August 10, 2015

Musk Ox Farm, Palmer AK

By: Rob Lowe

Featured Picture

Our trip out of Alaska led us near two remaining attractions: A Reindeer Farm and a Musk Ox Farm. Both are located in Palmer, Alaska about an hour east of Anchorage. As we travelled the Glenn Highway which traverses a glacier river valley between Anchorage and Glennallen we expected some wonderful glacial river vistas; we were rewarded. The first 8 slides show various views of these rivers which have substantial "sandbars” of glacial silt forming interesting patterns. We’ve really never seen riverbeds like this; the shapes and forms of the water flowing through these silt beds led to some great photo opportunities. You will notice that some of the rivers are very wide and have low banks, whereas others were deeper as we drove along the mountains. You can see the glacial influences, although a photo does not give the three dimensional effect of the sharp drop-offs with rock and soil torn apart.

We were disappointed to learn that the Reindeer Farm was not open for tours that day. There was a professionally made sign, saying that they were closed and directing us to their website for tour days and times. Ironically, that is exactly what we had done! As we drove around the large circular driveway to exit, we were watched curiously by a couple of dozen horses and chased by two loud barking retrievers. As we departed, a rental car approached with another couple, obviously intent on seeing the farm as well. Fortunately, this farm was just slightly out of our way, as we ventured off to the Musk Ox Farm, which was open!

The native Musk Ox that roamed in the wild in Alaska until the early 1950’s were hunted, and succumbed to wolves and bears to become almost extinct, impoverishing the local Native population that depended upon them for sustenance. This Musk Ox Farm is the first and only one with the goal of domesticating Musk Ox for the production of qiviuk, the warmest wool in the world, thereby providing a sustainable farm product in Alaska for Natives. Beginning in 1954, John Teal began to study what could be done to not only save the Musk Ox, but also to provide an income stream for many Native families. No other domestic animal can live in the extreme cold of the Alaskan winter with temperatures as low as -62C (-80F). After 10 years of research, he concluded that rebuilding the Musk Ox herd and domestication of a portion could provide the qiviuk to Native Co-ops which would knit woolen garments to be sold, together with processed yarn. Although Canada has over 90% of the Musk Ox in North America, there has been no attempt to domesticate them in Canada. In 1964, John Teal, in association with the University of Fairbanks and funding from both private sources and Foundations, began the farm. Some animals from the Canadian and Plains herds were relocated to a remote Alaskan Aleutian island where there were no predators of Musk Ox and the herd thrived. Gradually, with some human intervention, Musk Ox were introduced from different herds to diversify the genetic base and then they were reintroduced to the mainland in Fairbanks. The current Musk Ox herd is no longer in danger of extinction, in fact, permits can be obtained for limited hunting.  The Musk Ox Farm has been in operation for about 30 years and this Palmer farm has become the permanent year-round home to these animals. Animals are not considered domesticated until they have lived over 50 years in captivity, so they still have a way to go. The oldest animals on the farm are in their early 20’s, so it will take another generation for the animals to be considered domesticated.

Slide 9 shows two, year-old female Musk Ox, (identified by the orange ear tags). You will notice that their horns are not trimmed. In Slide 10, an older Musk Ox has had her sharp horns trimmed. They continue to grow, since they are similar to our finger and toe nails in makeup and they form a large base on their forehead. They separate the calves from their mothers after a year, although they are weaned at about six months of age and begin to eat a special "kibble” in an area of the field where only the calves can get into. The males and females are in different fields as they grow older. Eventually they are brought together into natural herds numbering 20 to 30 animals.

The farm involves a number of people in activities for support of this non-profit venture and use their website to encourage naming (and financial support) of individual calves as they are born. Two years ago, the theme for naming the animals was gemstones, thus animals are named Topaz, Ruby, Amethyst and so on. Last year the animals were named for spices: Clover, Ginger and Pepper, etc. This year’s newborns are named for candy (e.g. KitKat). Fundraising reaches into the entertainment sphere with Canadian, Alex Trebek, of gameshow Jeopardy fame, being a benefactor of this farm and he actively provides time to promote the farm and the cause.

So the question is: How do you get the qiviuk from the Musk Ox?” Beginning in May and running until late June, the animals are herded one by one into a combing area stall where they are hand combed to remove the qiviuk. This wool is naturally shed each year, so by combing it out, the long outer guard hair is preserved and the naturally shed qiviuk is collected. Typically, about 2 kilograms (4.5 lbs.) of fibre is obtained. One animal produced a record 4 kilograms (9 lbs.) this year. The yarn is then processed and spun so that it can be provided to the Native Co-operatives which will hand knit various warm garments from the yarn. The yarn’s natural colour is a light tan/brown tone however some dye and blend it with silk and other fibres.  This fibre is the most expensive wool with a skein containing 137m to 160m (150 to 175 yards) selling for about $100US and more, when dyed.

Slide 11 shows a young calf with her mother, enjoying a fresh cut tree branch full of leaves. They eat the farm field grasses and are "treated” with branches during the summer. In winter, they graze on hay and whatever grass they can get from under the snow. Slide 12 shows a larger male with a more substantial horn base and prominent forehead which provides protection required when preparing for mating (the rut). It is said when two males battle it out for their choice of female, that the roaring, charging and head banging sounds can be heard a mile away! On the farm, some of the younger males are challenging the older ones to become the dominant male. Slides 13 and 14 give different perspectives on these large animals. After our visit to the Fairbanks large animal facility and then to the Musk Ox farm in Palmer, we have a much better understanding about how these animals survive the extreme winter cold and also the wonder of creation demonstrated by these animals. The balance between man and animal is evidenced in the win-win of the Natives and the Musk Ox. We hope you enjoyed this segment of our travels.


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