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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.
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 clich�, 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.