If Seawolves are looking for a fun Alaskan experience, they can take a short drive to Palmer and pay a visit to see musk ox at the Musk Ox Farm.
During a recent tour, a tour guide named Amelia showed us the farm. She started by taking us to the museum where we got the overview of the farm. She demonstrated how musk oxen are combed over their entire bodies for their downy underwool that they shed seasonally between April and the end of May.
The gathered wool is collected in breathable fabric bags, weighed, then sent to a mill to be processed into yarn. A smaller amount of fiber is reserved and kept for hand spinners and sample bags. The fiber is finer than cashmere, and it is warm.
According to the Musk Ox Farm’s website, the farm was started by John Teal in Fairbanks and moved to Palmer in 1986. Its goal was to research ways to help bring income to Alaska Native cultures.
Amelia took us to meet several groups of musk oxen on the 75 acres of farmland. The names were familiar to everyone and the mentioning made people smile. There was a pasture of “Norse goddesses and gods” from 2020 in one pasture, musk oxen born in 2014 were named for gemstones. One year was named for candy, another for national parks.
Amelia said that their longest living residents, a male named Littleman, died at 25 years of age, and a female named Georgeann, was 28.
At one stop, a musk ox walked up to the fence next to our group and Amelia instructed us to notice its eyes and how it had rectangular pupils and how they are similar to goat’s eyes. She said that the shape allowed them to see better through their peripheral vision, and that musk oxen are related to goats and are in the Caprinae family. She said that musk oxen seemed very low key, happy eating out in the pastures, but that they monitored the animals constantly, explaining, “there can be a lot of drama.”
She told us how each musk ox had a unique personality. Several times, the musk oxen approached us and were close enough for photos. Amelia stopped the group to tell us about a bull named Topaz, who was in his own corral while he recovered from a dental operation. As we walked away — to the delight of some children in our group — he ran with us.
The farm is also semi-famous for it's unlikely connection to the late host of "Jeopardy!" Alex Trebeck. A Frontiersman article stated that the Trebk family created a foundation in 2013 which has helped the farm with donations, and that for 30 years. Trebek personally signed musk ox adoption papers.
The musk ox adoption program is a way that the Musk Ox Farm raises money and keeps people involved. “Adoption has been our most common form of donations... He really just raised a lot of awareness for us... It really was special. He was a very generous guy,” Executive Director Mark Austin was quoted as saying.
People who want to help with extra funds can sign up for different levels of sponsorship starting with “adoption” get special perks. During the time that Trebek was part of the farm, his signature was a personal thank you to everyone who helped in this manner.
There is still a named Trebek at the farm.
In the gift shop, there are cards with art, ornaments with musk ox, qiviut yarn and fiber and products, and art made by the musk oxen, themselves.
Why do these animals make art? Their website explains: “Creating unique pieces of art is a form of enrichment. Enrichment gives animals mental and physical stimulation and gives them more opportunities to practice natural behaviors in a safe and positive way.”
Paper and nontoxic paints are put into a waterproof bag which is sealed, then feed is put over the bag where the musk ox then interacts, hoofing and snorting at the new addition to their environment.
The shop also carries handknit shawls, hats, smoke rings, scarves, and skeins of qiviut and qiviut yarn blends. If you want to buy a pattern to support the farm but can not afford the yarn, they have patterns online for purchase.
The visit was educational and fun, and the walk was not strenuous. If you go, be mindful of the weather. We spent about 40 minutes outside. I have been to the musk ox farm in every season and if it is wet and melty outside, the farm tour is slippery. Virtual tours are also available. It is easiest to schedule ahead and buy your tour package early.