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  • Writer's pictureInger and Jeff Latreille

A Musk What?

~Tuesday, July 19, 2022~

Day 765

Day 29 of Alaska Trip

Well, we’ve managed to get rid of the mosquitos, but can’t manage to get rid of the clouds. It looks like we’re in for rain and overcast for the next 10 days, at least. This month, the southern portion of the state has had near record rainfall which makes it incredibly frustrating that we’re only seeing a fraction of what we should be seeing. Rivers are nearly spilling over their banks with lakes maxed out. Naturally, residents have been very concerned about the unusually dry month that June was, and the number of wildfires firefighters were combatting. So all this rain is a good thing. But in terms of being tourists, we’re not sure what would be worse…..smoky skies or cloud cover?

Be it a rainy day, we chose to do some touring around the area, regardless. Our campsite is just outside of Palmer, 42 miles northeast of Anchorage, and located in the beautiful Matanuska Valley (the heart of Alaskan agriculture). With its old red barns and fields of hay bordering the knife-edged mountain peaks of the Chugach Mountains, it is quite stunning. Palmer is the ninth largest city in Alaska and is most famous for holding the annual Alaska State Fair because of its agricultural roots. They are known for their MONSTER-sized root veges (not too hard to do when you have 18 hours of sunlight during the growing season). Palmer was born at the height of the Great Depression with President Roosevelt’s New Deal relief program to transplant struggling farmers from the lower 48, to Alaska.

It was in the town of Palmer we had an 11:00 tour at a Musk Ox Farm. This is the only domestic herd of musk ox in the world, so we felt privileged to meet their acquaintance. They certainly have a beautiful home surrounded by the majestic Chugach and Talkeetna mountains. The small, but attractive facility

has been more modernized as of recent and features exhibits that describe what this animal is all about. What is a Musk Ox, and why are they here? Musk Ox, a relative of the goat family, once roamed the earth during Paleolithic times (the Ice Age). In the 1940’s and 50’s wild Musk Ox were a disaster or two away from extinction when a man named John Teal saw an opportunity to regain those numbers. In this windswept and inhospitable land, he saw an opportunity for Native people to live together peaceably with this animal so that both would thrive. So he began what was called the Musk Ox Project which began in 1964 in Fairbanks. Thanks to a large outpouring of support by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the University of Alaska and countless volunteers, the Musk Ox has not only been removed from the endangered species list, they are thriving. They can be found in the Arctic tundra of Canada, Greenland, Russia, Sweden, Norway and of course, Alaska.

Through the pouring rain we were able to see first hand how the Musk Ox live at their facility and where their qiviut is harvested. There are about 75 oxen on the farm and 1 baby (I guess the females weren’t quite in “the mood” this year).

On our tour, we saw one pen with 1 male and 2 females, where staff are eager for some “magic” to occur. Nothing so far. But in most cases, they keep the females and males separated.

Musk Ox are prized for their qiviut. They are not sheared like sheep nor do they shed sporadically like dogs. In the wild, the qiviut comes off in blankets each spring, but domestically, the process is helped along by combing (too bad we missed seeing the “harvest”). Yarn made from qiviut sells for up to $90 an ounce and is perfectly suited for hats, gloves and scarves. It’s light, incredibly soft and warm. The visitor center/shop of course had these items for sale, but didn’t quite fit our wallets. One pair of gloves was $140 and hats were about $180. Besides, I already have an exquisite hat from the alpaca farm we visited in Idaho at the beginning of our trip.

We’re wet anyway, so what’s the harm in visiting another outdoor tour? Up near Hatcher Pass (close to 4,000 feet) is the location of Independence Mine State Historical Park, in the Mat-Su Valley. At the site remain 16 buildings surrounded by the Talkeetna Mountains and gushing glacier waterfalls leading to Fishhook Creek.

The first building we toured, mainly to get out of the rain and the cold, was the visitor center, formerly the Mine Manager’s House with displays of gold-mining methods and artifacts from the mining days. Though many buildings have been wonderfully restored, many lay decrepit. But somehow, with the many buildings falling victim to the harsh environment, they still look beautiful against the stunning, heavily glaciated open tundra.

Before hundreds of thousands of gold seekers began their stampede to Nome and Fairbanks to strike it rich, gold was discovered southeast of Anchorage in 1886, at this very spot. After years of independent claims at the Willow Creek Mining District, Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company (APC) would become the largest producer of gold. Its production over the years…..$1.2 million or $17 million by today’s standards was considered modest. Production saw 1 oz. of gold for every ton of ore extracted (an ideal standard would be 3 oz. of gold for every ton). Once WWII came about, gold mining was considered nonessential to the war effort and thus came to halt. By 1943, Independence Mine was ordered to close. In the late 1970’s, 271 acres of land at the mine were donated to the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, followed by ownership by the State of Alaska in 1980. If the mine looked this good on a dreary, rainy day, we can’t imagine how good it would look on a better weather day. Wet and cold to the bone, we didn’t complete our tour as we hoped, so look forward to seeing it again while staying in Anchorage.

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