One day last year at the peak—or depth—of an Alaskan winter, when all the world around him seemed like the insides of a giant freezer, a wiry, 30-year-old Eskimo named Johnson Stalker bundled his wife and young son into a homemade sled and started out on a 350-mile journey that began far above the Arctic Circle and then went south across Kotzebue Sound and the snow-bound Seward Peninsula to Nome. Also with him when he began were an uncle, a friend and 100 reindeer.
Stalker was beginning his role in Operation Reindeer, a project that may influence the economy and prosperity of the 49th state—and reinforce the spirit of Christmas everywhere. The project stems from three sources: an embarrassing government miscalculation almost a century ago, an act of Congress in the 1930s and an Oregonian named Zumstein, who spends a good part of his time dressed up like Santa Claus and who knows considerably more about reindeer than St. Nick ever dreamed of. Operation Reindeer represents an all-out effort to put Alaska's reindeer on a firm economic footing.
In the first week Stalker and his party ran headlong into a band of migrating caribou. The reindeer scattered, and when Stalker finally gathered his animals together again several dozen were missing, gone with the caribou. Gone, too, were Stalker's wife and child, who had raced off on their own chase after the fleeing reindeer.
A day passed before the family was reunited, and in that time Stalker had lost several more reindeer. A roving hunter had mistaken them for caribou, killing six and crippling four animals. Then, still in that first week of the journey, the ice suddenly parted over the black waters of a frozen bay to claim more of the diminishing herd and almost the sled and team.
December 12, 1966
Before Johnson Stalker and his surviving reindeer arrived at Nome two months later, there were other brushes with disaster and defeat, and more reindeer lost. Each incident was duly recorded for the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, which had instigated Stalker's trip.
In northwest and west Alaska, an area larger than Texas, the reindeer is the major, if not the only, agricultural resource. A sound, scientifically run reindeer industry could eventually produce millions of dollars from the sale of meat, hides and byproducts.
The object of Stalker's arduous mid-winter trip was to help set up and then run Alaska's first model reindeer farm, an ambitious experiment without precedent. Stalker is working with the University of Alaska, the BIA, the Alaska Chamber of Commerce and various other agencies. On 500,000 acres of government-owned land six miles west of Nome, Stalker's job will be to adapt the latest animal-husbandry and stock-farming techniques to the raising of reindeer and to teach other young Eskimos the herding skills needed to make the animal ultimately as productive and profitable in Alaska as cattle and sheep are elsewhere in the U.S.
There were no reindeer at all in Alaska when Secretary of State William Seward bought the territory from the Russians 100 years ago. Although some, with an unerring sense of the cliché, did not fail to call the deal "Seward's folly," the purchase of almost 600,000 square miles of land for only $7.2 million, even by the standards of a century ago, was a bargain. But it had a few obvious flaws. Alaska's miserable climate, lack of transportation and communication facilities compounded the virtual nonexistence of trade and agriculture. The government might overlook some of these deficiencies but could not overlook the fact that along with polar bears and fur seals it had acquired more than 8,000 hungry Eskimos.
The problem of filling that many stomachs with something besides snow might have perplexed scientific minds, but it did not faze the government for long. Refusing to let facts inhibit its thinking, Washington decided that what the Eskimos needed were reindeer. One had only to look at Lapland to see the reasoning behind such a novel idea. In that country, where natives have herded the animals for at least 1,000 years, the reindeer is truly an all-purpose beast. If reindeer were good for Laplanders, the government reasoned, they would certainly be good for Eskimos.
There was a small weakness in this logic, which became apparent when some 500 reindeer were purchased from Lapland in the 1890s and herded by three young Lapps across the frozen Bering Strait to Alaska. Instead of twirling on the tundra in glee, the Eskimos took one look at the beasts, licked their chops and either slew the animals on the spot or stalked off mumbling disgustedly in their blubber. Eskimos were hunters, not herders.
In 1914 Carl Lomen and his two brothers appeared upon the scene. The brothers Lomen recognized a good deal when they saw one and began buying reindeer from the Eskimos as fast as the government gave the animals away. In practically no time at all they owned the largest herd in the territory and employed Eskimos—hunters though they might be—to care for them. By the 1930s the herd had increased to 250,000. The Lomen family had a solid corner on the reindeer market and a meat-and-fur business that was making money faster than it could be banked. This was good for the Lomens, but a minor help to the Eskimos.
In September 1937 Congress passed a bill making it illegal for white men to own reindeer in Alaska. The territorial government then bought up the Lomens' reindeer for $6.50 a head and started all over again trying to give them away to the Eskimos. The new generation was no more enthusiastic about the idea than its predecessors had been.
From time to time an atypical Eskimo gave herding a halfhearted try, but usually failed without the knowledge and direction of experienced managers like the Lomens. In the less than three decades since the Reindeer Act was passed, the U.S. Government has spent more than $3 million on reindeer. Besides Stalker, this investment has produced only 14 active reindeer herders from an Eskimo population that has grown to 22,300.
"At that rate," says John Zumstein, "the government could have saved money by keeping those 15 Eskimos in The Waldorf-Astoria for life."
Reindeer have declined drastically during this period. There are now only about 40,000 reindeer left in Alaska. This figure varies depending upon the expert consulted, but whatever the actual count it is grotesquely low compared to the 600,000 animals of 30 years ago. If one considers that reindeer, when properly managed, normally double their numbers every three to five years, it is shocking.
