Standing in the middle of a herd of about 150 reindeer at Williams Reindeer Farm in Palmer, Alaska, I reached out to pet one of the animals. How thick and soft its fur is, I marveled, almost bouncy to the touch, like a natural version of artificial turf.
That began to make sense when a farm employee explained that reindeer coats have hollow hairs that trap air for insulation to keep the animals warm during harsh winter weather. And those air-filled hairs make reindeer buoyant in the water, she said. In fact, reindeer are expert swimmers.
Swimmers?! I knew that reindeer couldn’t really fly. But I’d never thought about them swimming. Yet reindeer are such strong swimmers, I learned, that in the wild, they can navigate even the most turbulent river rapids.
Why, then, does Santa Claus have a sleigh, when he could use a boat to bring presents to children on Christmas Eve? Wouldn’t it make more sense for his reindeer team to tap into its natural prowess and travel the world’s waterways to make deliveries?
A few lines from Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” ran through my mind: “As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly/ When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;/ So up to the housetop the coursers they flew/With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.” Hmm. Maybe reindeer pulling a boat wouldn’t be as exciting. Plus, air travel is faster than boat travel — and Santa does have to reach a lot of homes in just one night.
I felt a tap on my arm. “Mom, could you go with me to get some more reindeer food?” my son, Justin, asked. “I’m scared to go back up to the porch by myself.”
“They’re all friendly,” I reassured him about the reindeer.
“Yeah, but they’re too friendly,” Justin said, as one animal sniffed his hair and another nibbled on his jacket.
I escorted him out of the reindeer pen and up to the porch of a shack where visitors could scoop up food pellets to feed the animals. Along the way, reindeer followed us as closely as paparazzi, clamoring to see whether there was any food left in the empty plastic containers we were carrying. After one particularly excited deer nearly knocked Justin down into the mud, a farm employee reminded us to hold our hands up in front of our faces to stop the reindeer from attacking us for food. It felt kind of like surrendering at a crime scene.
After refilling our cups, we went back into the pen. Dozens of reindeer immediately charged toward us, pushing and shoving, the larger animals cruelly knocking the smaller ones out of the way. I couldn’t help thinking of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the way all the other reindeer laughed and jeered and excluded Rudolph from their games. I made sure to feed only the littlest ones as a small gesture of justice.
Nearby, several male reindeer were ramming each other with their horns in a competitive display intended to attract females for the new mating season. An employee told us not to be alarmed at their clashes, because reindeer don’t fight to the death, as elk sometimes do. But the violent sounds brought to mind the song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”: “When they found her Christmas mornin’/At the scene of the attack/There were hoof prints on her forehead/And incriminatin’ Claus marks on her back.” As you can tell, I know my reindeer Christmas songs.
I felt a gentle lick on my hand. “Oh, she’s a sweetheart,” one of the farm employees said of the deer that had come up to me. “She’s just asking if you have any more food for her.”
Sweet Christmas images of reindeer in festive green and red harnesses and jingle bells came to mind as I petted the deer. She was exactly the type of deer I’d expect Santa to have — one on his nice, rather than his naughty, list. Then it hit me: All the reindeer on Santa’s Christmas sleigh team had to be females (does), since they’re always drawn with antlers, and males (bucks) don’t have antlers during the winter.
Every year, both bucks and does grow larger antlers after shedding their old ones (bucks shed theirs in the fall; does shed theirs during spring). While the growth process takes place, their antlers are covered with a soft substance called velvet, through which blood flows to the antlers, nourishing them with oxygen and nutrients. During our visit, in late August, some of the reindeer were starting to shed their velvet — and it wasn’t pretty.
A gooey mess of bloody skin and fur dangled from some reindeers’ antlers like something in a Christmas card photo gone wrong. We watched one reindeer repeatedly rub its antlers against a fence, making clanging noises as it tried to rid itself of the blood-stained flesh. “It feels very itchy to them when the velvet is coming off,” a staff member explained, “so they sometimes scratch against something.”
We turned away from the reindeer for a while to visit some of the farm’s other animals (horses, elk, an adorable rabbit and a bull moose that we fed willow tree branches). As fun as it was to interact with these other creatures, nothing was as much fun as playing with those energetic reindeer.
Soon, my kids were headed back to their pen. They joined a group of kids standing in the middle of the herd, laughing at the animals’ antics. The children’s faces were lit up with delight — the same kind of excited look you see on kids’ faces at Christmas.
The only thing missing was Santa himself.
Williams Reindeer Farm
5561 S. Bodenburg Loop Rd.
Hours and admissions vary by season. Dec. 21-24, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., $7. Summer season: May 1 through mid-September, $7, children $5. Also open for special holiday events, such as Halloween.
Hopler is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax who blogs at www.whitneyhopler.naiwe.com.