You are currently browsing the daily archive for May 27, 2012.
I took a three-legged flight up to Anchorage on Wednesday, May 23 and arrived hungry and tired but glad to be in one piece. I was amazed by the taxidermy in the airport. Although I would rather see these creatures alive, this was an opportunity to look at them up close. Craft Cruises knitting group stayed at the Westmark Hotel which is right in the downtown area. I headed to a pub for dinner, then hit the hay. Jane, in our group, had purchased this incredible basket made entirely of baleen by a native Alaskan artist. The next morning, still in jet lag, I met the group in the lobby at 8:15 to board a bus to go to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. I thought I would nap along the way, but the driver was too interesting with her tour-guide information and the scenery was spectacular. The Palmer farm was established in the 1930s and its mission is... “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.” The Kelloggs of cereal fame helped financially to establish the farm, as evidence by the name on the barn. I learned so much about musk oxen that day! (I will attempt to convey everything I heard, hoping that I don’t have any facts wrong.) Efforts to domesticate the musk ox have had bumps and starts but there are now a handful of successful farms around the world, notably Norway, Alaska, Montana, and Canada. (Vermont was actually a site for awhile!) The farm in Palmer is the only one focusing solely on qiviut production while the one in Fairbanks has a scientific research approach. Apparently, musk ox digestion is extremely efficient owing to a little microbe in the stomach, which can digest just about anything. This is how the musk ox can survive in the harsh and empty Tundra. The Fairbanks group is studying this microbe for applications in energy production! This microbe is so skilled at digesting everything taken in by the musk ox that the manure is useless for fertilizing crops–no nutritive value is left! (This is the same reason it doesn’t smell. There’s a plus!) Birthin’ Them Babies Each year at Palmer the new batch of babies is named according to a theme, like state capitals, herbs and spices, etc. I think we were told that three years ago they had 8 babies, 12 last year and 15 this year, which is great as 16 females were bred. They used 4 bulls this year and gave each a harem of 4 females. Twinning is unusual but there was a set of twins born in the Fairbanks center recently. The females are bred at around 3 to 4 years of age, depending on their weight. Mother musk oxen produce about 1 cup of milk a day for their babies. The young woman working at the farm giving us the the tour told us that it is so thick and full of fat that if you had a cup of it and put a spoon in it and turned it upside down it would not drip out! The babies gain about two pounds a day on that milk! In the wild, the bulls vie for the honor of breeding the harem by going through a ritual. They face each other, shake their heads and stamp their feet. Then they start backing up away from each other until they are about 100 yards apart. Then they run full speed (up to 35 miles an hour) and butt each other in the head, making a sound that can be heard a mile away. The resulting impact is 70 miles per hour! I saw a skeleton at the center that demonstrated how the spine is reinforced so that it can withstand that impact. The vertebra were longer (creating the hump behind the head) and thicker there. The musk ox is very protective of its young. When threatened, the herd will form a circle with the babies inside. The adults all face outward with their horns lowered to fight off predators. This is very effective for dealing with wolves… humans, not so much. In fact this very behavior has been the downfall of the musk ox, because the defensive circle made them easy prey for hunters with guns. They were driven to the point of extinction. Other Facts The musk oxen can be quite playful so balls were supplied…500 pound iron balls! However, when the animals began rolling the balls up the hill and letting them roll down to crash and destroy the fencing, those balls were removed. I was so amazed that they could move those balls! This one is about three feet high. The shaggy coat of the musk ox is layered with thick coarse guard hairs, perfect for shedding rain and protection from the elements. The soft undercoat of qiviut is what keeps the animals warm in minus 80 degree weather. I learned that you can buy qiviuk, the undercoat harvested from a dead musk ox, or qiviut, combed from a live animal. The larger bulls will produce 6 to 8 pounds of the fluff per year. The animals are fed into a chute so that they can be combed, which takes many hours. Usually, the qiviut is full of vegetable matter and guard hairs and takes careful cleaning, which drives up the price considerably. The more the qiviut is worn and washed, the more it blooms, becoming more fuzzy and cozy, due to the air being trapped by the fibers. One shop owner said that the yarn does not full, but I personally wouldn’t want to test that! I saw a range of prices in the few places I have visited so far. At one shop, two ounce skeins of 2-ply yarn (over 400 yards), natural or dyed sold for $220. At another shop I saw it going for a bit less. At the Palmer farm, all the fiber is sent to Oomingmak, the native Alaskan cooperative, to be cleaned, spun, and knitted into scarves and hats. There is a raffle going on right now. For $10 / ticket you get a 1 in 800 chance to win one of 5 qiviut items, the grand prize being a lace afghan! I am sorry I didn’t take a photo of it. The money raised will help to provide winter food for the animals. (Contact info below.) Here is a wonderful bit of footage I got of the girls and their babies... Musk Ox Farm And some lovely examples of qiviut lace knitting. These are traditional patterns from different areas among the native Alaskans. You can adopt a Palmer musk ox for $100 and receive an ounce of qiviut fiber, with the added bonus of being able to buy two more ounces at $75/ounce. You can contact the farm many ways: Phone: 907-745-4151 Fax: 907-746-4831 Email: email@example.com Mail: The Musk Ox Farm P.O. Box 587 Palmer, AK, 99645 It was such a worthwhile day, and a highlight of the trip so far.Everyone in our