Q. What is the most unusual animal native to Alaska? -Jonathan
A. This is a fun question, Jonathan. It has to be the musk ox. Close your eyes and think ‘shaggy, large prehistoric looking beast with big curving horns which droop down from their forehead and then head back up at the tips’, and you’ll come pretty close to the look of musk oxen! Oh, yeah, I forgot; as if that isn’t enough, throw in the hump of a buffalo. They are actually more closely related to sheep and goats, although in size they are more like cattle.
Musk Oxen are big shaggy beasts of the northern latitudes and they spend year round in the harsh climate there. Males can weigh up to 900 pounds and females up to 700 pounds. (about like I feel after not watching my diet for a few days!)
When they are threatened (such as by wolves), musk oxen form into a defensive circle, placing their young in the middle. Seems like a wolf would have to be insane with hunger to attack such a formidable, defiant circle! Musk oxen were able to withstand the wolves, but they couldn’t withstand man’s guns. By 1835, the last herd of 13 were wiped out. Big, brave. macho men! (sarcasm dripping here.) Anyway, it wasn’t until 1930 that they were reintroduced into the territory by the purchase of a herd of 35 from Greenland. They were bought by and shipped to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. By about 1935-36, the 31 remaining musk oxen were placed on Nunivak Island by the Bering Sea. They absolutely thrived there and increased to the point they could be redistributed over other areas of the far north. There are about 3,000 today. Man exterminates. Man replaces. Sadly, it isn’t always possible to replace what man has exterminated, but in the case of the musk oxen, it was a good ending.
Musk oxen have this lovely, soft, insulating coat of hair right next to their skin, which is hidden by the long guard hairs. It is called qiviut (kee-vee-oot) and is shed naturally in the spring. It makes the warmest winterwear known to man!
A herd of musk oxen is maintained right in Palmer, near me, by the Musk Oxen Development Corporation. They provide a nice cottage industry for native Alaskans living in outlying areas by collecting qiviut, in the spring, for the Oomingmak cooperative. This is a cooperative which sends the gathered qiviut to Rhode Island, believe it or not, where it is spun into yarn, then returned to Alaska. The cooperative divides it out among the villages where jobs are scarce, and they pay native ladies to do the knitting in their homes, paying them for doing so. The finished articles are then placed for sale around the state.
If you come to Alaska be sure and visit The Musk Ox Farm, near Palmer, where you can have a guided tour, and see the unique items for sale in the gift shop. Qiviut is made into scarves, hats, hoods, sweaters, shawls, that type of thing. It is consider to be many, many times warmer than wool. It is so light an airy that you don’t feel like you are wearing anything; and yet you are warm.
The musk ox farm in Palmer is open for visitors from May to September. Or you can see a herd in the Fairbanks area at the Yankovich Road area research center for the University of Alaska.
I guess you have picked my brain clean on musk oxen, Jonathan. Write again sometime. -Bonnie J.