This lil' guy is very determined. | Lance King/Getty Images Sport
This lil' guy is very determined. | Lance King/Getty Images Sport

Dash Through the Snow at Anchorage’s Fur Rondy Festival

Running of the Reindeer? No bull about it.

The year is 2007. The place, the Fur Rondy Winter Festival in Anchorage, Alaska—AKA Fur Rendezvous, AKA “the Rondy” (currently happening now through March 5). It’s windy and cold, the temperature topping out at a chilly 20 degrees. Downtown, a team of athletes are wrapping up a Norwegian skijoring exhibition where instead of using dogs to pull their skis, they use festive—and, apparently, wiggly—reindeer. As the animals are filing back into the trailer to head a few miles home to Williams Reindeer Farm in Palmer, one furry friend decides to make a break for it. He shimmies, he shakes, and he gets loose. Pandemonium ensues.

The escape artist gallops down Anchorage’s main stretch, luckily fenced off for Fur Rondy events like the Open World Championship Sled Dog Races, which launched earlier that day. Recently enough, in fact, that when the reindeer zips by, the crowds are still milling around Fourth Avenue and the sports announcers are conveniently still in their booths.

“They were just talking and then they said, ‘Oh look at that! Oh way to go, way to go reindeer!’” remembers John McCleary, the festival’s executive director. As the handler slipped and slid on the snow trying to round up the rebellious creature, the announcers continued with their play-by-play. “[Announcer and radio DJ] Bob Lester said, ‘You know this is really cool, we’ve got our own running of the bulls in Anchorage, it’s called Running of the Reindeer!’” Thus, an idea was born.

There is only one main character. | Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/JodyO.Photos

It took a year to get the logistics down. First of all, would the reindeer try to, like, gore people? “Afterwards we thought, ‘yeah, right, like they’re going to allow a bunch of people running with reindeer horns,’” says Mc Cleary. But it turns out, reindeer really hate anything touching their antlers. And, personality-wise, they’re as gentle as can be, a trait that was corroborated by insurance risk-managers. “There’s never been an incident they could find where a reindeer has actually ever attacked, whether it’s the farmer or someone else,” says McCleary.

In fact, the non-native reindeer—first shipped to Alaska from Siberia in 1892 to help feed the Inuit people (a case of mistaken benevolence by the US government)—are inherently herding animals. Which is why that following year, the first official Running of the Reindeer benefiting Toys for Tots at the request of its inventor, Bob Lester, went off without a hitch. 500 women, 500 men, and 12 reindeer participated.

As if by instinct, the human runners donned creative outfits. One person showed up in a carrot costume, another as lichen—both favored reindeer food—and one lady taunted with a bullseye on her back. (When it comes to festivities, Fur Rondy is apparently “the Mardi Gras of the North,” says McCleary.) One account reported the reindeer looked bewildered at first. But when they were released from their handlers—after giving the racers a hefty head start—they knew what to do.

Making friends. | Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/JodyO.Photos

They bobbed and wove their way through the crowds, keeping the herd together and leaving the humans in the dust. They repeated their wins year after year. “There’s only been two runners that beat the reindeer,” says McCleary. “They’re moving to the left, moving to the right, they don’t care about the people—they’re just trying to get to their friends.”

Over 15 years later, and they’re still trying to get to their buds, though the group has expanded to 20 to 25 reindeer. Human numbers have ballooned, too: In 2011 and 2012, there were about 2500 participants, while last year there were 1400, raising $12,000 for charity. And as the numbers grew, the costumes have grown more elaborate and, in some cases, risque (click at your own risk).

There’s no official prize for the first human to cross the line, but really, everyone’s a winner. “You win having a good time with friends, saying that you ran with reindeer, and hopefully someone took a picture of you when you were running,” says McCleary. Miraculously, there’s never been an accident—not with the reindeer, anyway. “We had a few people that slipped and fell because they had a pub crawl before they got into the herd. There were some that you wondered, ‘Who’s gonna be the Uber driver today?’”

