Will Rudolph's Nose Guide Alberta's Olympic Torch Relay

Reprinted with the permission of Travel Alberta
Author: Deb Cummings

She calls them Santa's backup but they can do much more than fly a tinkling sleigh across the snowy skies at Christmas. Try . . . jogging alongside a skier or runner. Hauling heavy gear through deep snow, like a sled dog. Providing a healthy, lean, high-protein meat for human consumption. We're talking about Alberta's reindeer.

Most Albertans have driven past bison, elk and cattle ranches but about 300 reindeer, imported from the faroff fields of Alaska and Russia, also call the province that hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics home.

Monika Hoegger, secretary of the Alberta Reindeer Association and owner of 40 reindeer in the Sundre area, says the link between winter sports and reindeer is an ancient one. Paintings, dating back 6,000 years, discovered in Russia in the 1930s, show a hunter alongside some reindeer. The hunter is wearing skis, clearly illustrating that using two wooden slats to travel on snow has been central to survival in cold climates for centuries. Of course, images of reindeer are seared in the collective consciousness of North Americans due to Santa Claus' lovable team, headed by none
other than rednosed, widehoofed wonder Rudolph. Perpetuating this legend is what drives most of Alberta's 12 reindeer ranches to tourism circles. Here, reindeer are commonly used in Santa Claus parades, at Christmas parties, in movies like Santa Baby and perhaps next year's Olympic torch relay that will blaze through 76 Alberta communities on its 106day, 45,000 km, trek.

It wouldn't be the first time that reindeer have appeared at the Olympics, points out Hoegger. They were used in 1952 at Oslo's Winter Games and they have reindeer races in Finland all the time. I'd love to see them jogging alongside one of
our torchbearers next year.

Smaller than elk or caribou, Alberta's reindeer are about the size of mule deer but like caribou and elk they drop their antlers once a year. Bulls weigh between 136 kg and 181 kg (300-400 lbs.), females between 68 and 90 kg (150-200
lbs.). Like caribou they have a shovel-like antler just above their nose (ideal for foraging food in the snow) but
they're not as leggy (long migratory routes were never part of a reindeer's makeup, apart from Santa's annual epic!, as their brethren. In Russia, northern Europe and parts of Mongolia, reindeer have been used as domesticated pack animals for centuries, bred to stay close to their camps.

Because they have been domesticated for thousands of years, reindeer are quite docile and easy to halter train, adds Hoegger. Which is why they're such a hit at special events and with children who always ask, do they fly?
Only one night a year, is what Hoegger whispers to those wide-eyed kids. Make that two if they keep Alberta's torch runners company next January, 2010! That would certainly help elevate their presence in Alberta, adds Hoegger. What better place to discover if reindeer can fly . . .