I happen to be in Alaska fairly regularly for my job and was lucky enough to visit this year in the summer. For visitors to the Anchorage area, a special experience with wildlife up close is a trip to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. The musk ox can be hand fed (I enjoyed feeding some calves fireweed but carrots and dandelions are also popular) and petted. Visitors to the farm will also learn how these animals help locals. In 1964, the Musk Ox Project was founded to help Alaskan natives in remote villages earn a living. These villages often can only be accessed by bush plane or boat and earning a living is very hard. Prices in these villages are high as most things need to be brought in. Even a gallon of milk runs $10 to $11 per gallon! Jobs, unfortunately, are few.
The Musk Ox Farm is a non-profit organization who help “harvest” qiviut from musk ox, which is the extremely warm under-wool found on musk ox to protect these animals during the winter. This wool is shed naturally in the spring and the farm uses afro-picks to shed this wool. This richly textured product is sent to remote villages where locals knit the qiviut into hats and scarves. In downtown Anchorage, across the street from the Marriott, visitors will see a brown house called Oomingmak, which is the native knitting cooperative that knits products from the herd in Palmer. Oomingmak is a traditional word for musk ox which translates to “the bearded one”. The knitting cooperatives are a vital economic way to survive in some Alaskan villages. While qiviut products are expensive, the work is intricate, artistic and beautiful. We were told that roughly 3,000 to 4,000 scarves are knitted yearly.
Wild musk ox live in remote areas of the world including northern Canada, Siberia, Greenland and northern Scandinavia. In Alaska, most of the musk ox had disappeared in the 1800s (unfortunately, these majestic animals made an easy hunting target). In 1934, 34 musk ox were imported from Greenland to reintroduce this animal to Arctic areas of Alaska. Today’s Alaskan herds live across northern and western Alaska and I have even been fortunate to see a wild herd from the air north of the Arctic Circle. The farm in Palmer currently has 84 animals which live on 77 acres. Wolves and bears are the main predators of these animals (I have heard of orphaned calves being rescued from the Alaskan North Slope after bear attacks on the herd). Musk ox form a defensive line to protect weaker herd members.
Admission to the farm is $11.00 which is well worth the price and information includes a small museum. Donations can also be made to the hay fund as well as sponsoring an animal. I was surprised to hear that Alex Trebek of “Jeopardy!” is a big supporter of the musk ox. Be sure to wear boots, rain gear and watch where you step as this is a farm. Tours run roughly 45 minutes and guides are enthusiastic, providing detailed information on the animals. Breeding on the farm is done carefully and musk ox generally have one calf yearly. We were told that musk ox who have twins generally will have one calf that will not survive.
The staff at the farm obviously enjoy their herd and the nicknames of some of the animals are creative including “Lunchbox” (who definitely has a big appetite!), “Old Ferdinand” and “Little Man”. In the wild, musk ox generally live thirteen to fifteen years but on the farm, life expectancies are longer. “Old Ferdinand” is fifteen years old and “Little Man” is seventeen.
Unfortunately, the farm is only open during the summer but for visitors to Anchorage, the drive is less than an hour to Palmer. Wildlife abounds on the road to the farm and signs warn about moose on the road. I even saw one moose well off the road in a field grazing.
Musk ox are unique animals and difficult to see up close. One of the draws of Alaska is the unusual wildlife found in few places in the world. For visitors to Alaska, the Musk Ox Farm is a memorable experience where guests can spend time seeing these incredible animals found only in the Arctic.
The Musk Ox Farm
12850 E Archie Road
Palmer, Alaska 99645