Editor's note After months of phone calls and e-mails to the North Pole, the Clarion recently was granted unprecedented access to one of the most secretive and famous characters in the world Santa Claus. Although very busy this time of year, Santa was kind enough to make a rare exception and allow one reporter to tag along while he made his annual visit to the world's children with the one requirement that no photos be taken of his work. Clarion reporter Matt Tunseth met up with the iconic figure just before the Jolly Elf's sleigh took off from its North Pole launch facility. He returned to Kenai on Christmas morning, just in time to file the following story.
Joan Crow-Epps, foreground, tries to coax a smile from her grandson Kenneth Yona Scott with help from Scott's parents Katie and Travis Scott and Santa's helper Lori Woitel during a photo session with the jolly elf at Peninsula Center Mall.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
As he reached out his large hand, the first thing that came to my mind was, "how on Earth does this man get down a chimney?"
He looked larger than life, and not just because of the large belly that stretched out his neatly tailored red silk suit.
He was tall, with a carefully groomed white beard that hung down nearly to his black leather belt. And from his mouth hung a pipe, but he never lit it.
Later, when I asked him why, he told me Mrs. Claus made him quit several years ago. He said it was either that or go on a diet.
"And what you hear about me and cookies, well, that is true," he said as we flew high somewhere over South America.
I arrived at his headquarters in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve.
Getting there was a little tricky, since the actual location is a closely-guarded secret. I met with his chief lieutenant, an elf named Grubby, at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage.
"Follow me," he said, and led me to a part of the terminal I'd never been to before.
"They must have added this during the recent renovations," I said.
"Actually, it's been here all along," Grubby said mysteriously.
Audrey Mahaffey gives Santa Clause a big hug after stopping to say hello during one of Santa's visits to the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. "I came to see Santa specially to see Santa," Mahaffey said. "I still believe."
Photo by M. Scott Moon
I highly doubted that, but took Grubby's word and followed him through a small door that led directly to the tarmac. I wondered why we didn't have to pass through security, but I didn't ask.
Grubby led me to a cherry red Lear jet, which already was running. However, when we got aboard I noticed there were no pilots at the controls. I figured Grubby would take the wheel, but he sat down in the back with me.
"Reindeer power," he said.
I hadn't seen any reindeer on the runway, but it was still dark. However, I was still highly skeptical that a herd of domesticated caribou would be able to get a 50,000 pound aircraft off the ground.
I was wrong.
Before I had a chance to ask any questions, the jet lurched into the sky, seemingly without even getting a running start. I wanted to blurt something out, or at least ask a few quick questions, but Grubby cut me off before I could get the words out.
"Listen, reporter. I'm going to give it to you straight," he said.
His voice was not at all elfish, but more like Tony Soprano's.
"This whole thing wasn't my idea. But the big guy said it's time to clear up some misconceptions out there about the work we do, and so he decided to bring you in. But I'm going to warn you right now, if you do anything to hurt the reputation of Santa, you're going to wish you never heard of Grubby the Elf."
I already was starting to wish that, but didn't say anything to Grubby.
Lucky for me, the flight only lasted long enough for Grubby to get in his little threat. After maybe 30 seconds on the plane, the door opened and Grubby led me down the steps.
The first thing that hit me was how light it was outside. The North Pole in winter is supposed to be buried in two months of darkness, and yet the sun was shining high overhead.
Instead of gingerbread houses and street signs made of giant candy canes, the small village where we landed was filled with a landscape of warehouses.
"This is the toy distribution center," Grubby explained. "That's pretty much all there is up here. That and the barn where the reindeer stay."
I asked where the elves slept, and Grubby pointed to a large hill about a half mile away. Atop the hill sat an enormous structure that looked like the largest ski day lodge I'd ever seen. He explained that up in the hills was the actual housing complex, where all of the 2,500 elves lived, along with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
"I thought the North Pole was located on top of the Arctic Ocean," I said. "What's with all the hills and buildings?"
Grubby told me to save my questions for Santa.
When the big guy finally strolled over, I doubted I'd be able to get out a single word. Just being in his presence was an experience I'll never forget.
What I remember most about seeing him for that first time was that he was always smiling and seemed to be surrounded by an otherworldly glow that made him look like he was bathed in a special kind of light not seen in this world. And when he shook my hand, I instantly felt like I was 8 years old.
"Listen, we're running a little short on time here, so can you save your questions until we get on the sleigh?" he asked me.
I did, mainly because I honestly could not speak.
For the next hour, I followed him around the large yard and watched as he shouted instructions to the elves. I watched as present after present was loaded into the sleigh, thousands upon thousands of gifts. They should have quickly overflowed the small vehicle, but never did. Instead, the elves just kept tossing gifts in as if the sleigh's baggage area was a bottomless pit.
After an hour's worth of loading, the sleigh was wheeled over to a large barn, and with a short whistle, Santa called his eight reindeer out into the daylight.
They were like no reindeer I'd ever seen. Easily 8 feet tall, with racks of antlers that stretched 6 feet above their heads, these animals looked like something out of prehistory. And they could talk.
