Like a modern-day Santa Claus, Jane Atkinson has a team of eight charismatic reindeer at her disposal. But instead of using them to haul a mythical sleigh once a year, she takes them for frequent walks through the boreal forest with curious tourists in tow. And her reindeer have sensible names befitting family pets — Olive, Jasper, Daisy, Buttercup, Rocket, Margarita, Sapphire and Toby.
“You will find my reindeer are full of personality,” Atkinson promises those of us gathered at Running Reindeer Ranch in the Goldstream Valley near Fairbanks. We have all come to Alaska to chase the northern lights at night and do things like ice fish, mush dogs and walk with reindeer by day.
This is no superficial meet-and-greet — the experience lasts two-and-a-half hours. Things start with a lengthy talk and safety briefing, continue with a long walk and end with more educational chitchat plus homemade cookies.
Years ago, Atkinson nixed her young daughter Robin Spielman’s dream of owning a horse, goat, sheep or some kind of livestock. But one day when they passed the University of Alaska’s Reindeer Research Program and spotted the domesticated livestock animal that’s related to wild caribou, Atkinson weakened and said yes — as long as her daughter did the research and raised the money.
With the help of fundraising cookie dough, Spielman eventually bought two reindeer. Now she’s a rafting guide and ski instructor in Wyoming and the family home has evolved into a business. Atkinson, a community educator, former nurse and passionate gardener, cares for the reindeer with her disability advocate husband Doug Toelle. She has communed with fellow reindeer herders in Mongolia and Norway.
Walk like a reindeer
Jennifer BainJennifer Bain
“I just think it’s good for their brain and their soul to get out and explore,” says Atkinson. The longtime vegetarian lets her herd out of their fenced home three to six times a week to walk with visitors. The “homebodies” roam freely but wear halters so hunters don’t mistake them for wild, migratory caribou if they go on the lam.
Unlike Sven, the reindeer from Frozen with the toothy grin, real reindeer only have “itty bitty bottom teeth” and no top teeth. Mindful not to touch sensitive antlers, we are encouraged to “love on them,” patting both adults like Olive and calves like Sapphire and Toby while admiring the way their concave feet spread out like snowshoes.
Buttercup, the “people reindeer,” is the only one who walks on a lead. While the rest of the herd feast on the lichen that covers the birch trees, Buttercup patiently poses for pictures with each guest.
While in Alaska
I’ve got reindeer on the brain while waiting for the northern lights to appear above A Taste of Alaska lodge. As the alien green streaks show themselves just after midnight in majestic vertical swaths, I allow myself to visualize Santa and his reindeer in the starry Alaskan sky.
The next day, it’s off to the North Pole, a real town with a population of about 2,100. It’s home to the famous Santa Claus House gift shop that sends out personalized Santa letters, and the Antler Academy of Flying & Reindeer Games. Santa has the day off and the reindeer tours don’t start until May, so I make do with a quick hello through the fence.
Inside the shop, I have a mission to add to my growing collection of Christmas tree ornaments from around the world. I pick a fuzzy one made locally from recycled wool. You can probably guess — it’s a reindeer.