Star & caregiver Al Whitehead on a walk 11/24/2013. Photo by J. Polak.
I was born and raised in Anchorage and as far back as I can remember, Star the Reindeer has lived downtown, in a large fenced area off the west side of a house at 10th and I Streets.
That’s just a few blocks from our B and B breakfast table, where Star is a frequent source of questions. ”Hey. What about Star the Reindeer? What’s her story?” The questions made me realize that Star has been an Anchorage icon all my life, but I don’t know much about why. I did a little research to be able to share her story with you.
To start, a little background on reindeer. Unlike their cousin the caribou, reindeer are not native to Alaska. They closely resemble caribou but are shorter and stouter and don’t migrate over long distances like caribou. Reindeer -including Star’s ancestors - were first imported to the Seward Peninsula (537 air miles northwest of Anchorage and home to Nome, Alaska) from Siberia in 1892, as part of a federal program to provide sustainable food sources to the Bering Strait Eskimos and other people of the area.
Star’s story begins with Mr. Ivan and Mrs. Oro Stewart opening Stewart's Photo Shop downtown on 4th Avenue in Anchorage’s oldest building in 1942. True Alaskan pioneers, they were known to be the type to accomplish their goals, no matter how unusual the goal might be. Mrs. Stewart wanted to adopt an Alaskan pet. There were no laws against adopting reindeer and the original Star came to Anchorage in 1962, selected for Mr. and Mrs. Stewart by reindeer herder Larry Davis of Nome. She was named for the starburst of white fur between her eyes. Star I lived to be 23 years old - roughly 15 years longer than the average reindeer. Larry Davis selected every Star to follow (except the current one- who came from a reindeer farm near Palmer) to look like the first Star.
The Stewart’s were assisted in Star care over the years by Albert Whitehead. Whitehead came to Alaska in 1960 with the military. Shortly after his arrival, he met Ivan and Oro Stewart and began working for them part time. Over the years he evolved into their reindeer caregiver, moreso after Mr. Stewart died in 1986. On her death, Mrs. Stewart left Albert Whitehead a life estate to help take care of her reindeer.
Beautiful as she is, Star has not been without her controversies. In October of 1973, she was ordered evicted due to changing zoning laws. The Stewarts appealed and won.
Including the current Star, there has been six. Star II died in the mid-1980s when a newcomer to Alaska broke into her pen, killed and butchered her, and sold the meat. He spent a year in jail for his crime. Star III died in 1986 when she ate plastic bags. Star IV enjoyed 14 years under Mrs. Stewart’s care. She suffered from arthritis and could only tolerate weekly walks. She was assaulted in 1987 when a man climbed into her pen and broke off one antler. She survived that and died in May 2002. Star V was 2 months old when she came to Anchorage from Nome, arriving in July 2002. Sadly, she passed away unexpectedly of a bacterial infection, not long before Oro Stewart herself died that fall.
Star VI, the current Star, was born in April 2001 at the reindeer farm north of Anchorage. Originally named Noel, she was renamed Star by Albert Whitehead, who fell in love with her at first sight. Rejected by her mother, her growth had been stunted. She is only four and a half feet tall, which makes her about six inches shorter than others her age.
In April 2006, Star VI was nearly kidnapped. Whitehead found a hole in the pen's fence with a trail of hay leading out to the sidewalk. Star had stayed in her cage, however, and was not hurt.
You can often find Star VI and Mr. Whitehead on walks around downtown Anchorage, and kids visiting Star at her home. Star may be a symbol of Christmas, but she’s also a symbol of Anchorage, and as it turns out, our founders and our rich history.