"Afternoon Santa, ready for the big night?" one asked as Grubby and two other elves worked to hitch the team to the sleigh.
"Dasher, you know this is what I live for," he replied, patting the big deer on the neck. "What about you. Got another flight in you?"
"Hey, you can only spend so much time cooped up in a barn with Comet," he said.
The reindeer next to him turned and gave him a quick poke with the antlers.
"OK, knock it off, you two," Santa said with a laugh. "It's time to go to work."
As the sun began to set behind the house on the hill, Santa and I boarded the sleigh.
"Hold on tight," he said.
Moments later the sleigh was shooting into the sky with the force of a rocket. I took Santa's advice to heart and held onto my seat as if it were life itself. I sat this way for the first 10 minutes of our trip.
It didn't take long for it to become dark as night. As we left the North Pole, the world again became dark. I remembered my question about the sunlight at the pole, and as soon as the thought popped into my head, Santa began to speak.
"You're curious about the light, I suppose. And the hills? You are a reporter, right?" he asked.
I could only nod.
"Well, I suppose I'd better start talking," he said. "I'm going to be busy soon."
Stephanie Woods looks to her dad Steve (not pictured) as her sister Samantha tells Santa what she wants for Christmas. In between photos, Santa strolled the mall greeting young and old alike.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
As we flew through the dark sky, he began to explain to me the secrets of his magical world.
Everything at the North Pole exists in a kind of fourth dimension, he explained. Anyone flying over the top would never see what's below.
A polar bear could wander directly through the reindeer's barn and never catch a whiff of another animal. But the place is very real, and it has been for as long as children have played with toys. That's why there are hills and sunshine, because the place is not really a part of the rest of the world. It operates on a completely different set of rules.
I wondered, then, why I was able to visit so easily.
"Remember that jet you took?" he asked me. "Well, the key to getting to the North Pole is these reindeer. They are the only things that can cross back and forth between the two worlds. That's why I've always used them to get into the world of people."
With the reindeer leading the way, Santa said he's able to travel at speeds far beyond what humans can. This enables him to speed around the globe hundreds of times in a single night. And the sleigh rarely touches the ground.
The presents are beamed into homes by a special kind of ray that transmits them to spots directly beneath Christmas trees. Santa told me to think of it as like on Star Trek, when people are beamed up or down.
"What about the chimney thing?" I asked.
"I don't know how that one got started. Look at me, do you think I could make it down one of those things?" he asked.
He does go into houses from time to time, but by the same method he uses to get presents into the homes. He said he does it only when a purple light goes off on the sleigh's dashboard it's a cookie detector.
As he told me his secrets, I sat in awe as whole cities zipped by below us. They were there and then gone in an instant, and we only paused long enough for the big guy to disappear for a moment once in a while, leaving me to hover with the reindeer in the night sky.
A couple of times, airplanes came near, but the reindeer were so quick that it was obvious we had nothing to fear. Even a fighter jet would be no match for them.
Nicole Cruze takes refuge behind her mom Bridgette while she decides the merits of sitting on Santa's lap during a visit to the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Some children revel in the opportunity to meet the mythical man while others are less enthusiastic about sitting with an unusually dressed stranger.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
With my questions about how the presents are delivered answered, I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride. But one thing still bothered me. Finally, as I began to sense that we were nearing the end of our run, I opened my mouth to ask. Again, he read my mind.
"You want to know how all this is possible, don't you?" he asked. "Well, I suppose you've been a good boy this year, so I'll let you in on the secret."
He paused to stroke his beard and chew on his pipe a bit. Then he winked at me and smiled.
"The most powerful force in the universe is the human spirit. And during Christmas, people's desire to be good to one another, to spread joy and peace, well, that spirit is at its highest. I'm able to harness that energy. And because now is the time when people are doing their best to be good to one another, I like the idea of giving something back to them. That's all there is to it. As long as that spirit remains, I'll continue doing what I do."
I smiled. After all the high-tech present rays and talking reindeer, I finally had the answer to all the questions I wanted to ask. Suddenly, I was filled with a desire to get home as quickly as possible in order to be with my family.
For one last time, I guess, he read my mind.
"Well, well, looks like we're just coming to Alaska," he said. "This is our last stop."
I looked below and noticed we were screaming over Anchorage and down toward the Kenai Peninsula. Moments later, we were hovering directly above my house.
"End of the line, son. Hope you got everything you wanted," he said.
I didn't have time to thank him. One moment I was sitting high above my home, and the next I was lying in my bed, beamed safely down by the magic of Christmas.
I ran upstairs and tore open a window, hoping to catch one last glimpse of the magical man. But he was gone. I couldn't see anything. But I could hear something: sleigh bells.
The sound of jingling bells slowly faded away. Then, clear and deep through the cold December night, I heard one last message from above.
"Merry Christmas, everyone," came the loud, friendly voice. "Merry Christmas."
Then he laughed.
"Ho, ho, ho," was the last thing I heard.
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