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REINDEER, SLEIGH RIDES DRAW WINTER VISITORS TO MICHIGAN’S ANTLER RIDGE FARM

01-29-2008

TRAVERSE CITY, MI –   “Don’t worry,” says Dave Hoxsie, opening the gate to the reindeer pen and stepping inside. “They’re as tame as dogs.”

 

The four stocky animals certainly act gentle as they nose up against Hoxsie and snuffle at his pockets in evident search of treats. But it’s hard to ignore the impressive load of cutlery they carry on their heads, or to avoid thoughts of being snagged – quite accidentally, of course – on those complicated antlers. Tame they may be, but there’s an aura of wildness and mystery to them.

 

That’s part of the magic, of course. Each winter Hoxsie and his wife, Sandy, turn their century-old fruit orchard, Antler Ridge Farm, into a cold-weather tourist attraction, offering horse-drawn sleigh rides over the snowy hills and through dark cedar forests east of Traverse City. Visiting the reindeer is a favorite part of the experience for children and grown-ups alike. (It’s no coincidence that the critter’s name is Prancer.)

 

“It’s all part of the fun,” says Hoxsie, a fifth-generation fruit grower who’s been taking groups through his farm for 26 years. “It isn’t only the children who find them fascinating. I’ve had grown people tell me they’d never realized there were such animals – they thought it was just a legend.”

 

In good winters when the snow is deep and thick, hundreds of visitors stop in at Antler Ridge Farm to ride the big 12-passenger sleigh out to a clearing in the forest where they roast marshmallows, drink hot cocoa and swap tales. The trip takes a bit less than an hour, thanks to Hoxsie’s team of huge draft horses -- jet-black Percherons with muscles as thick as steel cables.

 

It was the horses that got this whole enterprise started, in fact. The Hoxsie family has been raising cherries on this upland farm since the end of the Civil War, when one of Dave’s ancestors received the property as a reward for serving in the Union army. It’s been a good living over the years, but when Dave bought his first draft horse back in the 1970s he knew he couldn’t simply keep it as a pet.

 

“Once I realized how much food these guys eat, I knew I was going to have to find them a job,” he says.

 

Fortunately, there was plenty for them to do. Antler Ridge lies just south of the sprawling Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, and the Hoxsies quickly found themselves running sleigh rides (and summer hayrides) for the Resort’s customers. The rides are a big attraction at the annual Cherry Capital Winter WonderFest, which this year will be held Feb. 15-18.

 

By 1996 Hoxsie was looking for new animals, and got his first reindeer – not to pull the sleigh, but as an added attraction to what has now become a must-do seasonal experience. He began breeding the photogenic animals almost immediately, and at times the herd has included as many as 17 deer.

 

Native to the world’s Arctic regions, reindeer were first domesticated 5,000 to 7,000 years ago in northern Europe. Today they range from Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia to Alaska, Canada and Greenland. (North American reindeer, known as caribou, are genetically the same species as their Eurasian cousins; a small population of woodland caribou lives on the northern shore of Lake Superior, less than a day’s drive from Traverse City.)

 

In the wild, reindeer are tirelessly migratory, ranging as far as 3,000 miles a year in search of food. Unlike other deer, both male and female reindeer and caribou grow antlers, which they shed once a year. Their coats are extremely well insulated, thanks to the presence of hollow guard hairs, and their wide hooves – filled with fatty tissue that acts as a natural antifreeze) are well-suited for digging and walking on the snow.

 

“Actually, they do light-duty pulling in some parts of the world, and they’ve been used quite a bit for transportation,” he says. “But ours are just for show.”

 

When they’re not on display as the stars of Antler Ridge Farm, Prancer and his companions are also a favorite attraction at Michigan schools, festivals and other events. They’re especially popular around Christmas, when the Hoxsies take them around the state on educational tours.

For more information about sleigh rides, hayrides or reindeer programs at Antler Ridge Farm, call (231) 267-5795. For help with lodging and dining options in Traverse City, and to learn about other winter adventures, activities and attractions in the Traverse City area, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or on line at www.VisitTraverseCity.com

 

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