Under the bright sun of a never-ending day, Eskimo ranchers corral herds of reindeer for the annual clipping of antlers - a harvest that attracts wealthy Oriental buyers seeking the key ingredient for an ancient miracle tea.
The reindeer roundup is a curious mix of cultures, traditions and economies, ancient and contemporary.Scattered across western Alaska are 23,000 reindeer, most of them in a dozen herds on the Seward Peninsula, which thrusts American soil out into the Bering Sea toward the Soviet Union.
In early summer, antlers that grow on male and female reindeer are velvety soft and made to order for an Eastern mystery brew. Antlers have not had a chance to grow into the huge stately racks carried by wild caribou, nor can they be allowed to get big and hard.
Lawrence Davis, owner of nearly 6,000 reindeer, Alaska's largest herd, swats himself on the face - "those doggone mosquitoes" - and begins shearing antlers under the unusually hot northern sun.
"They grow every year just like this green grass," Davis says, "just like corn and soybeans and everything else. I wish they grew twice a year."
Korean buyers snap up all the antlers Alaska reindeer can grow, paying about $30 per pound. Animals in his herd give up about 5,000 pounds, Davis says. Buyers come looking for herders.
Davis, with help from University of Alaska researchers, keeps track of his wide-ranging animals by radio-collar and computer. At roundup, in what took days using all-terrain vehicles, Davis gets the job done in one-fourth the time by helicopter.
The helicopter finishes one roundup at 4 a.m. - it never gets dark this far north in the summer - corralling 800 reindeer in 18 hours, a task that took three or four days and many more people when Davis relied on a small fleet of off-road three- and four-wheelers to retrieve deer with a 20-mile range. The roundup is repeated every few days until the entire herd is corralled and clipped.
Davis drives his pickup truck to the corrals 13 miles from his house in Nome. Bouncing down rutted grooves to a stream, he goops on mosquito repellant and starts a pump to siphon creek water uphill to spray the ground inside the corrals, keeping dust down while reindeer stampede, making throaty sounds that must be heard to believe they come from deer.
"All they do is grunt, grunt, grunt," Davis says.
Canvas surrounds the main corral so reindeer cannot see out - and thus seek to get out. Instead they run in circles.
By the time Davis has dampened the dusty corral, workers start to arrive. The temperature approaches its afternoon high of an astounding 82 degrees for so far north.
Davis, 58, a driving force behind Eskimo reindeer ranching, quit the Alaska Legislature a decade ago to spend more time herding. Now he hires others for much of the hard labor but says, "I worry so much about these animals, last winter they had to take ulcers out of my stomach."
Davis worries about predators - bears, wolves, wolverines - which grab deer every now and then.
A bigger worry, representing the biggest loss, comes during annual caribou migrations when hundreds of reindeer can get caught up in the trek and take off with their cousins, according to wildlife officials.
Davis worries, too, about problems marketing meat, lack of a market for hides and corraling reindeer precisely when antlers are considered "ripe" by Asian buyers. Winter herding, for butchering, is another concern but is a chore carried out in subzero temperatures.
In 1987, statewide antler sales totaled nearly $374,000 and reindeer meat sales were valued at $482,000, figures double the 1977 totals, according to the Alaska Division of Agriculture.
Davis, former president of the Alaska Reindeer Herders Association, wants to see those numbers rise. Participants at a recent University of Alaska conference in Fairbanks decided to examine whether Alaska reindeer meat would sell on the world specialty meat market, said James Drew, dean of the School of Agriculture, which has helped herders wipe out disease and build herds.
Alaska's reindeer herds have grown thanks to demand for antlers, Drew said, noting this may offer an opportunity to take a step forward in meat production and marketing.
But now, Davis has one thing on his mind - antlers.
Relatives, including some of his eight children, and hired hands earning up to $15 an hour plus reindeer meat meals, have arrived.
Men in the corral steer grunting reindeer into holding pens, then into chutes where, just as the reindeer make a break for freedom on the open tundra, the chute squeezes them fast. Two workers mightily grip each struggling animal, and a third slices off antlers with giant shears, a fine spritz of blood spraying all.
Rubber bands are wrapped around antler stubs as a kind of tourniquet to stop bleeding, Davis says. Antlers are carefully placed in a box. The chute opens, and deer bolt free to join the herd.
"Watch how the reindeer reacts to the antler being cut off," says Dr. Robert Dieterich, a University of Alaska professor of veterinary science at the Institute of Arctic Biology in Fairbanks studying animals in the Davis herd. "It doesn't seem painful. Sure they suffer some pain, but they jump more when you put an ear tag in their ear than cutting their antlers off."