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Santa’s reindeer are real – and they live in the Northwest Territories

A reindeer stands on a barrenland landscape in the NWT

Santa’s reindeer are real – and they live in the Northwest Territories

They’re the most iconic creatures of the holiday season – and yes, they're a real thing.

Canada's only reindeer herd lives up in the Northwest Territories, just a stone’s throw from the North Pole.

And while our Prancers and Blitzens only spend one night a year pulling Kris Kringle’s sleigh, they’re magnificent creatures to behold anytime.  

Here's what you need to know about Northwest Territories reindeer:

Reindeer stand in the snow in the NWT

It’s a historic herd

Domesticated reindeer have been herded in the Mackenzie Delta for more than 80 years. It all started back in 1935, when they were brought to the area from Alaska to help relieve a local shortage of caribou.

Reindeer walk up a snowy hill in the NWT

They’re unique

Now numbering 3,000 animals, they're the only free-ranging reindeer in Canada. They're jointly owned by the Inuvialuit of the Mackenzie Delta and by the local Binder family, descendants of the Scandinavian Sami who helped bring the herd to the Northwest Territories.

A close up of reindeer fur from an individual in the reindeer herd in the NWT

they’re cozy in the cold

The hide of a reindeer is designed to trap air, providing them insulation in conditions to minus-60 Celsius and colder. That layer of air also makes them more buoyant – a big help when swimming wild rivers.

Two caribou run across grass at the base of a hill in the NWT

    Caribou are their cousins    

Reindeer and caribou are really similar – they both go by the latin name Rangifer tarandus. Due to domestication, reindeer tend to be smaller than caribou, more likely to pack together, and more tame.

A closeup of reindeer hooves standing on snow in the NWT

They have snowshoes

Reindeer hooves are multipurpose tools, perfectly adapted to polar survival. Firstly, they’re like snowshoes – big and broad, with toes that splay out so they float over the drifts. Second, they’re like chisels, ideal for pawing for food beneath the ice ( “caribou” is based on the French word for snow shoveller). Finally, they’re like paddles, allowing reindeer to swim easily.

A reindeer running up a snowy hill in the Northwest Territories

    They're crazy-fast    

At full throttle, a reindeer can run more than 70 kilometres per hour. Talk about dashing through the snow! They're not just sprinters – they’re endurance athletes too. Some of them wander more than 5,000 kilometres per year.

A closeup of a reindeer face standing on snowy ground in the NWT

They have amazing powers

Reindeer are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light. It’s thought this gives them an advantage seeing things in the blinding white landscape of the Arctic.

A reindeer herd mulling around in the Northwest Territories

    They migrate every year    

Each spring, usually in early April, the herd is driven close to the Town of Inuvik, making its way from its wintering grounds near Jimmy Lake toward its calving grounds on Richards Island near Tuktoyaktuk.

A group of reindeer, showing off multiple racks of antlers, as the herd moves across the Northwest Territories

... which is wildly popular

In recent years the crossing has become popular with local and visitors. It usually coincides with Inuvik’s popular Muskrat Jamboree

These Northwest Territories reindeer are magical and yet very real. And they'll warm your heart any season of the year.

 

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