Alaska 1: Observations of a Newcomer

Hello from the wilderness near Wasilla, AK. I begin to know why my brother John loves it here: the rugged natural beauty is unbelievable, and somehow it suits him. Never having been so far north or west, the less conscious details of daily life in Alaska are strange to me. The sun travels in a low arc southeast to southwest, and it is COLD. The temperature gauge rides in the 30s during the day, plunging below 15 at night. Brr. There is a drive-in coffee shack on every corner, even in the middle of the woods, and dogs are exercised in packs at a dead run, harnessed to atvs musher-style.

John and me at the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, AK

We are only 3 miles from the Pacific, but I don’t smell the sea. John tells me the waters in Cook Inlet (think Captain Cook, folks) are brackish because of outflowing rivers and glacial melt, and the winds rarely blow inland from over the ocean, as they do on the east coast. This time of year, whales are elsewhere and bears have denned, so I probably won’t see them, though the orcas and belugas remain all year long. When I told John I wanted to see bear, he shot me a wild look and told me he would send me to the zoo. Evidently, the bears here—brown, grizzly and black—are huge, menacing, and incredibly dangerous. Very different from their southern cousins. People take bears seriously here. Moose are everywhere. I saw a cow and calf moose wandering by the road while driving around. Evidently this is as common as seeing ground hogs in Saluda, and many traffic accidents occur here from moose in the roadway.

Most parking lot views look like this. Here is the grocery lot.

The views from our porch at Kniticality are lovely; here is the view as we drive out from my brother’s place on This Way (the next streets over are That Way, and Finally Here). I have no words, so the picture must suffice.

Turning from This Way onto the main access road

We took an hour this afternoon, when John felt well enough, to visit the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, AK. It was just a few minutes from the house, so proved an excellent outing for us both. Thinking bear and moose, I pictured Musk Oxen to be about the size of dinosaurs or at least horses, but I was wrong. Most stand to the elbow or a bit taller, and they are beautiful. Though they look it, Muskox are not bovine in origin, being closer relatives to goats. The farm only does tours by appointment during the winter, and I felt fortunate to schedule one so late in the year (and when there was no snow).

Adult Musk Oxen, Palmer AK

While tromping between the paddocks, I was in constant flow with variations of the adjective “adorable,” which amused both my brother and Derek, our guide. Muskox are adorable, and though not overtly friendly, those we met were ambivalent to mildly curious about us. Each year’s brood at the farm gets named according to a theme, such as gemstones or capitol cities. Evidently, Derek has an enemy in Lansing, a female who faces off with him at every opportunity. We learned that it takes about 250 years to domesticate a species, that Qiviut fibers are 8 times warmer than wool, and that the Alaskan muskox were hunted to extinction in the mid-20th century. The current population was re-introduced from herds in Canada and Greenland.

Me and a yearling. Adults are only about 8 inches taller than this chap.

Muskox in captivity are farmed for their fiber, which at this location is removed annually by combing rather than shearing. Qiviut is the soft undercoat of the muskox, left after the longer and coarser guard hairs are removed. It is is pronounced KIV-ee-ut, and yarn spun from this fiber won’t felt or shrink. In my fingers it is incredibly soft. Items worked in Qiviut have a subtle, gentle halo which is similar to that of alpaca.

Qiviut is one of the rarest of fibers, so expect to pay about $100 per 50g skein if you, like me, lust after such things. A skein is about 170 yards of fingering weight, so there are plenty of things to make from it. The money is well spent in my view: supporting the farm, the species, and a local cooperative of native handknitters all in one go. If I have time, I'll visit the Oomingmak Qiviut Knitting Cooperative while we are in Anchorage, and I'll tell you all about it.

Finally, if you ever have the opportunity, please make a visit to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, AK.  You will be both charmed and blessed.

Until next time...