Musk Ox in Dovrefjell, Norway

Illusive musk ox
Illusive musk ox

Was being born in the Year of the Ox why I wanted to return to the velvet-brown mountains of Dovre, the only place in Norway to see one of the most ancient animals on earth for whom I have a great affinity, the musk ox?

“(Almost) guaranteed to see musk oxen” reads a description of the Musk Ox Trail, a network of circular paths through birch forests and bare mountains that opened in 2017 in Dovrefjell–Sunndalsfjella National Park. 

Almost mythical there are so few remaining, musk ox live on tundra plains in the Arctic archipelago, a natural habit for a pre-historic animal, its demeanour shy and stoic, its stout body thick with shaggy wool, its white-stockinged legs short and chubby, its semi-circular horns distinctive and defensive. These impressive animals, ovibos moschatus, don’t have musk glands and are not oxen but Caprinae, a subfamily of Bovidae more closely related to sheep and goats. Alanna Mitchell writes that the Inuit say musk ox are so smart they can understand human speech.

When we hiked the trail, the total population of musk ox bulls, cows and calves at Dovre was 237. They travel in herds of 15-20 animals, so roughly 16 herds were out there. Somewhere. 

From the time of the last Ice Age, musk ox have ranged throughout the Northern Hemisphere, “looking stately in the snow” until they were hunted down to the point that by the 1900s, the only herds left were in Northern Canada and Greenland. Today there are about 150,000 wild musk ox in the world, two-thirds of them in Canada, mainly on Banks Island and Victoria Island.

But it is Norway that asserts a strong claim on moskus. At one time Norway claimed East Greenland and in their own country, fossilized musk ox vertebrae were uncovered in the 1920s during construction of the national railroad.

Between 1924 and 1927, Norway introduced a dozen musk ox from Greenland to Gurskøy. All of them died. In 1932, enthusiasts tried again, releasing a dozen musk ox at Dovre. But during WWII, the herds were all illegally hunted and killed. Third time lucky—success came when 21 Greenland musk ox were introduced to Dovre between 1947 and 1953. 

Musk ox rarely have more than one calf per year and survival is precarious—in the 1970s at any given time there were only 20-40 of these animals at Dovre. Only in the last twenty years have they begun to thrive and increase.

We started our musk-ox search at Grønbakken, the trail well-marked with wooden posts with a national park logo and where paths intersect, an information sign with a map. We had no end destination, no tarn to reach.

“Let’s just go over this knoll before we turn around,” I kept saying to Magellan, hoping to spot a herd.

“Doesn’t that look like a musk ox to the right?” I’d ask, only to discover it was a hump-backed rock.

Like the previous day on our hike to Snohetta, not one musk ox did we see. Nowhere. In this timeless landscape we had to content ourselves with wildflowers.

There seemed no point in writing a blog about this hike.

That is until now, four years later, when Magellan sent me a photo/story of Dovre musk ox in winter, “I travelled 800 km by train through Norway to photograph a PRE-HISTORIC ANIMAL in -22 C°”, by Espen Helland, a Norwegian wildlife photographer living in Scotland who is one of the ambassadors for the Olympus OM1, the camera we use. 

in the same area we hiked in Dovre, Espen and three of his photographer friends spent three days in January 2023 snowshoeing to find musk ox, circling nearer to capture close-ups of them on a ridge and waiting for the perfect shot, such as when the musk ox lifted their heads from feeding or the motion of the wind ruffled their fur. On day three they were rewarded with spectacular images. A herd of three bulls—and a calf experiencing his first winter. Only 50 or so calves are born in the Dovre herd between April and June, and this was Espen’s first time seeing one. 

Trust us; it is one of the most poignant stories you will ever see and hear about one of the most elusive animals on earth. Accompanied by the enchanting composition of the musician Johannes Bornlöf, its title (which I discovered via Shazam long after I wrote the first words of this paragraph), “We Trust”.

I would like to say cheers to Espen—for his photography, storytelling and generosity in allowing us to share his photos of musk ox and bring our Dovre story to life.

In closing, we did see musk ox—on our recent trip to Alaska at the Muskox Farm in Palmer. Since 1954, the farm has been committed to the gentle and sustainable husbandry of this rare creature, called oomingmak, the native Alaskan word for musk ox meaning “bearded one.”