The following sources were used in the writing of this article. Links to those and more about Star:
· A link to a beautiful photo of Star and Albert can be found here… http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Star-and-albert-web.jpg
· Watch this fun video… among other things; you’ll see Star visiting our friend Terry Potter in her downtown wine shop, where there’s a lot of expensive wine. Now, Star in a wine shop- that’s Alaskan bravery! http://www.alaskapublic.org/2012/12/24/star-the-reindeer-brings-magic-to-downtown-anchorage/
· A great article about Star, and some old photos, can be found here. http://www.litsite.org/index.cfm?section=Digital-Archives&page=Community-Life&cat=Communities&viewpost=2&ContentId=2717
· This article contains information about Star’s attempted eviction. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19751003&id=JPAjAAAAIBAJ&sjid=yfgDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4741,941094
· And totally off topic but fun- this article tells the story of the Stewarts, their amphibious car (which is still seen in Anchorage parades today) and a 1968 drive 165 miles down the Yukon River, from Eagle to Circle City. http://www.amphicars.com/yukon.htm.
· Star also has her own Facebook page. You can friend her at https://www.facebook.com/starthereindeer.
Viva la Star!
What is the Iditarod, and why do we Alaskans love it so?
It's the pinnacle race of mushing, the practice and/or sport of using dogs to pull a sled. The race is held each year in March for two reasons. It celebrates the competitive side of the sport- in 2013 66 teams from around the world participated. It also commemorates the bravery of the men and dogs who, in 1925, saved the people of Nome. You ask, "How did they do that?"
In January of 1925, a diptheria epidemic was brewing in Nome (located on Norton Sound in the Bering Sea.) When there was no other way to get badly needed anti-toxin serum to the landlocked, icebound community, 20 dog teams and their mushers relayed the serum across the Interior of Alaska to get it there. They traveled through indescribably harsh and dangerous conditions, including temps to -62F and wind chills of -85F. The endurance and life saving actions of the heroic men and their teams in this true story race against death demonstrated a courage and fortitude of epic proportion.
As a kid, I never paid much attention to the sport or the race (first run in 1973 when I was a pimply 13 year old adolescent) but I clearly remember the moment I had my epiphany. It was March, 2000 and I was at a friend's lodge on the Yetna River, at the confluence of three rivers (Little Lake Creek, Lake Creek and the Yetna). A group of 20 of us had flown or snowmachined out to watch the Iditarod mushers and their dogs come through on the trail which runs on the frozen Yetna right in front of her lodge. We were roughly 20 miles upriver from the Yetna Station checkpoint and 62 miles into the race from the re-start in Willow. 10 miles further up was the Skwentna checkpoint.
It was about 1 a.m. We had a bonfire quietly blazing out on the river and teams were cruising by at regular intervals. It had been about a half hour since the most recent one had come and gone- the dogs full of energy and the musher casually returning our waves and greetings from the back of her sled. The conversation around the glow of the fire was, for the moment, at a lull. It was clear, calm and cold, about -20F. The Northern Lights had come out and were lazily simmering in blue-green waves across the sky overhead. The fire, although big, was not casting much light beyond the immediate circle of ground surrounding it. It was very dark out, but the snow was catching the moonlight in that pronounced way it does in deep cold, reflecting the light and turning the snow crystals into a carpet of sparkles. Beneath that sky, in the middle of the pristine nowhere, it was an indescribably beautiful night.
In the stillness off in the distance, I could sense it before I could see it. A presence was gracefully nearing, murmuring a song of quiet, rhythmic breathing. After about 15 seconds, in that black void darkness, a headlamp switched on and cast a warm beam of light out into the night, over and above the dog team. The beam shone through the hazy steam of the dogs' breath rising in small smoke-like clouds, creating little auras around their heads. 16 beautiful animals completely in their element were moving as one in a dance over the snow. The musher, with a relaxed, easy grip on the handlebar, quietly stood at the back of the team on the footboards of the sled. Trail partners, the musher and the dogs appeared completely bonded in a journey to conquer the beautiful, solitary, inhospitable landscape and challenges rising up to meet them.
I don't know who that team was. Whoever they were, the spirit of mushers past, present and future was with them. There was such a sense of teamwork, fortitude, courage and adventure - I knew that team could conquer anything.
I think Alaskans love the Iditarod because it celebrates the best of humans and dogs. It commemorates the best of us as people as well. It symbolizes good, strength, fearlessness and toughness- the frontier Alaskan spirit in general.
Iditarod 2014 begins on March 1st. And I hope I see you there!
Marilyn Walsh Morgan