I had heard of Musk Oxen but hadn't given then much thought before encountering them at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre, which we visited on our way from the port of Whittier to Anchorage on our Alaskan adventure.
I was shocked to see that Musk Oxen are surprisingly small!
I imagined they were cow-size, but they are short, in fact they are closely related to goats.
This is a bedraggled Musk Ox . . . it was raining (in fact it rained rather a lot!) when a Musk Ox is dry it is fluffy, like this stuffed one I met in Anchorage Museum. You need to be prepared to meet a lot of stuffed animals if you go to Alaska.
Baby Musk Oxen are incredibly fluffy and very cute!
Musk Oxen look as if they have walked out of a Neolithic cave drawing – square bodies, short legs and comedy horns! In fact the horns are very useful . . . if the herd is threatened the adult Musk Oxen stand in a circle facing outwards with the calves in the centre, creating an armoured wall with their horns.
I'd heard a rumour that yarn made from Musk Oxen fibre is very special . . . in fact it is the warmest fibre in the world!
In summer Musk Oxen shed the fluffy under hair, it hangs in dreadlocks and must feel very itchy and uncomfortable.
The Musk Oxen at the Wildlife Centre have convenient car-wash brushes to scratch themselves on . . . and leave the precious fibre so that it can be processed into yarn.
Earlier in our holiday we'd visited Skagway where I'd found a shop selling Qiviut, the name for Musk Ox fibre. I was invited to hold out my hands and some un-spun Qiviut fibre was placed on the back of my hands - not on my palms, as my hand oils would contaminate it. It was like having a little heated cloud over my skin, my body heat was being reflected back by the fine dense hairs.
The Qiviut yarn was available in some beautiful subtle colours, the brown fibre isn't bleached before dying so the shades all have an earthy quality. And Qiviut isn't cheap, at nearly $100 an ounce it is a luxury yarn . . . I was tempted but decided not to buy.
At the end of our holiday in Alaska we were briefly back in Anchorage and I had time to visit this little shop . . .
Oomingmak is the HQ of the Musk Ox Producers Cooperative and it sells hand knits made by cooperative members scattered in isolated communities mainly in the far west of Alaska.
Like other traditional knitting such as Aran and Guernsey, each community has its own designs. Traditional Qiviut scarves are knitted in natural undyed yarn, the lace is blocked on these printed cardboard grids.
I wish I'd had more time (and also that I wasn't coughing so much from the cold I'd gone down with!) I would have loved to chat with the Oomingmak knitting ladies who were sorting through piles of beautiful lace scarves around the table in the little wooden cabin.
However, I did buy some souvenirs . . .
some unspun Qiviut fibre, a 1 gram skein of yarn and a little purse which I'll use for keeping my stitch markers.
So, like me, you probably now know far more about Musk Oxen than you didn't know you didn't know before!
If you would like to know even more, here's a cute film from the Oomingmak web site.