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Muskoxen of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Jonathan Waterman
Kids' Fall 2007

The chocolate, blonde-tipped muskoxen fur flies horizontal in the wind as if they had hung their shaggy jackets to dry in a subzero blizzard. They roam this half-mile-long, narrow island of turf, surrounded by the Beaufort Sea shallows, in the 19.5-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In my fingers I hold a tuft of their qivuit (pronounced kiv-ee-yut) undergarments, softer than the finest sweater, eight times warmer than sheep’s wool. No wonder muskoxen can survive the winters here.

From a stone’s toss away, I can smell their ripened old hay and wet sweaters body odor. The five adults look as happy and unperturbed as hairy cows, but circle protectively around a calf and a lush carpet of food. The ancient Iñupiat-Eskimo hunting camp on this islet has fertilized the soil into a rich garden of grass and sedges that could feed the small herd for months. The placid muskoxen stand no higher than my chest. They look to be half yaks, half water buffalo, with horns waving up either side of their heads like the hairdo of a 1960s receptionist. The Iñupiat know them as oomingmak, the bearded one, but to most people they are the strangest and least seen megafauna of our continent.

About the Author
Jonathan Waterman is author of Where Mountains are Nameless: Passon and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (W.W. Norton, 2007, paper).