Carley, who manages the Parkside Guest House in Anchorage, told us about the qiviut shop down the street. Since 1968, more than 200 native women have been knitting the unique lacy patterns of qiviut (kiv’-ee-ute), the soft down under-wool produced by musk ox. “Their outer layer of hair, known as guard hair, protects them from insects and sheds water away from their skin,” it says on the musk ox farm’s website. “Beneath, qiviut grows between their toes, up their nose, and everywhere in-between keeping them warm in the coldest of arctic chills. Qiviut is eight times warmer than sheep’s wool and is one of nature’s finest fibers, thirty percent thinner than the finest cashmere and is not itchy or scratchy like wool.”

A qiviut became my souvenir of Alaska, a touch of musk ox around my collar to warm my dreams of seeing wild musk ox in the snow.

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Update November 1, 2023.: Espen Helland returned to Dovre to photogpraph musk ox this fall and has another wonderful video of his adventure.

Bornlöf, Johannes, whose piece “We Trust” Espen used in his video, is a songwriter and musician born in Uppsala, Sweden. 

Helland, Espen. “I travelled 800 km by train through Norway to photograph a PRE-HISTORIC ANIMAL in -22 C°. You can also learn about the gear, techniques and camera settings Espen used for this trip here.

Mitchell, Alanna. “The Tundra’s Ultimate Survivors.” Canadian Geographic. June 16, 2023. Alanna writes that information on Alaskan musk ox is so scarce that assessing trends is impossible. One of the problems is the herds are inbred, therefore lacking in genetic diversity.

Musk Ox Farm, Palmer Alaska, started by Dr. John J. Teal who spent ten years domesticating musk ox on his farm in Vermont, started a musk ox project at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and then moved it to this farm. In addition to this small herd, there are about 5,100 of these wild icons of the Arctic in Alaska, but if they’re found beyond national park boundaries they will be killed as park management’s goal is to prevent musk ox from disturbing the more-prized reindeer!

Oomingmak Alaskan Qiviut Handknits, a great co-operative in Anchorage and you can order online.

Here on Latitude65, we have two other stories about the Dovre area: The Snøhetta Pavilion and Shirking the Skirt and More: Norway’s Alpine Botanist Hero.

6 Responses

  1. Such and intriguing animal.

    Small, tough, noble, and somehow incredibly delicate and beautiful…

    Great video; it really conveys a sense of the terrain and climate.

    Thank you.

    1. What a perfect description of musk ox, which Espen’s video captures beautifully in the Norwegian light of winter. For who among us is going to see it for ourselves? (Although his video made me wonder…for little while)

  2. Very amazing photography, thanks for sharing. I also enjoyed the humour in the video. Funny guys.
    Muskox are quite the creatures. I gather from U of S nutrition work that they are able to use their food very effectively. They seem like large animals from the photography, but as the image with Peter Flood shows, they are smaller than one would think. The adults are generally about half the weight of a Quarter horse.
    How are their numbers and genetic diversity doing in Canada? Are they holding their own?

    1. Alanna Mitchell’s article (linked in Navigation) says numbers “on some of the Arctic islands have collapsed in the past few years for reasons biologists only partly understand. Banks Island, once the global hotspot for muskoxen, and Kitlineq (Victoria Island) had nearly 90,000 between them in the mid-1990s. Today, it’s 16,500, a drop of about 80 per cent. “

      Why?

      Alanna suggests four reasons:

      1. The small musk ox population lacks genetic diversity.

      2. There’s a shortage of trace minerals such as copper and selenium that are critical for growth, reproduction and immunity in their northern habitat. “Among the unknowns are exactly which plants are most important for these minerals, or even how climate change affects the dynamics of minerals in plants.”

      3. A deadly bacterium Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae has ravaged musk ox on both Kitlineq and Banks Island. Conventional monitoring methods recorded 10 unusual deaths in 2010 but 120 more between 2009-2014, the peak in 2012.

      4. Government policy—”Canada, the global heart of muskox territory, does no regular aerial surveys. Nor is there national oversight.”

      But she ends with this prophecy. “Perhaps rather than vanishing from the book of life, the muskox will once again surprise us with its resilience. So eccentric, so puzzling, so little understood, maybe it has one final trick up its scruffy sleeve.”

  3. Enjoyed this. University of Sask attempted intros of musk ox in 1980’s. I had photos but no longer. I recall calving was an issue…..most aborted. I’m not sure of the year but think it was 1980 as kids were little. Brought back memories

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