Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

This is not a Christmas story.

Jane Atkinson has welcomed many professional Santas to Running Reindeer Ranch, 25 minutes from downtown Fairbanks, Alaska. She keeps a stash of red plush hats that visitors don for selfies. "Every now and then I will say the deer can fly," Atkinson says. "But I don't focus on the Christmas aspect. I am a science person."

At most animal-centric tourist attractions, visitors wander among exhibits. At Running Reindeer Ranch, visitors stroll with them. Atkinson attaches a rope to a halter on one of her eight reindeer (the number is coincidence) and then leads the entire pack--along with up to 20 customers--through a boreal forest on her family's farm. In the low light of winter, the trail is ghostly with birch trees sheathed in papery white bark.

For two and a half hours Atkinson discourses on the deer's adaptation to Arctic climes. Their hooves, for example, "create snowshoes for walking and make excellent shovels for digging down to get food in winter," she says. "I could go on for four days about them."

The walks are good for the reindeer's brains, bodies, and spirits, says Atkinson, who runs the business with three part-time employees and her husband, Doug Toelle, a former tech entrepreneur. "They are rather lazy animals, but they like to explore and find interesting new things to eat." The walks are also good for Atkinson, who suffers from seasonal affective disorder, pernicious in a region with less than four hours of daylight at the solstice. "I used to get horrible depression being in the dark in Alaska. But I don't anymore," she says. "That is all because I am out with my reindeer."

Every year roughly 4,000 visitors pay $100 apiece to take the stroll. March is the busy season, when the Northern Lights draw crowds of casual tourists and obsessive Aurora chasers. The tour starts with a presentation about the ranch and its denizens in Atkinson's living room-turned-auditorium, and concludes with hot beverages at the Reindeer House, a building that will soon house a B&B. Along with the drinks, Atkinson serves fresh baked oatmeal-chocolate-chip-coconut cookies, from her own recipe. (Those cookies are a key plot point in the Running Reindeer story. More on that later.)

Running Reindeer Ranch has received accolades from TripAdvisor and Fodor's Travel, among other tourism sites and publications. It is also a popular spot for weddings. Atkinson, a State of Alaska marriage commissioner, has performed 20 in the 18 months she's offered the service. For no extra charge, a reindeer will serve as ring bearer. 

Jennifer Rittenhouse, who visited in March from Philadelphia, began following Running Reindeer on Facebook almost a year before her trip. "I got to know all the reindeer, so much so that when I pulled up in a cab and saw them I got teary eyed," she says.

"They are beautiful, beautiful, gentle animals. And they just walk through the snow with you," Rittenhouse continues. "It was a really cool experience. I wish everyone could do it."

The ultimate pet

Atkinson grew up in Anchorage in a family business: A&G Construction, which her father built from a single dump truck into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. She initially planned to become a teacher, but later got a job with a social-services nonprofit, got married, and in the early 1990s opened Alaska Green Goods, an environmentally friendly products store in Fairbanks. In 1994, her daughter, Robin Spielman, was born. Atkinson eventually closed the business and became a stay-at-home mother.

In 1997 Atkinson, by then divorced, relocated to Anchorage to help her aging parents. She married Toelle in 2004 and moved back to Fairbanks, where they occupied five hilly acres in the boreal forest. That provided spade for the animals Robin loved. The family acquired hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, chinchillas, fish, turtles, finches, chickens, and a dog--but what she really wanted was a livestock animal. 

One day they drove past a herd of reindeer outside a research center on the University of Alaska campus. "I thought out loud, 'Huh. I wonder about reindeer,'" Atkinson says. "And Robin is like, 'Yes mom! I love reindeer! I want reindeer!'"

Atkinson did not want reindeer. But she told Robin, "OK--if you do all the research and raise the money." A reindeer farm in Palmer, Alaska, quoted them $2,000. But reindeer are herd animals. They would need two. So: $4,000. Atkinson thought she was safe.

For the next two years, all of Robin's school projects related to reindeer. She volunteered at the university to learn about them. She called reindeer owners around the state and interviewed them.

And she started the Murphy Dough Cookie Co. out of the family kitchen. Robin sold four varieties to cookie dough to whomever would buy it: friends, relatives, her parents' co-workers, and customers at some local bazaars. After two years she had earned $2,000. Halfway there. Atkinson suggested Robin call her father--Atkinson's ex-husband--to tell him the good news. He congratulated her and offered to pay for the second reindeer himself. "I was a little upset about that," says Atkinson. "We were not supposed to be actually getting reindeer."

They brought home Ruby and Moon, two females that had been bred. The first few weeks were disastrous. A heavy snow brought down a tree, which in turn brought down a fence penning the animals. It took four days to track them down and bring them back. The name Running Reindeer Ranch was born.

The research center and the folks who'd sold Atkinson the reindeer recommended enclosing the animals in a small space surrounded by metal corral panels, to help them settle. A week later Robin found one of them had jumped in and gotten a foot caught between the corral panels and had a fatal accident.

Feeling bad about their advice, the sellers offered to replace Moon. The head of the research center urged them not to throw in the towel. "He said, 'In a year, when everything else goes right--because nothing else is going to go wrong--you are going to be really glad that you have reindeer in your life,'" Atkinson says.

A company is calved

The business just happened. In 2011, Robin left to spend her junior year in Germany. "She told me at that point I could have the reindeer," Atkinson says. "Great."

Wanting company on her reindeer walks, she asked friends to come along. They brought their friends and relatives. Someone suggested she put the activity on TripAdvisor. What's TripAdvisor? Atkinson wanted to know.

Since Atkinson previously ran the green store and Toelle had launched two tech startups, they already had the business side of things down. For inspiration, Atkinson consulted with Mary Shields, owner of Tales of the Trail, where guests get up close and personal with sled dogs. "She told me to lead with my heart and the rest would follow," Atkinson says.

Over the years the herd has swelled from two to eight. All but one are the calves or grand-calves of Ruby, who died last year. Atkinson breeds the females with bulls from other ranches. The males are castrated, which in cattle lingo makes them steers.

Running Reindeer Ranch closes for a few weeks in the darkest days of winter when Atkinson goes in search of light. A few years ago she and Robin, who is now a ski instructor in Wyoming, visited the Dukha, a community of nomadic reindeer herders in Mongolia. Now Atkinson imports their carvings--made from reindeer antlers--and sells them in the gift shop, alongside reindeer milk soap. She continues to study reindeer and their herders around the world.

These days, though, she is content to return home. "I always felt like I wanted to get out of Alaska. But now I feel like a person who has been in prison so long that the outside world just doesn't work for me anymore," Atkinson says.

"The more I am here, at home, working around my animals--that is me," says Atkinson. "It worked out really nice."

 

Published on: Dec 17, 2018