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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.