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Rural Alaska

Scientist looks to be ‘Japanese Santa,’ mushing reindeer across tundra

When Kenji Yoshikawa, a permafrost researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, approached George Aguiar with his idea of using reindeer to travel the long distances between rural Alaska towns, Aguiar was skeptical.

"I thought that this was just another pie-in-the-sky idea," said Aguiar, who was then working with UAF's cooperative extension service and Reindeer Research Program. "I have to always take people seriously, but definitely in my gut, I thought, 'No way this guy can do it.' "

It was an unusual request in a state where the majority of reindeer here are raised for meat and herded on the Seward Peninsula. But, as Aguiar later found out, Yoshikawa is a man of unusual pursuits. Maybe Yoshikawa could be a Japanese Santa, mushing reindeer across the tundra.

Kenji Yoshikawa acclimates some reindeer to his tent in March. (Courtesy of Kenji Yoshikawa)

In the mid-1980s, Yoshikawa walked across the Sahara Desert, pushing a cart filled with water. After that, he paddled up the Amazon, skied across Antarctica, and then, in 1994, sailed from his native Japan to Utqiaġvik (Barrow), where he stayed for two years.

Today, Yoshikawa, 54, tends to the reindeer on a piece of his 120 acres in Fairbanks. He purchased his first two Canadian cows three years ago from Tom Williams, the reindeer farmer and attorney. In 1997, Williams and other non-Alaska Natives won the right to own non-Alaska reindeer through a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"That's a big year for changing everything because before that we couldn't have reindeer, period," Yoshikawa said in an interview during an airport layover recently. "Now we have some options."

Since 2014, Yoshikawa's herd has grown to 11 reindeer. He has identified five out of the 11 that can make up part of a potential team, although Yoshikawa has yet to use them to travel long distances across Alaska.

For now, Yoshikawa uses snowmachines to spread the news of permafrost research to Alaska villages.

Through his work with UAF's Permafrost Outreach Programs, he has traveled to over 200 villages in rural Alaska, where he takes permafrost measurements, trains the community to maintain boreholes and provides educational talks to schools. Yoshikawa's alter ego is "Tunnel Man," a bald superhero dressed in a black cape with a red "T" on his chest, featured in a multi-episode series teaching kids about permafrost science.

Kenji Yoshikawa’s reindeer enjoy a water break in August 2015. (Kenji Yoshikawa)

Through his reindeer project, one of Yoshikawa's goals is to answer some basic questions he has pondered about the creatures for years. While scientists have studied Iditarod dogs and their capacity to race long distances, gaps remain in knowledge about sled reindeer, Yoshikawa said.

"How (far) reindeer can run every day, how heavy they can pull, how much they can eat — (these are) very basic questions about reindeer as transportation we can answer for dog, but we can't answer for reindeer," Yoshikawa said.

Indigenous Evenki herders in Siberia use reindeer as pack animals — a use less common in Alaska — raising the animals in smaller herds and interacting with them more than reindeer raised for meat.

When he was 50 years old, Yoshikawa traveled to Russia for a year's sabbatical to work on permafrost research. There, he observed Evenki herders and learned how to handle a reindeer sleigh.

So far, Yoshikawa has trained three of his reindeer for the harness. But raising reindeer has been challenging.

According to Yoshikawa, reindeer are easily spooked by anything, from rustling grass to a rabbit. He has slowly been acclimating his animals to common sounds they might experience on tundra and in villages, like the noise a tent makes in the wind.

Yoshikawa also has to have enough castrated bulls with the right temperament to handle a harness, all between 3 and 7 years old — the ideal age, according to Yoshikawa.

Yoshikawa and Alex Maslakov, a Ph.D. student at Moscow State University in Russia, take a reindeer on a trial sled ride in February. (Courtesy of Kenji Yoshikawa)

While some cultures have used reindeer to pull heavy loads for short distances, Yoshikawa also wants to train his reindeer to pull light loads for longer distances, and faster.

"I don't see the indigenous Native people using them for my purpose — that's a big question," Yoshikawa said in a phone interview. "In the very beginning I thought that this works, but now I don't know, maybe not."

Aguiar also points out that it may be difficult to keep the reindeer motivated as they travel long distances.

"You have to take that into account and maybe take extra reindeer with you," he said.

But reindeer may be ideal for traveling the Arctic since they don't require an extra food supply like other animals.

Despite Yoshikawa's slow progress, Aguiar is optimistic about the feasibility of his reindeer dreams.

"People have used reindeer for hauling mail and pulling sleighs and supplies throughout history in the circumpolar North," Aguiar said. "He has the right idea to tap into the cultures that utilize reindeer for work."

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