“I always joke that this is what happens when you live in Alaska and won’t let your daughter get a pony,” says Jane Atkinson as she strokes Olive, one of her pet reindeers. By Bailey Berg
We’ve paused on a trail behind Atkinson’s home at Running Reindeer Ranch, 20 minutes outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, so the herd can root around beneath the snow for lichen, their preferred treat. It’s early spring and here in the sub-arctic there’s still several feet of powder, but it doesn’t seem to deter the dozen or so reindeer — almost every time they bury their snouts in the snow they come up with a chunk of greenery in their teeth.
“They have UV vision,” Atkinson explains. “The sunlight goes through the snow and reflects on the lichen, so they can literally see through the snow.”
Atkinson is full of fun reindeer facts. As we continue our hike through the boreal forest, she explains the animals’ hairs are hollow; they don’t bite or kick; the clicking noise we hear isn’t their hooves, rather the tendons in their legs; and the same UV vision that allows them to see through the snow makes it hard for them to see through sunscreen.
“Sunscreen is like an invisibility cloak to reindeer,” Atkinson says. “If you’re wearing it on your face, they can’t see you.”
The facts do little to dispel the mystique of the domesticated caribou. If anything, they make the animals seem more fanciful. That, for Atkinson, is half the fun. Though her family got their first pair of reindeer, Ruby and Moon, 14 years ago, it’s only been the last handful of years that she’s been leading guided two-and-a-half hour-long walks. The goal, she says, is to teach travellers about the real-life animals they might otherwise only associate with fictional holiday stories.
All summer long and on select days in the winter, Atkinson leads a reindeer walk by appointment — and on certain days in the summer, she also hosts reindeer yoga classes. All outings start with a safety talk. The biggest takeaways: don’t touch their antlers, and if they run toward you, “be a tree” and don’t move. The latter is an important note because soon after the reindeer are released from their pen, they eagerly bound down the path to come mingle with the group. If it’s spring, some of the females might have calves in tow. After a little meet-and-greet, wherein guests learn the names and personalities of the current herd members (the three newest additions being Bramble, Forest, and Heather), staff from the ranch take everyone for a stroll through the forest.
The reindeer, Atkinson says, are tame, but not trained. As we walk together, they leap through the snow like 400-pound puppies, setting a sinuous route, stopping only when they find some choice snacks. It’s in those moments that staffers share more information about the life cycle, behaviour, and habits of these reindeer, as well as the history of how reindeer came to live in interior Alaska. At the top of the hill, they wrangle a reindeer for a photo op.
After about an hour, the trail snakes back to the main ranch. The adventure wraps up with lemonade or hot chocolate, depending on the season, and the cookies that made this herd possible.
“I told my daughter if she wanted to have reindeer, she needed to raise the money to purchase them herself,” Atkinson said. “Obviously, she sold a lot of these cookies.”
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