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Fairbanks pet reindeer owner falls into tour business

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Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2012 12:15 am | Updated: 12:06 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - Jane Atkinson told the story of how Jasper, her reindeer, lost his antlers.

The Hayes family, from San Diego, stood listening, wearing coats, trapper hats and Gor-Tex pants they normally wear on ski trips to Park City, Utah. Hand warmers provided by Atkinson heated their mittened hands.

The family of three paid $105 for a tour of Atkinson’s Running Reindeer Ranch, where Atkinson and her husband, Doug Toelle, keep five reindeer on five acres off Murphy Dome Road.

The ranch, where tours are available all year long by appointment, is ranked the No. 1 activity in Fairbanks on the travel site Tripadvisor.com. The Riverboat Discovery is ranked No. 3.

Jasper is the son of Ruby, another reindeer on the ranch, and a stud. Atkinson described Jasper as a curious, lively, mischievous creature. Jasper can use his nose to open the gate to his pen.

“He used to open our shed doors and go roaming through the shed,” Atkinson said.

Reindeer have a hierarchy and Jasper, one of the youngest, is at the bottom. He doesn’t always have the best manners. He was starting to get assertive with people. As a safety precaution, his hard antlers were sawed off.

Atkinson started her reindeer tour business on a lark. Both Atkinson and her husband have owned small businesses before.

The family, who originally bought two reindeer as pets — a consolation prize for a daughter who wanted a horse — was guiding friends on walks through the woods with the reindeer for free.

The friends started to feel guilty about it and insisted on paying.

Atkinson had left a job in the nonprofit sector and was pondering her next career move. She put up a page on Tripadvisor.com. This March marks the third year.

Aside from a website, the Running Reindeer Ranch does little to no advertising. Atkinson hasn’t posted to the ranch blog since March.

She’s not keen on writing. Atkinson is a talker. She likes to joke that she crams four days of information about reindeer into two hours, the duration of most of her tours.

Atkinson credits Tripadvisor for keeping her too busy to write. She led 10 tours per week last summer. She also guides school groups and hauls one of the reindeer around in a van to appear at local events.

Atkinson has decided to avoid the kind of high volume business associated with visitors from cruise ships, because that would require her to formalize her tours. Atkinson prefers to let her tours unfold depending on her mood, the mood of the reindeer and the clients’ interests.

The tour has four parts and costs $35 for adults and $20 for children 12 and under. It’s free for children younger than 3.

The first part of the tour is reindeer 101. The second part is a walk and talk in the boreal forest with the reindeer. The third part is a tour of the property, including the organic garden in the summer. The tour ends with a snack and chit-chat.

“We took a walk through the woods where Jane told us all about reindeer, called them by name, and let us pet, feed and walk them,” one Tripadvisor reviewer wrote about the tour.

The reviews are anonymous.

“Feeding these animals was incredible. It felt like I was touching a part of wilderness,” another reviewer said. The ranch has 81 reviews and 80 are excellent or very good.

One reviewer rated it terrible, complaining about the use of a neighbor’s property during the walking portion. Atkinson responded, explaining that she has the permission of her neighbor to guide tours on the property, essentially doubling the land at her disposal from five acres to 10.

Atkinson's next step for the business, she said, is learning to drive reindeer and a sled. But she needs to learn how to train the reindeer, which would require a trip to Europe to get some training herself.

“What I am really working on doing is trying to go somewhere in the Scandinavia in spring,” Atkinson said. “I have contacted some people in Scandinavia to work that out.”

Contact freelance writer Amanda Bohman at aknewsgirl@gmail.com.

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