So now Zumstein comes into the picture. Zumstein first started thinking about reindeer some 15 years ago, not in Alaska but, improbably, while vacationing in Los Angeles. The sight of crudely built papier-m√¢ché reindeer at a Christmas pageant made him wonder why real animals were not used instead. On his way home to Oregon, he inquired at the San Francisco and Seattle zoos, neither of which had reindeer. He was told that no zoo in the U.S. had reindeer, because they were northern animals which could not survive in warmer climates. When Zumstein suggested that polar bears were northern animals, too, the experts shrugged. This was not good enough for Zumstein, who had 40 years of livestock farming behind him.
He wrote for a permit to buy several reindeer for export outside Alaska, where the prohibitions of the Reindeer Act do not apply. Nothing happened for two years. Then a letter came advising him to be in Alaska for the government's annual fall roundup.
John Zumstein had never actually seen a live reindeer when he arrived, in September 1951, at the little Eskimo village of Golovin, some 75 miles from Nome. He knew almost nothing about the animals, nor, he discovered, did anyone else know much more. He nevertheless looked over the herd, picked out the fastest and the best-antlered and set about roping 10 of them. It was dark when he finished, so he tied them up for the night. By morning, five of the deer were dead.
Zumstein managed to get the remaining reindeer from Nome to Seattle by plane, but on the truck trip from the airport three more of the animals died. By the time he reached his home in Redmond all Zumstein had to show for an expedition that had cost him $10,000 was two sick deer.
"Anyone with sense would have quit there," Zumstein says, "but my dad, who was a smart old Swiss, used to say the only time quitting made sense was when you weren't learning anything. Well, I'd sure learned one thing on that trip. Never tie up a wild animal. I figured it was an important enough lesson to warrant another $10,000."
Zumstein decided to try again if the government would agree to build pens to hold his deer between capture and shipment. The next fall he collected 10 more deer. The holding pens worked, but five of the reindeer died during shipment. This was when Zumstein learned the second lesson. He was moving the animals at the wrong time of year. The best time was not in summer or fall, but at the height of winter, when the reindeer were strongest and most able to survive a journey. He learned, too, that the mature animals were not necessarily the best. Immature calves, or "short yearlings," traveled better than older ones and acclimatized faster.
On Zumstein's next trip he reached home without casualties. But his problems did not end there. He tried putting his reindeer to pasture and in a day found all of them violently ill and frothing at the mouth. Three died. "It broke my heart to see those deer die," Zumstein recalls, "but it bothered me even more not to know why. Three agricultural colleges analyzed the feed in that pasture before we learned that a certain moss on the juniper in this region is toxic to reindeer."
There were diseases and parasites to contend with, too, many of them unique to the species. By trial and error, Zumstein met and conquered one challenge after another. He installed footbaths to eliminate hoof infection, disinfected and rotated pastures, developed special dips and sprays against warbles (a plague reindeer are particularly susceptible to), eliminated worms, flies and other insects, and experimented endlessly with food supplements. His animals grew big and strong, but they did not reproduce.
"From my experience with livestock," Zumstein says, "I figured it had to be age, overbreeding or feed that was keeping us from getting calves. Well, they weren't too old, and they sure weren't overbreeding—we had more bulls than cows—so it had to be feed. I went back to Alaska, and this time I collected samples of all the natural feed up there; then I analyzed everything and matched it here as closely as I could."
"We began getting calves, all right," Zumstein adds, "but they all died of pneumonia. I kept asking myself why they would get pneumonia in Oregon when they didn't up North, where it was much colder. That was the answer. It was colder. The calves were being born in early morning. By afternoon here our hot sun melted the frost. The calves breathed that moisture in their lungs, and that was it. The problem was solved by switching the birthing cows to box stalls. Today we are calving 100% and raising them all, which is a lot better than they do in the wild."
Zumstein's reindeer, in fact, are bigger, healthier and better in every respect than those in the wild. Last year the U.S. Department of Commerce's Area Redevelopment Administration flew Zumstein to Nome to ask him why. For a week of open and closed sessions, Zumstein pulled no punches in telling everyone, from the commissioners on down, just what he thought of the way they were handling Alaska's reindeer and how he thought they should handle them in the future.
"I gave them both barrels," Zumstein says, "but they didn't pay my way up there to hear sweet talk. They kept trying to call me Doctor. I told them I'm no doctor, and I don't have any fancy degrees. I'm not looking for a job, and I'm no politician. I just have plain horse sense and a lot of curiosity. And in 14 years I've produced over 200 strong, healthy reindeer from my original 12 to prove I know what I'm talking about."
Zumstein has also proved that reindeer can be very lucrative. For the past several years Zumstein-trained animals have turned up at Christmastime all over the country pulling sleighs, ogling department-store crowds, making TV appearances and generally delighting one and all. Reindeer teams and displays, complete with Santa Claus (more often than not played by Zumstein himself, who gets even more fun out of this than out of tweaking official tempers), bring $10,000 to $25,000 for a week's performance, $1,000 an hour in parades.
"Economically the reindeer is the sleeping giant of the North," Zumstein says, his blue eyes flashing. "But it won't wake up by itself. You've got to do more than hold meetings. You've got to analyze the feed on various ranges, supplement the natural diet, put out mineral licks, grade the bulls and cull the old, unproductive ones, control insects that carry disease and parasites. I told the people in Alaska if they really wanted to learn about raising reindeer they should come to Oregon."
Zumstein was hardly home and unpacked when the head of the BIA's reindeer department and three of Alaska's best Eskimo herders arrived to study Zumstein's operation at Redmond. Perhaps the most interested student among them was Johnson Stalker, who began then and there making plans for his winter trek.
Whether or not Operation Reindeer eventually succeeds is still uncertain, but if it does, an Oregon Santa named John Zumstein deserves a good part of the credit.