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.
More goat than ox, muskoxen belong to the family of sheep and domestic cattle. Their ancestors first crossed the Bering Land Bridge to North America a million years ago. They grazed with woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses, from the plains of the Midwest to the forested East Coast and across the high Arctic. While their huge coats and an ability to go months without food allowed them to withstand 70-below-zero tempests, standing on bluffs like icy statues, these survivors of the last Ice Age could not survive human hunters.
They regard me, the intruder on their islet, with an indifference that cost them extinction in Alaska by refusing to run from hunters’ guns a century ago. In 1969, a dozen muskoxen from Greenland were airlifted to a neighboring island. When they fled out onto the sea ice, the Iñupiat, who had not seen the animals for decades, gently herded them back to land. By 1985, 450 muskoxen had spread throughout the refuge. In recent years, their population has dwindled to 250 from grizzly attacks and icy climate conditions that prevent them from digging out their winter food. Amid global warming and the proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite the thickest robes and the warmest cashmere on Earth, their future remains fragile.