I want to introduce an unusual but one of my favorite places in Alaska.
Have you heard of musk ox ? It’s an iconic animal living in the Arctic. Their fur qiviut is one of the most precious natural wool in the world, as it’s the warmest and lightest out there. Musk ox, or musk oxen, roam the Arctic including Alaska, and they have been an important animal for Alaska Natives in the north. They are called umingmak (oomingmak) in Iñupiaq language meaning “the bearded one”.
There are so many characteristics of this animal that I love but before we get into that, where does one see musk ox? Do we need to go to the Arctic to see one? That’s where the Musk Ox Farm comes in. The Musk Ox Farm is located in Palmer, Alaska, about an hour north of Anchorage. It’s not a zoo, it’s not a wildlife sanctuary, it is a place dedicated to the gentle husbandry of the musk ox, an Ice Age mammal that once roamed the earth alongside saber-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths. The Musk Ox Project, founded by John Teal started in 1964 in Fairbanks but it moved to the current location in 1984.
About the Musk Ox Farm
The Musk Ox Farm is located in the picturesque Matanuska Valley, surrounded by snow-capped Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains and green rolling hills. You can almost hear Beethoven’s 6th Symphony ‘Pastoral’. Freely roaming musk ox show off majestic look and sparking shiny fur after gently combed for qiviut. Each animal has strong personalities. Some are friendly and loving and some are prickly. The staff know all of them by name and have their own relationships. It’s such a unique and lovely place to be.
Part of the Musk Ox Project was teaching Alaska Native women how to knit with qiviut. In the year 1968 the cooperative Oomingmak, Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative was formed, and the knitters produced vital income through selling the knitted qiviut products. To this day, production of qiviut is a strong piece of their mission. All, or I should say most musk ox get regularly combed for qiviut and staff also walk around the field to pick up any naturally shed fur.
The Musk Ox Farm also has the most lovely gift shop where you can purchase the qiviut products and other musk ox themed items. Pick up qiviut yarn to knit yourself a warm and pretty garment. There are different grades of qiviut based on which layer it came from. There are story books like Luna’s Big Oxident, featuring the world’s only 3-legged musk ox Luna.
A Little Bit of History
In the 1940’s and 50’s wild musk oxen were a disaster or two away from extinction and the villages of coastal Alaska were moving into a cash economy that had scarcely existed before. Where others saw two utterly insurmountable challenges, John Teal‘s eyes sparkled and a vision was born.
After more than a decade of research, Teal started what came to be known as the Musk Ox Project in Alaska. Supported by funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as well as assistance from the University of Alaska and countless volunteers, the Project started Alaska’s first domestic musk ox farm in Fairbanks in 1964. Each year the herd grew. Each year their qiviut was combed and spun into exquisite yarn.-Musk Ox Farm’s History
How to visit the Musk Ox Farm
Book for a farm tour. Everyone needs to be guided at all times within the farm. They have a 1-hour tour every hour and you can also book a private tour. Walk-ins are accepted but they can get busy in summer.
I’ve done at least three tours of the Musk Ox Farm and I learn different things each time. For example, did you know musk ox determine hierarchy based on the height? So when you are doing a tour, especially when you are passing a musk ox near the fence, do not squat to take a photo. What an interesting animal!
Facts about Musk Ox
- Musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) live in herds of about two or three dozen individuals, which are sometimes led by a single female. Living in herds offers musk oxen protection from predators like wolves and dogs. They have developed an effective defense strategy when they feel threatened called “circle the wagons.” The adults quickly gather into a circle of tightly packed animals with their sharp horns facing outwards and their young or more vulnerable hidden away in the middle.
- Musk ox are more closely related to goat and sheep than cow despite its name.
- Musk ox are large, hoofed mammals. They have an extremely thick and shaggy coat. It is two-layered with the outermost layer consisting of guard hairs covering a shorter layer of “qiviut” hairs.
- Both cows and bulls have horns. You can tell the difference by the size and length of their horns. The boss (the base of the horn) is bigger and the horn is longer in bull.
- Musk oxen are herbivorous that feed primarily on grasses, woody plants, and moss.
- Musk ox live in the Arctic tundra of Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Alaska, and Siberia.
- The largest threats to musk oxen are predation by wolves and hunting by humans. In the past, humans killed great numbers of musk oxen for their hides and meat. By 1860, musk ox were extirpated in Alaska, but they were reintroduced in the 1930s from the herd from Greenland. There are now a few thousand in the state.
Why Do I Love Musk Ox?
When I was thinking of a name for my consulting business, there were lots of ideas flying around. I was thinking of a name, a branding, color scheme, and most of all, the characteristics that I want to show in the branding. The answer was musk ox, one of my favorite animals even though I’ve never seen one in the wild. But thanks to the Musk Ox Farm, and several other places in Alaska who host musk ox (such as LARS in Fairbanks, Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, and Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood), I’ve seen and learned about them. Also while learning about Alaska Native culture and language, stories about umingmak were always around. As I listed the facts above, they have such amazing characteristics. They are a herd animal. They protect the young and vulnerable. They have been living in this world since the Ice Age. They are sturdy, withstanding cold Arctic wind, snow, and temperatures. They have rough outer coats but inside they have the most precious fur. All these could be translated into the characteristics that I want for my company and as a person. After the genus name of this extraordinary animal, I named my company Ovibos Consulting.
Seeing wildlife is a big bucket list item for people who are visiting Alaska. But in Alaska, wildlife here is truly wild and the land here is so vast, so it can be difficult to actually see them in the wild. I highly recommend utilizing places like the Musk Ox Farm or Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center because they provide good opportunities for you to see these exquisite animals up close. Just because you saw the animals in an enclosed area don’t think that they are not wildlife! Of course there are guided tours like a bear viewing where you can go into their habitat but it’s usually costly (but worth it if you can afford it) and you’ll have to travel a far distance.
When you go visit the musk ox, please say hi and tell them Juno sent you!