Everybody loves an outhouse race. | Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/JodyO.Photos

A festival rooted in Alaska itself (cabin fever and all)

The Running of the Reindeer may be relatively new, but the Fur Rondy stretches back decades to the winter of 1934. Back then, Anchorage was a town of just 3,000 people. The season’s nights were long and dark, time was focused on surviving the elements. Plus, sports.

That year, an affable hockey enthusiast named Vern Johnson made his way up to Fairbanks for a  tournament, an event that also included an Ice Carnival and Dog Derby. His team lost but while they didn’t come back with a trophy, they did score an idea to combat cabin fever in Anchorage. “He talked to some of his friends who were community leaders,” said McCleary. “They all agreed, ‘Why do we have to go to Fairbanks to play in a hockey tournament? Why don’t we have a sports tournament?’”

The first festival, dubbed the Winter Carnival, launched in 1936, timed to the February weekend when fur trappers and miners brought their yield down to Anchorage to sell. It was three days of winter sports, with a children’s sled race, hockey, basketball, skiing, a bonfire, and a torchlight parade. Almost all of Anchorage’s 3,000 residents attended.

Not a snowman. A snow sculpture. | Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/Wayde Carroll

The name was eventually changed to the catchier Fur Rendezvous, with traditional competition and wacky shenanigans lasting 12 packed days. Besides the World Championship Sled Dog Race and the Running of the Reindeer, there’s the Alaska State Snow Sculpture Championship, curling matches, a hockey tournament, and outhouse races. There’s also cornhole championships, a frostbite foot race (just a regular race), fun runs, theatrical productions, and country jams. Plus a grand parade with marching bands, and the preliminaries of the Great Alaska Talent Competition. Emma Broyles, who in 2021 became the first Miss Alaska to be crowned Miss America, is one of the talent competition’s most prominent alumni.

In an homage to its namesake and the fur trade’s historic economic importance, the event also spans four days of fur auctions. Three are hosted by the South Central Chapter of the Alaska Trappers Association, and the fourth by Alaska Fish and Game. “They [sell] animal furs, horns, things they have confiscated over the years because of illegal hunting, so they can fund more protection of wildlife here in the state,” says McCleary.

Trying out the blanket toss. | Lance King/Getty Images Sport

The Charlotte Jensen Native Arts Market runs five days, with approximately 100 artists from all over the state of Alaska selling their crafts. Since 1950, Native culture has also been represented by showcases, tribal dances, and demonstrations of the Blanket Toss. An ancient practice akin to “binoculars,” Alaskan Inuit would make a blanket, usually out of seal or walrus hide, gather around it, and use it to launch a lookout straight up in the air.

“That was a way for people to look over the ice flows to see if there were any seals or whales, how they got up high to see out,” says McCleary. For the Fur Rondy, the blanket is loaned by the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and operated by volunteers, who recruit bystanders to help the launch. But sadly, the job of human projectile is reserved for the skilled. “Typically, it’s one of their members from the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics that will actually be the person on the blanket,” explains McCleary. “It does take a little bit of knowing what to do with your knees, your body, and everything else.”

Fur Rondy attendees number over 100,000, though it’s impossible to keep count. Onlookers just roam on through and stop to look at anything interesting. “We don’t have a gate where we can count heads or tickets,” says McCleary. “Our fireworks show is held over the port of Anchorage, so literally people will park, stop their cars, watch the show, get back in their cars, and drive away.”

Since 1973, the streets have been lined with spectators for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod, an 11-mile sled dog exhibition held on the morning of the Running of the Reindeer (this year, it falls on March 4). Though they’re separate events, they commingle peacefully, and even share resources.

“The snow that has been brought in and laid by the city for the dogs to run on stays, so the reindeer get to run on that snow about three hours after the ceremonial start,” says McCleary. “And the snow fencing they put up is left so we can have our Running of the Reindeer.” It’s a good thing– would be a shame if one of those guys got away… again.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She would probably try to help the reindeer escape.