Port Heiden Rekindles A Culture of Reindeer Herding

The reindeer were brought from Stebbins/St. Michaels in several plane-loads. Photo taken July 6. Credit: Native Village of Port Heiden
The reindeer were brought from Stebbins/St. Michaels in several plane-loads. Photo taken July 6. Credit: Native Village of Port Heiden

Twenty-nine reindeer have arrived in Port Heiden, where the village of 100 people is re-establishing a long-dormant tradition of reindeer herding. In a few years they hope to begin harvesting the deer as a sustainable food source for the community. Now, an expert herder and his two teenage apprentices are taking on the challenges of starting a herd from scratch.

Download Audio

Learning to herd reindeer is a full-time job for teenagers Jake Carlson and Lillionna Kosbruk.

“Yeah, every day, eight hours, besides weekends.”

“Sometimes we have to herd them in a certain area of the pen, I dunno – it’s a lot of running.:

They’re learning their new trade from Fred Goodhope Jr., a traditional herder who was hired by the village of Port Heiden to help them get started.

“Yeah this is Fred, I’m the reindeer herder. I’m from Shishmaref, Alaska. I been reindeer herding since I was ten years old, and I’m a third-generation reindeer herder.”

Apprentice Jake Carlson sits with a reindeer as it reaches its new home. Photo taken July 7. Photo: Native Village of Port Heiden.
Apprentice Jake Carlson sits with a reindeer as it reaches its new home. Photo taken July 7. Photo: Native Village of Port Heiden.

The Port Heiden reindeer came as air cargo from Stebbins/St. Michaels. At the end of that 480-mile journey, they were delivered into Goodhope’s practiced hands.

His first challenge was to nurse them back to health.

“Some of ‘em came in kinda lame, kinda hurt… lot of them were dehydrated, you could tell they’d been without nourishing food because they were in a holding pen.”

The reindeer have plenty of room to graze in their new pen. But Goodhope says it won’t be long until they outgrow

“It’s gonna be a problem later on, with overgrazing… by then we’re gonna have them going in and out of the gate.”

Apprentice Lillionna Kosbruk, 16, sits with a reindeer as it is transported to the pen. Photo taken July 6. Photo: Native Village of Port Heiden.
Apprentice Lillionna Kosbruk, 16, sits with a reindeer as it is transported to the pen. Photo taken July 6. Photo: Native Village of Port Heiden.

Then there’s the danger of bears and wolves getting into the pen.

But more than predators or overgrazing, what worries Goodhope the most is caribou.

“Actually, the worst enemy to a reindeer is a caribou.”

Goodhope says if the reindeer meet a herd of their wilder cousins while grazing outside the pen, they’ll mingle and even interbreed. And then when the caribou move on, the reindeer will up and follow them.

He lost one of his own herds that way years ago up on the Seward Peninsula.

“Last time I seen my reindeer was 1997. It was a sad thing, to learn that they walked away.”

Goodhope and his apprentices are hoping to avoid that fate in Port Heiden. They plan to keep their reindeer under control with the help of herder dogs.

“They have a little litter of dogs that they’re gonna train as pups… and then once you train the pups, they’ll be able to acclimate them with the reindeer.”

Goodhope only has a few months to pass on his herding knowledge before he heads back north for fall hunting.

The reindeer grazing in their new home, a football-field-sized pen built in the village. Photo taken July 6. Photo: Native Village of Port Heiden.
The reindeer grazing in their new home, a football-field-sized pen built in the village. Photo taken July 6. Photo: Native Village of Port Heiden.

Kosbruk and Carlson should be able to handle things by then. And they’ll start teaching the age-old practice of husbandry to others in the village.

“Yes, I was gonna be involved in teaching the kids about the reindeer and involving them as much as we can.”

“I’ve always wanted to work with animals… and I can say that I’ve worked with reindeer. I dunno, it just seems like a cool thing.”

In another month, school will start back up. The two teenagers will have to take reindeer duty on nights and weekends, perhaps like their great-great-grandparents did years ago. They both say they’re in it for the long haul.