by Jen Ostler
Did you know that reindeer are not native to Alaska? Noted explorer and Presbyterian missionary Dr. Sheldon Jackson, with the aid of the United States Government, brought reindeer and several Laplander families (as educators) to the Seward Peninsula in 1892 to assist in what was assumed to be a starvation epidemic among St Lawrence Island Eskimo in the area. Jackson’s program eventually evolved into herds maintained by Eskimo, Laplanders, and white people. The deer were desired for meat and use as draft animals, and became as valuable as gold to many.
And further, did you know that reindeer are also the same species as caribou? Caribou are taller and leaner and built to migrate over great distances. Reindeer are shorter, and built to stay close to home and be meat and draft animals. Female reindeer have larger antlers than female caribou, and reindeer also have their calves earlier in the season than caribou do.
There is so much to learn about reindeer and their impact upon Alaska history and culture, and below are a few of Fairbanks’ best places to visit reindeer and their keepers. Plus, spring is calving season, and that means there are lots of sweet baby reindeer to see.
Running Reindeer Ranch is Fairbanks’ premier reindeer destination. Owner Jane Atkinson is passionate about teaching her visitors about reindeer behavior and history, but the best part about a tour with Jane is that you get up close and personal with her reindeer friends (and they truly are her friends). During my visit, our group wandered along the hillside above Jane’s home, with everyone taking turns leading a reindeer in harness and taking lots of photos. It was a nice stroll, with Jane continuing her fun and educational talk along the way, the group immersed into a herd of reindeer strolling along with us. At the end, we met in her home for homemade oatmeal cookies and hot drinks, while she passed around antlers and answered questions. She read a lovely children’s book about reindeer, and made us all feel at home.
This spring Running Reindeer Ranch welcomed two new calves, Peanut and Rocket, to the herd, and the calves will also be walking in tours. Book a tour for $55/adult and $35/child, and the adventure is definitely worth the hands-on opportunity.
Santa Claus House is where Santa’s reindeer can be visited for free almost any day of the week. They live right next door to Santa’s home and often can be seen playing with a giant bouncy ball and interacting with their handlers. This year, Santa is offering an exciting new attraction called “Antler Academy”, allowing families to feed, pet and interact with the reindeer and learn more about them. The attraction will begin June 1st and will be open Monday through Friday until September 9th with a walk-in paid admission (though prices have not yet been finalized.) Check out Santa’s website and Facebook page to learn more.
Large Animal Research Station (LARS) is known for reindeer and their unique herd of musk oxen. Right now there are fresh new reindeer babies to be seen at this facility on Yankovich Road. LARS was founded in 1979 with a grant from the National Science Foundation as a facility to research musk oxen. Reindeer and caribou joined the facility in the 1980’s. Since the reindeer at LARS are a research herd, they stay separate from visitors, but a trip to LARS is fun and educational for families, with naturalist educators on site, and lots of props and pictures to help kids learn. Visitors are welcome at LARS during the summer season. They will be open June 8th through September 4th on Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and Thursdays through Sundays 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors (65+), and $6 for students.
Archipelago Farms is owned by George Aguiar, and named in honor of his ancestry in the Azores Islands, where his family has always been involved in raising animals for food production. George also works for the Reindeer Research Program located next to Georgeson Botanical Gardens at UAF, and is involved in research to solve what is now an agricultural problem in Alaska; food production. George’s number one priority is food production and the health of his reindeer, so he doesn’t allow visitors to his ranch. However, you can visit some members of his herd on the grounds of Riverboat Discovery. If you live in the Fairbanks area, you might have seen George at local events with one of his reindeer, most popularly dressed as Kristoff from the movie Frozen. His two favorite reindeer, Dave and Flea, come along too.
Why am I introducing you to George and his reindeer if you can’t visit them? Well, because George is available for private events! Wouldn’t your kid’s birthday party be perfect if a reindeer was there for photos and fun?
While it’s easy to find reindeer sausage to eat in Alaska from a sidewalk vendor or at a local café, it’s also important for kids to understand why reindeer are valuable to local history and culture. Take the time this summer to investigate these amazing animals.