"Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen! On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen!"
Those of us who grew up celebrating Christmas will immediately recognize the famous call of Santa Claus, urging his team of reindeer from rooftop to rooftop on Dec. 24. Like the mystery of Santa himself, these antler-clad darlings of holiday lore are a snapshot of childhood wonder, so don't tell me if they can't really fly, OK?
As another Alaska holiday season approaches, and as my son, now 11, morphs from a believer to not-so-much, this might be my last effort to woo Santa and his team of eight tiny reindeer to our home for Christmas Eve. But even if I can't, I know there are several places where our family can learn more about Rangifer tarandus in a way more personal than hoping for prancing and pawing on my roof.
Reindeer are the domesticated form of caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti), and have been beasts of burden, food, and transportation for nearly 2,000 years, thanks to intrepid Native peoples in the far northern reaches of Scandanavian and Eurasian Arctic countries. Caribou live in North America, and the University of Alaska Large Animal Research Station (LARS) in Fairbanks estimates that nearly 4 million roam the continent. The two cousins do have some differences in body shape, however, partly due to selective breeding and partly due to natural consequences of living a big wild life out on the tundra.
Jane Atkinson, owner of the Running Reindeer Ranch in Fairbanks, explains it this way.
"Reindeer are shorter, stockier, and more barrel-bodied than caribou, and look a bit like sausages on sticks," she says. "Caribou are taller, leaner, and have longer necks to better forage for the lichen they love to eat."
And, Atkinson says, both female and male caribou and reindeer have antlers, with girls sporting taller, more impressive racks than the guys, and keeping them longer — usually through the end of December. Could this mean Santa's reindeer are all female? It's possible, although older males sometimes defer the annual antler shed nearly as long.
These ungulates love to eat, but not carrots, as most children would like to believe, Atkinson continues. So what should we leave out along with Santa's milk and cookies? I ask.
"Lichen," she says with finality. "It's precious."
Apparently, both reindeer and caribou nibble the stuff from rocks and the forest floor all day, and find it tastier than anything on earth, defending it with those long, lanky antlers, especially when a herd doesn't migrate and needs to keep any food source close at hand, er, hoof.
Reindeer are, apparently, a hot ticket item for Alaska visitors, who seem to feel the same as I do when it comes to reintroducing childhood memories. As a result, three popular locations offer programs, tours, and up-close opportunities to learn more about reindeer, caribou, and their relevance to life in the far north.
• University of Alaska Large Animal Research Station (LARS), Fairbanks. Located on the former Yankovich homestead on the fringe of UAF, LARS is the result of a 1979 National Science Foundation grant to study musk ox, reindeer, and caribou. Now a premier research facility, LARS offers daily tours in the summer and group tours during the winter to introduce visitors to each species and their particular behaviors. The facility also offers internships for college students. Call the facility for group tour fees. www.lars.uaf.edu, 907-474-5742.
• Running Reindeer Ranch, Fairbanks. Jane Atkinson's reindeer affections actually began when her daughter wanted a pony. This unique little ranch not only provides a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a reindeer, Atkinson actually takes guests on a walk with the whole herd, taking about an hour to talk about the animals and another hour to amble the birch forests behind her Goldstream Valley home. Perfect for kids, Running Reindeer Ranch introduces visitors to Ruby, Olive, Rufus, Jasper, and the entire bunch while telling true stories of the reindeers' history, habits, and personalities. $50/adults, $30/kids 3-12. www.runningreindeer.com, 907-455-4998. Note: This is an active tour, so guests should dress for walking and cold weather. Carry infants and small children in a pack.
• Williams Reindeer Farm, Palmer. Think wide-open pastures with grazing animals scattered around, and you've arrived at the Williams Reindeer farm near Butte. This year-round facility has become very popular with families, thanks to the dedicated Williams family who have spent many hours making the grounds more inviting for kids. The farm does a brisk business between May and September, but its harvest and holiday open houses bring lines of cars to the small parking lot each year. Two separate chunks of time will be dedicated to visitors this winter; December 23 and 24 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and December 26 and 28, with tours offered at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. Note: This is the only opportunity to visit the farm until after calving season next spring. No reservations are required, and tickets are $8/per person. Expect chilly weather and a stiff breeze, so dress the kids appropriately. 907-745-4000, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance travel journalist, author of Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska's only family travel resource. Connect with her at email@example.com.