When Dillon police officer Bryan Wagner arrived at work Friday morning, Dec. 6, he got an unusual request from his chief — find a missing reindeer and bring it back safely.
“I came up here from Florida,” Wagner said. “We used to wrestle with alligators all the time. But reindeer is new.”
The story of the missing reindeer started the previous evening at the Lighting of Dillon ceremony. Every winter, the town of Dillon puts on an evening of festivities, which include crafts, holiday music and an appearance by Santa and one of his reindeer.
In this case, Santa is Bill Lee, owner of the Laughing Valley Ranch in Idaho Springs. Lee is a local character actor who plays the role of Santa Claus and historical mountain man figures at various events. Among Lee’s ranch animals are domesticated reindeer, which he often brings along with him for kids to pet.
On Thursday night, Dec. 5, Lee was at La Riva Mall in downtown Dillon as Santa Claus, listening to children’s Christmas wish lists. His reindeer, which he has brought to numerous previous occasions, was outside for pictures and petting when it was suddenly spooked. The animal jerked its lead rope away from its handler (reindeer can weigh up to 200 pounds) and bolted out of the enclosure.
Lee, the handler and several others pursued the animal to the area near the Dillon Marina. Efforts to corral the reindeer, with the assistance of Dillon police officer James Connelley and Summit County animal control officer J.J. Swirka, were unsuccessful. Tracks were found along the shoreline, but the animal had disappeared, and its pursuers determined it had left land and swum into the lake.
Eventually, the searchers had to give up, with no sign of the reindeer either on land or in the water.
However, around 8 a.m. on Friday morning, the Dillon police office received a phone call from a Summit County local who was walking his dogs along the shoreline near the Robert’s Tunnel building. He said he had seen a reindeer with a halter and lead rope walking around the nearby trail.
That’s when Wagner started the search, joining Lee and several other volunteers, including Copper Mountain Resort ski patroller Joe Fassel. Fassel has known Lee for years, and arranges for him to attend the Copper Mountain Resort employee Christmas party as Santa, and he always brings a reindeer.
“(Lee) brings the reindeer to my kids’ Christmas party at Copper here, and he brings it inside the building. He lets the kids pet it, and the adults have to pet it also, and it’s that reindeer that he brings,” Fassel said. “It is a tame reindeer. It just got scared and it didn’t know what else to do.”
For the next several hours, the group tracked the reindeer. They managed to get it cornered once, but it slipped away. About four more hours passed before they managed to pinpoint its location again.
By that time, Lee had arrived with another reindeer, hoping that a familiar creature would help lure the frightened animal back to the trailer.
The trick worked. As the runaway reindeer began to follow its fellow down the road, the searchers were able to take hold of its lead rope and secure it.
Despite the initial alarm among some of the searchers, the reindeer’s jump into the lake most likely wasn’t all that dangerous.
“Some animals are comfortable in the water; moose and caribou will often swim across rivers, and in southeast Alaska even across (the) ocean to other islands,” said Meg Leroux, operations manager for the Summit County animal control and shelter.
Nevertheless, recovering the animal as soon as possible was a priority.
“It is a domesticated animal, so it wouldn’t have held up too long if a bunch of coyotes would’ve surrounded it,” Fassel said. “It would’ve held its own, but I think after a while, in the wild, I don’t think it would have lasted very long.”
All participants were relieved to finally get the reindeer back in the trailer and on its way home again.
“As long as he is safe and sound, that’s all that matters,” said Wagner.
And now, the participants all have another interesting story to tell.
“I couldn’t have written a story better,” Fassel said with a laugh. “What else could you ask for? But that’s the way it was.”