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Musk-ox!

August 9, 2013

Alaska – Friday, July 26

Things were pretty quiet in camp when I got up, so Tula and I headed out for a mile and a half walk on the street across from the NOLS base – through a rural Alaskan neighborhood. We passed a lot of nice log homes, and the flower gardens were all in full bloom, and most everyone had big trucks in the driveways. I can’t quite imagine living up here year-round! People were stirring when I returned, and Toni and John and a couple of his co-leaders and one of the interns and I were going to go out for breakfast, but we were just a bit too poky and it ended up being an early light lunch (complete with yummy desserts!) in Palmer instead. Then we went to the Friday Fling in the local park – a little farmers market/craft booth area that seems to be in the local park every Friday. There was lots of good-looking produce.

And then 5 of us headed to the musk-ox farm, which was only a couple of miles from the NOLS base, and none of them had visited it. I have been wanting to visit this farm for 6 years – ever since I saw it as we were leaving Alaska in 2007, and we drove by and it wasn’t open. We had seen a couple musk-ox in the wild on that trip up above the Arctic circle, and I had even found some of the qiviut snagged on bushes, which is their warm, soft undercoat. Musk-ox are relics from the Ice Age, and knowing their long-ago ancestors roamed the earth with sabre-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths is pretty amazing. Qiviut is very lightweight, and is 8 times warmer than wool by weight – it’s the finest wool in the world. The farm gathers all the qiviut every spring as the musk-ox are shedding, and great heaps of it is spun into yarn (the qiviut is shipped out for the actual spinning), and the yarn – and resulting products – is expensive to buy. In 2007 I paid $65 for a small ball, and haven’t even knit the scarf because it’s a little scary to work with such expensive yarn! One of the main reasons this musk-ox farm exists in Palmer is to provide qiviut yarn to the women and elders in remote villages, and they knit blankets, hats, scarves, headbands and “smoke rings” (kind of a cowl sort of thing worn around the neck that can be pulled up to cover ears, or mouth and nose, or whole head) to sell – allowing them to work and earn some money while staying in their old villages. The villagers all use their own patterns and designs, and one can tell what village a piece of work comes from by its pattern. Most of what they make is sold in various outlets, despite the expense, so the musk-ox on this farm help provide a sustainable way of life for many northern villages. The qiviut comes in a varity of colors, although most of it seems to be beautiful, soft shades of brown.

The musk-ox farm was a long-ago dream of a man who originally started a herd in either Vermont or New Hampshire, by corralling a few young ones in Canada and transporting them to New England. But getting enough local hay was an issue, and so was vet care. Ultimately he and the herd relocated to Fairbanks Alaska, and finally to Palmer, which has been an ideal place for a big musk-ox farm. Palmer is in the Mat-Su Valley region of Alaska, an agricultural paradise. Despite the northern location, with 20 hours of daylight in the summer, crops in the valley grow amazingly fast, and big. Hay is grown in large quantities, and it’s nice hay – even the big rolls of it were green and sweet-smelling. So there’s plenty of hay to buy locally, and there’s a vet who is willing to make farm calls to treat musk-ox. The herd is thriving, and there’s 79 of them, including 8-9 babies.

Musk-ox are big, but mostly gentle and peaceful. The Alaska natives call them “oomingmak” – the bearded one. They have very shaggy coats even in the summer, and they seemed a little hot on this 72 degree day. It makes me wonder what they would look like without all that hair! They’re very comfortable in 0 degree weather with all their layers. In fact, over the years their nostrils have evolved into a spiral shape to help warm the air as they breathe it in. The males get a little feisty during breeding season, and they butt heads and over time that’s why their horns have evolved into such a big “helmet” shape – they can build up some speed while running at each other, and they can have quite an impact, and the horns protect their heads. The sharp tips of all the horns have been trimmed to minimize accidental injuries. The babies that we saw were only a few months old, and had already been weaned from their mamas. Musk-ox milk is not very rich or tasty, and mama doesn’t have a lot of patience for nursing calves, frequently wandering away while baby is trying to nurse. So they become independent at a younger age than other mammals. The babies shed their fine undercoat twice during their first year, and the qiviut is collected both times. They looked even shaggier than the adult musk-ox. We also saw the yearlings and 2 year olds. Fencing for the musk-ox needs to be very sturdy, and requires a great deal of maintenance. The farm is open for visitors all summer, and a caretaker lives on the farm in the winter to look after them. And I know they wouldn’t thrive in Michigan – I dismissed that thought quite quickly – to the enormous relief of my neighbors I’m sure!! It was a really fun visit, and we all learned a lot. I wanted to make my donation to them because where else would I ever be able to help feed musk-ox?!? There were several ways to make donations – either by becoming a “herd-helper” or buying raffle tickets for one of 6 hand-knit items. The money goes to help the musk-ox either way, and I decided to try my luck with the raffle tickets. If, on the very slim chance that I would win something, they’ll get another $56 donation. The drawing is later this fall, and there are 5-6 items being raffled off – a blanket (made with over $2000 worth of qiviut yarn), a smoke-ring, headband, scarf and hat.

I stayed around a little longer looking at the yarns and things in the gift shop, while the “kids” headed for Anchorage to visit a couple bookstores and go to a park where some music performances were going on. I was going to get some more walking in, and then join them for dinner. I headed for Anchorage, and stumbled across some good inter-connecting trails through the woods outside of town. They had names like Smokejumper Trail, Moose Tracks, Lynx Trail, Coyote Trail, and Tula and I walked nearly 3 miles, and then she waited in the van while I walked almost 2 more. It’s probably one of the few trails I’ll ever walk on where there’s a sign for pedestrians to yield to dogsleds! (No, there were no dogsleds out today!) Then I got a text from Toni letting me know they had ended up at Humpy’s – a well-liked Alaskan alehouse and restaurant. I found them there, and we enjoyed some yummy crab legs for an appetizer, and most of us had halibut and fries; one of their specialties. You have to have halibut in Alaska! It was a nice way to end a good day, and I was happy the young adventurers didn’t seem to mind having a granny in their midst! Then we headed back to Palmer, and I camped in the same spot at the NOLS base. I’ve become used to sleeping in semi-daylight!

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