On Sunday, roughly 3,000 animals crossed the ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., marking the 80th anniversary of the annual journey between their wintering ground at Jimmy Lake, N.W.T., and their calving grounds on Richards Island near Tuktoyaktuk.
It was a blustery day, but the crowds still came out. Ruth Wright from Inuvik has never seen a reindeer before so she brought her granddaughter out with her.
"I've seen caribou way over there or in front as they're crossing over the highway. I thought, 'Hey, there are thousands of (reindeer) here, I might as well give it a check.'"
Greg and Jen Wilson from London, Ont., were visibly wowed by the herd. They're teachers in Tuktoyaktuk.
Jen couldn't believe she was standing on the Arctic Ocean.
"And then (to) watch a herd of reindeer pass," Greg chimed in. "If you told me this time last year that I would be doing this, I wouldn't have believed you."
A long journey
In March 1935, the first group of reindeer were herded to the Mackenzie Delta by Saami herders and Alaska Natives after a long journey that originated on the other side of the world. The reindeer were brought to the area by the Canadian government to address a shortage of caribou. The herd, which originated in Russia, had been transported from Norway to New York City by steamship; to Seattle, Wash., by train; and north to Alaska, again by ship.
Lloyd Binder's grandfather was one of the herders who brought the reindeer over from Alaska on that first journey.
Although the reindeer arrived in the Mackenzie Delta in 1935, it was actually a five year journey to herd them from the northern United States. Binder says his grandfather, who joined halfway through the process, told him it was a tough slog and the government didn't prepare them well for the journey.
Stanley Kevik, an elder from Tuktoyaktuk, was born in 1936, just one year after the herd arrived in the Delta. He recently spoke to CBC North's Wanda McLeod about his experience working as a herder in the 1950s.
He told her about a memorable incident that happened at a camp at Jimmy Lake. A man had loaded his wood stove in his tent full of wood before going outside to pray. Kevik remembers the man fervently praying: "Oh, you're so close I even could feel the heat."
Meanwhile, Kevik laughs, the man's tent had caught fire.
"His tent was burning behind him, eh?"
Kevik says he misses his herding days.
The Canadian government owned the herd until the 1960s, using it to provide meat to people in the region. When the caribou returned, nobody needed or wanted reindeer anymore, says Binder, so the herd was sold to someone in Tuktoyaktuk. It is now owned by Canadian Reindeer, a company owned in part by the Binder family and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.
Binder says there's more demand for reindeer again because of of lower caribou populations. A lot of the meat is distributed locally by the IRC or sold privately.