogatory). The book, translated from the original Latin into several European languages including English, contained lengthy descriptions of skiing, reindeer, and pulks. One woodcut depicts a single reindeer pulling a pulk. Only one reindeer is shown, because, unlike other draft animals, reindeer will not work together in teams. Most complete of these books was the edition of 1682, published in Amsterdam.
Modern pulks are available in several types and sizes, suited to various purposes, loads, and speeds. Lightest and most common are kiddie-pulks, over-snow baby carriages intended to be pulled by a skier. Some models of pulks are designed for pure speed, such as those used in competitive Nordic dog-sled racing, in which a cross-country ski racer skis along behind a dog-drawn pulk.
The pulks of today have molded, fiberglass-reinforced plastic hulls fitted with covers of nylon duck. Most fittings are aluminum; parts subjected to stress may be made of steel. Most draw shafts are made of fiberglass or aluminum tubing. Dog harnesses and draw belts for adult skiers are usually made of nylon webbing.
Pulks are used in almost all skiing countries. Sales figures suggest more pulks are used in Norway than anywhere else. That may be why the leading pulk producer is Norwegian, Fjellpulken in Lillehammer; another popular Norwegian brand is Norpulken (websites of both companies are selectable in Norwegian or English).
Carrying a child in a pulk is harder than wheeling a baby carriage. Pediatricians and skiing organizations have put forth 10 common-sense rules for carrying children in pulks:
1. Children may ride in pulks only after they are old enough to sit up by themselves.
2. Children younger than 2 should not ride in pulks at temperatures or equivalent wind chill less than -10°C (14°F).
3. Consult your pediatrician about any special precautions for your child.
4. Always use a recognized brand of pulk of sturdy construction, with safety bars, a cover, and a windscreen.
5. The child should lie in a fur, down, or synthetic-down sleeping bag.
6. Always place a shock-absorbing, water-repellent pad between the child and the pulk shell.
7. Avoid hard, bumpy trails or tracks on which a pulk will ride roughly.
8. In warm or humid weather, frequently air or ventilate the child’s bag.
9. A child should wear sunglasses or goggles in bight direct or reflected sunlight. Tinted windscreens provide little protection.
10. Two are better than one for skiing with a pulk, so one can keep an eye on the child passenger.
Safety heeded, carrying an aware child in a pulk may entail the challenge of explaining why it isn’t similar to the reindeer-drawn sleigh of the traditional Christmas myth of a flying Santa Claus.
Indeed, if the Santa Claus of today were as scholarly as he is jolly, his reindeer-drawn Dutch-type sleigh probably would be a pulk. After all, he is a Dutchman; Santa Claus is a contraction of the Dutch Saint Nicholaas. Although Santa’s sleigh is the superior word for rhyme in the traditional children’s Christmas song, there’s no record of runner-type sleds ever being drawn by reindeer. Some unknown artist’s imagination looms larger than historical fact. But change is always possible. One might sing: “Rudolf don’t you sulk, Santa wants you to pull his pulk.”
This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.