By Gary Bogue
Wednesday, August 15th, 2007 at 9:29 am in Musk Ox.
“Oomingmak” is the Eskimo word for musk ox. It means “the bearded one.”
If you’ve ever seen musk oxen, you’ll really appreciate that meaning. They look like giant beards. Their black, gray, brown coats include extremely long guard hairs that hang down almost to the ground. Because of all the hair it’s hard to see their legs and hooves and when they run it looks like they’re gliding over the ground in a rocking motion.
Underneath those long guard hairs is a thick undercoat of incredibly soft fur that insulates these curious beasts against the harsh arctic cold. Musk ox wool, also called “qiviut” by the Inuits, is highly prized by the Eskimos for its softness and for being one of the warmest fibers on earth. According to literature prepared by the Eskimo Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative, “it is 8 times warmer by weight that sheep’s wool and it will not shrink.”
I believe it! I tried on a pair of qiviut mittens that were so lightweight I had trouble even feeling them. It was like slipping my hands into a pocket of warm air. Now I know how they stay warm when they’re out hunting on those ice flows!
If you’re interested in learning more about qiviut, musk oxen, the Eskimo Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative, and how they harvest the qiviut every spring when the musk oxen are shedding and spin it into a fine yarn and weave it into scarves, hats, or whatever, which they sell (you can purchase these products but as you’ll see, they’re not cheap!). Check out:
SIDE NOTE: Yes, I know this sounds like a travelogue, but what do you expect? I was on vacation.
Speaking of my Alaska vacation with my wife, Lois, we actually saw a large herd of those strange and curious and rare musk oxen. We started out on our long bus trip over 414-miles of unpaved road in the “town” of Deadhorse on Alaska’s North Slope at Prudhoe Bay (on the Arctic Ocean), where the big trans-Alaska oil pipeline starts on its 800-mile trip across the state to the ice-free port of Valdez, where the oil is loaded onto tankers and transported to God knows where.
SIDE NOTE: The first thing I noticed after stepping off the plane at Deadhorse? A big sign that said, “Halliburton, Dead Horse Camp, Prudhoe Bay National Forest,” surrounded by little green plywood cutouts of fir (Christmas?) trees. But I digress …
We had barely started on our trip down the Dalton Highway when we spotted the herd of musk oxen off to the left of the road. These almost prehistoric animals are about 8-feet long and a not very tall 4½-feet, with enormous heads. Both sexes have long curved horns similar to African water buffalo horns. Add to this strange mix the long hair and a rocking, galloping gait, and you end up with something that looks kind of like a weird mixture of hairy mammoth and American bison. Curious.
When somebody yelled “Musk ox,” I looked out the window and saw a herd of dark furry boulders rocking and rockin’ and rollin’ across the Arctic tundra.
I turned to Lois, “You know, honey, we really have been transported back 100,000 years or so into the prehistoric past. This is going to be a great trip!”
Want to see some great photos of real musk oxen? Click on this: