The next place we visited in the Palmer area was the Musk Ox farm where we took a tour. Its official name is the Musk Ox Producers’ Corporation. It is a non-profit organization with a mission “dedicated to the domestication of the musk ox and to the promotion of qiviut production as a gentle and sustainable agricultural practice in the Far North, with a focus on public education and providing income opportunities to Alaska natives.”
We bought our tickets, and while waiting for the tour to begin, we browsed in the shop where lovely hand-knitted qiviut sweaters, scarves, socks and caps were for sale. Qiviut yarn is stronger, warmer and lighter in weight than sheep’s wool, and softer than cashmere wool. Qiviut yarn is light as a feather; a qiviut sweater weighs a few ounces.
On the tour around the farm pastures, we learned more about qiviut; it is the soft underwool beneath the longer and shaggier outer wool of the musk ox. It is plucked by hand from the coat of the animal during the spring molt; then it is cleaned and spun into yarn. Although the animals we saw had finished molting, they were still covered by their long and shaggy outer coat of hair which hung to the ground.
The musk ox cows with their calves were in wide-open pastures, with strong fencing. The musk ox bulls were in a separate spacious pasture. Our tour guide explained that musk oxen can survive outdoors in the harshest arctic winter and do not need any shelter. In the wild, they are undaunted by the fiercest snowstorms, since nature has made sure they are well-insulated by their thick two-layer coat, the shaggy outer coat over the fleecy under coat.
This was actually my second visit to the musk ox farm, because my first visit had been in 1984, shortly after it began being developed. At that time it was called “The Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative.” In 1984, I wrote about in my Dairyman’s Journal column for Hoard’s Dairyman magazine. A reader from Virginia by the name of Ben Herschberger read the column and sent me an interesting letter, telling me about the time he flew some Alaska Fish and Game Department personnel over Nelson Island for a musk ox count during the winter of 1981.
He wrote: “Nelson Island lies between Nunivak Island and Alaska’s Bering Sea coast. Around 1970 a herd of ten musk ox from Greenland was transplanted to Nelson Island. Over the next ten years the herd grew to over two hundred-fifty head. Nelson Island is just inland from Nunivak Island. It hardly seems like an island because it is separated from the mainland only by a river. The villages of Tununak, Toksook, and Nightmute are located on Nelson Island. Our family of five lived in a trailer at Bethel for almost a year—quite an experience!”
Ben’s mention of Bethel conjured up a vision of the little village (population 3,681) on the banks of the mighty Kuskokwim River that empties into the Bering Sea, adjacent to the equally mighty Yukon River. Together, these two rivers spread out and create a mammoth delta—a gigantic mud pie that makes the Mississippi delta look like a frog pond.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is dotted with myriad swamps and lakes teeming with fish, marine mammals and birds. This means plenty of food and skins for the Yup’ik Eskimos who live in countless tiny villages throughout the delta region. Roads are non-existent there. Travel over the entire region is either by boat or small plane. So I could understand thoroughly when Ben continued:
“We did charter flying in that area. Since it is the only way to go, there was a lot of it to do. During the summer months we were very busy, with daylight lasting until around eleven o’clock at night. However, we were not far enough north to see the midnight sun. My flying in Alask was mostly in Sessna 207s. 210s, 185s, and a Seneca II.”
In 1983, Ben and his family returned to his wife’s family dairy farm in Virginia.
He wrote: “Our oldest son is eleven, and another is nine. So already we have some help for the dairy farm. We are operating only a small forty-acre farm at present, but have an additional two hundred acres rented.”
He closed his letter to me by saying, “I wouldn’t mind hearing more of your Alaska experience, and I would like to see an article on the demise of dairying in Alaska.”