The Nome area is one of the few accessible places in the world where you can observe muskoxen in their natural habitat. But that’s a new phenomena. These shaggy creatures with their odd looking horns lived in Alaska hundreds of thousands of years ago, after crossing the Bering Strait Land Bridge from Siberia. However, by the mid-1800s, they had disappeared from Alaska, and their population worldwide was low enough to draw concern.
In 1935, around three dozen muskoxen were captured in Greenland and brought to Alaska, in an attempt to repopulate the species. The experiment was successful. Today, there are an estimated 5,300 muskoxen in Alaska, with more than 60% of these on the Seward Peninsula.
Their thick undercoating of wool-like fur, an adaptation to the cold tundra regions of the Arctic, is shed in early summer, catching on willows and other tundra plants. This rare luxury fiber, called qiviut (kiv-ee-oot), is prized for its softness and incredible warmth. Eight times warmer than wool, qiviut fibers spun into yarn make practical and unique souvenirs. (Most qiviut items are worked in an open pattern, almost like lace, to allow enough air to circulate to keep the wearer from overheating.)
About 100 muskoxen frequent Nome, especially in summer, to escape predation from bears and wolves. While visitors and photographers love the easy access to viewing muskoxen outside of a zoo, their presence also brings a challenge for residents. Some have lost dogs to the muskoxen, who likely view canines in the same threatening category as wolves. The 500-800 lb. creatures are typically patient with people, but it’s a good idea to enjoy them from a distance. Experts say if you are charged by a muskox, you should run instead of standing your ground.
- Muskoxen are easy to find in and around Nome in summer.
- Hike or drive up Anvil Mountain.
- Drive the Nome road system.
- Alaska Department of Fish and Game guide for identifying bulls, cows and approximate age.
- If you’re in town during the Iditarod, check the local schedule for a qiviut spinning demonstration at the Nome Visitor Center or qiviut lace workshop at the UAF Northwest Campus.
- Look for your own qiviut yarn at Sew Far North, the local fabric and yarn shop. (404 W. Tobuk Alley). Be forewarned that as a rare and prized fiber, qiviut yarn is expensive compared to others.
- Ask at the Visitor Center about local qiviut artists, or look for items at one of Nome’s arts and crafts fairs.