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With ‘Summit,’ Nome-Area Ranch Hopes to Interest Youth in Reindeer Herding

Woman in camouflage jacket stands on grassy tundra next to huddle of children.
Jackie Hrabok-Leppajarvi shows kids how to lasso at the Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch. Photo: Katie Kazmierski, KNOM.

The Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch, outside of Nome, is investing in its future: by getting local kids involved in reindeer herding now. The herd wasn’t corralled this year, but Midnite Sun owners Ann and Bruce Davis held their third annual Reindeer Youth Summit anyway, earlier this month, to teach the value of an age-old industry in the Bering Strait region.

Ann Davis, who co-owns Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch with her husband, refers to the annual youth summit as their “exit plan” — the two hope that getting Alaskan kids interested in reindeer herding while they’re still young might inspire them to carry on the tradition.

“If they’re interested, they could become involved in the only viable northern agricultural pursuit… and reindeer are fun! [She laughs.]”

Amy Phillips-Chan, director of the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum, attended the three-day summit, which took place July 18-20. She says she jumped on the opportunity to learn more about modern reindeer herding in the Seward Peninsula, as most of what she knows about it comes from historical sources.

“Information on how it really prospered here and how it tapered off… what’s so amazing about the Davis herd and the Midnite Sun Ranch… [is] connecting the past and contemporary uses and practices using the knowledge, indigenous science from the past, but connecting that with modern methods and materials for raising reindeer.”

The Davises’ herd is still currently grazing the tundra, so kids did not get to interact firsthand with any reindeer at this year’s summit. The couple couldn’t say exactly when the herd will return to the ranch, but once it does, caring for the animals is a full-time job. Bruce and Ann Davis will interact with the reindeer as much as possible to “tame them down.”

The herd grazes year-round, foraging on different plants depending on the season, and the Davises bring them to the corral “when necessary for health treatments and tallying.”

Man stands before group of visitors seated at picnic tables inside large building.
Bruce Davis addresses attendees at the Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch Youth Summit, July 2019. Photo: Katie Kazmierski, KNOM.

Even without the reindeer present, though, Phillips-Chan noted this year’s camp was a hands-on learning experience. She says her favorite part of her visit was seeing a demonstration by Jackie Hrabok-Leppajarvi, from the University of Alaska–Fairbanks’ Northwest Campus, on how to lasso reindeer.

“Bruce and Ann devised a program that really tried to get kids really interacting with the materials around the ranch…”

“See how it’s twisting? You make nice coils, and they’re all in the same direction so when you throw it, it’s not going to get knotted on you… if this was competition, it gets very fierce. It’s like ‘hurry! And always head up!’ You’re always looking at the reindeer, which one do you want. Look, look, look, look…”

Hrabok-Leppajarvi helped kids and visiting adults try their hands at lassoing reindeer antlers stationed on the ground in front of them. Phillips-Chan was there with a camera in hand.

“It was really neat to see adults and the students working together on that and the kids being engaged by the activity… Even though they weren’t practicing on real reindeer, kind of being able to see how that would work… I think it’s just such an invaluable opportunity to kids, not just here in Nome but around the region.”

According to the Davises, reindeer herding is a valuable career path for young people for a few reasons. For one, it’s an asset to the regional economy. Ann says the region is in need of a cheaper meat source that doesn’t need to be shipped in. And reindeer are not just a food source:

“The economics of arts and crafts with the byproducts of the reindeer… bones, hooves, antlers, hides. That helps the economics of the region.”

Ann and Bruce Davis say that when working with kids and the reindeer, maintaining positive energy is important.

Bruce: “If you’re excited about the animals, they’re excited about the animals. They follow your example. I know with my daughters, they want to go out reindeer herding. We’ve been herding this winter on snow machines… they’re asking when we can go out.”

Ann: “And the grandkids are asking, too. They want to go out.”

Of the Davis’s six grandchildren, five were present at last week’s Reindeer Youth Summit. Ann and Bruce say they see the kids’ interest in the ranch growing, and that their “exit plan” might be working.

Image at top: Jackie Hrabok-Leppajarvi shows kids how to lasso at the Midnite Sun Reindeer Ranch. Photo: Katie Kazmierski, KNOM.

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