Monday, June 22, 2015

The Musk Ox Farm

Musk Ox Farm, 1930's Colony Barn
We left Anchorage on June 22 and began the long drive home to our boat in Haines.  Just outside Palmer, we stopped at the Musk Ox Farm, a site I had on my Must See list.  The Musk Ox Farm is a non-profit organization located on the property of an original 1930’s Colony Farm (see 6/21 blogpost titled The Matanuska Valley Colony).  The Farm raises Musk Ox for their fine under-wool called qiviut.  The qiviut is collected by combing, done in the spring.  Native Alaskans knit the qiviut into hats, scarves, and other clothing.  The proceeds help supplement their subsistence lifestyle, a project created by John Teal.  Not only does qiviut feel soft and comfortable, it is several times warmer by weight than wool. 
A tour at the Farm included a walk around the property viewing the oxen and learning about the history of the Farm as well as about the animals themselves.  Musk Oxen are survivors of the prehistoric ice age from 600,000 years ago.  They lived in the arctic and subarctic regions throughout the world.  The Musk Ox was very much a part of the Arctic people’s subsistence and legends.  The Musk Ox provided many necessities for life such as bowls, ladles, cups, diaper liners, boot insulation, socks, moccasins, clothing, and bedding to name a few.  By 1865 the Musk Oxen had disappeared from Alaska due to extreme harsh winters, making it difficult for them to find food, and due to the fact that whaling ships hired Eskimo hunters to find oxen for meat. 
A similar problem was observed in Greenland and Canada.  Governments began protecting the Musk Ox and in 1930 the U.S. Congress purchased 34 young Musk Oxen from Greenland and transported them to the Territory of Alaska.  The oxen traveled by ship to New York, then by rail to Seattle and by boat to Seward then by train to Fairbanks – all the animals survived the four-month journey.  After five years they were transported to Nunivak Island which had been established as a wildlife refuge.  As the herd increased in size, Musk Oxen were transported to other places in Alaska.  
Baby Musk Ox
The Musk Ox Farm at Palmer was the brain child of John Teal.  In the 1960’s Alaskan villages needed cash to support their subsistence activities.  Work opportunities that didn’t require leaving home seasonally were rare.  John Teal believed that domesticating the Musk Ox and using the under wool, which he named qiviut, for material in the hand-knitting industry would provide a source of income to women and elders without them having to leave home and abandon other activities.  
Youngster Musk Ox
In 1965 Teal established the first large-scale ox farm in Fairbanks with 32 calves captured on Nunival Island and by 1975 the herd had increased to 100 oxen.  Since Teal wanted to locate the oxen near Native villages, he moved the herd to a 640 acre property on the outskirts of Unalakleet located on Norton Sound of the Bering Sea.  While the Musk Ox thrived, the location presented problems. 
The Beautiful Pastures and Barn - Musk Ox Farm, Palmer
The farm was not large enough to support the herd without supplemental feed; hay had to be imported which was expensive and time consuming; veterinary services were not available; and fences built on the permafrost tended to collapse.  After John Teal passed away in 1982, others invested in his project and moved the herd to Palmer where resources were abundant for managing the herd. 
We also learned how Musk Oxen in the wild defend themselves.  When alarmed the herd gathers in a circle, facing outward toward the threat presenting a wall of sharp horns, the calves are tightly packed behind them. 
Mothers with calves will sometimes make a false charge when they feel threatened.  During our tour, one of the visitors got too close to the fence and a mother protecting her young charged towards us and then stopped.  Oxen can run 35 miles per hour, so you don’t want to upset them!

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