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Downtown Portage welcomes reindeer, elf hunters

November 27, 2018
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Bentley Scott, 2, rides the shoulders of his stepmom, Kelly Maier, to get an up-close look at an authentic reindeer antler -- or, as Bentley said, "horns." Jon Phillips of Reindeer Games holds the antler rack, which last year was on the head of the reindeer Rudolph, now 5.

Only in Portage does the winding-down of the nine-day gun deer season coincide with the start of the one-day elf season.

There were plenty of both deer and elves at midday Saturday in downtown Portage, and plenty of people of all ages eager to get a glimpse of both.

Santa’s Real Live Reindeer, from the family-owned Reindeer Games farm in southeast Wisconsin, have made annual appearances at Commerce Plaza for many years, as a feature of Yuletide at the Portage.

This was the second year, however, that the event also included an Elf Hunt, in which 10 participating downtown merchants hid an auburn-haired elf in plain sight, and rewarded youngsters who found it with a piece of candy.

While kids, parents and grandparents took close-up looks at Dasher, Rudolph and a new deer in the herd, 1-year-old female Noel, Abra Shimpach, president of Downtown Portage Inc., handed out maps to the stores where elves were waiting to be found.

“Most of the stores said they’d hide the elf in a different spot from last year,” Shimpach said. “The stores have so much fun hiding the elves, and the kids have so much fun finding them.”

One of the changes from last year, according to Shimpach, was the decision to set up a booth at Commerce Plaza to distribute the maps and the bags to collect candy — giving elf hunters a place to start, rather than trying to walk up and down Cook Street handing out the elf-hunting materials.

But first, most elf hunters wanted to see or have their picture taken with the reindeer, or with Santa Claus.

For youngsters like Bentley Scott, 2, the deer, and the antlers they shed, were fascinating to see up close.

“Horns?” asked Bentley, as he ran his hand across the smooth but sharp antlers that Rudolph, a 5-year-old male, had shed last year.

Jon Phillips, whose family owns Reindeer Games, invited Bentley to hang the candy cane he got from Santa on the antlers. Bentley declined, but ran his hand along the smooth, sometimes sharp surface of what used to be Rudolph’s rack.

Both male and female reindeer grow antlers and shed them annually, Phillips said.

And unlike white-tailed deer, you can’t always tell how old a reindeer is by the size of the rack or the number of points.

“I could have two 8-year-old males, and one could have larger antlers than the other,” Phillips said. “There could be more points from one year to the next, or there could be less. It all changes from year to year.”

The reindeer were easy to see, up close or from blocks away.

The elves in the downtown stores required a little more searching.

“Oh, you’re getting warmer. You’re getting hot,” hairdresser Angie Chappell said to a young visitor at Hair Sensations, 127 W. Cook St.

Sure enough, there was the elf, sitting on an electric radiator below a table decorated with a holiday-theme display.

The radiator’s heating element wasn’t turned on, but Chappell couldn’t resist. “He’s getting warm, too,” she said. “He’s warming his buns.”

At Forever Yours Jewelry, 123 W. Cook St., Cathy Hankins not only handed out candy to children who spotted the elf perched atop a display advertising watches, she also showed a customer wedding rings designed to break away, for people who don’t wear their wedding bands for fear of getting them caught and mangling their hands.

And at Two Rivers Coffee Roaster, 224 W. Wisconsin St., 5-year-old Martin Miller added to his rapidly growing collection of candy when he spotted the elf sitting atop an antique door that served as a table divider.

Martin’s mother, Courtney Ebert, said the family moved to Portage from Anchorage, Alaska, about a month ago, and had never before experienced a community that offered so many fun activities for the holiday season.

“It seems that every time we come downtown, we run into somebody friendly,” she said.

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