Ovibos, aka “Musk Ox.” (As with “Great Slave Lake,” a name change would be welcome, but not likely.)
The Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, hunting these animals high in the Arctic archipelago in 1914 and 1915 to feed his dogs and his men, called them Ovibos, short for their full Latin name, Ovibos moschatus. The Inuit call them Oomingmuk. The local Chipewyan Dene here have a name for them too, of course, and I have been told several times what it is but today I can’t recall it. (I’ll get back to you on that in Part II.) In Scandinavia, where animals from Canada’s Banks Island were brought to live in the mountains, they are moskuss.
When I first came to live at the Hoarfrost River in 1987 I flew a little 1946 Piper J-3 Cub. That was a bare-bones airplane – no electric system, no flaps, and a 90-horse Continental engine that burned a little less than 5 gallons of car gas per hour. I didn’t do a lot of “recreational flying” in those days, but to be honest I did more than I do now. Meaning that maybe once a month I would just “throw off the traces” and go for a joy ride on a nice day. One of my favorite local flights was to head 40 nautical miles northeast from McLeod Bay to the east shore of Artillery Lake (yet another odd name when you think about it.)
There was a small herd of about 8 or 10 muskox living there, on the hills abeam Crystal Island, and if I looked carefully, flying low and slow in the Cub on a day with good spotting light, I could often find them. It thrilled me to see them, for they were such a vivid symbol of the Arctic. I suppose they were also, especially to me in those days, a clear re-assurance that even though the rocky shore and deep water of Great Slave could on most days easily pass for Lake Superior’s Pukaskwa coastline, and the inland lakes hereabouts look a lot like parts of the Quetico-Superior where I had come from, I was now living right on the edge of something else – the high, far north. Hard by the country of these prehistoric-looking denizens of the very limits of Ellesmere Island and the perimeter of Greenland. For me the muskox herd on Artillery was as potent a stamp of “Arctic-ness” as a polar bear – and there they were, a mere 40-minute flight from my new home.
And that was how things remained for about 18 years. If we were lucky or looked hard we would see muskox on tundra flights, or on canoe trips way out on the Thelon and up in the headwaters of the Hoarfrost near Walmsley Lake. I remember hearing, on the HF radio one winter night about 1990, that Richard and Lance out at Lynx Lake had seen a herd come past, and it was noteworthy enough that they talked about it. In July 1992 a visitor in summer hiked 3 miles north of the homestead and came back to tell Kristen that she had found qiviut – the fine downy under-hair of muskox – clinging to bushes up there. Kristen noted the news in our weather and observations log, which I just dug out to check the date (thankfully that thick binder of records and notes was down here in the workshop and escaped the fire last summer). That find in 1992 was never considered more than a complete fluke by any of us. Roger, both then and now our nearest neighbor, ten miles across the bay, sometime back in those early-90’s years told me that he had had “this weird dream – we were on the shore of McLeod Bay, and there were muskox there!” We laughed together at the absurdity of his vision.
On June 5th, 2005 that premonition changed abruptly to reality. It was a warm sunny afternoon and I was out on the candled ice in front of our home, checking on the Husky bush plane which had in 1994 taken over for the old J-3 Cub. It was on its big tires, anchored to log deadmen under the melting ice, a few hundred yards out beyond the band of open water which had already formed near shore. I made daily walks out to it even if there was no flying work, to measure the ice and assess just how long the plane could remain parked there before float season needed to start.
As I strolled back toward shore after a look at the plane, happy that the ice was still 35 inches thick and quite solid for most of that thickness, I spotted a big black-and-tan animal on the east beach along the outlet of the Hoarfrost. A bear, I thought. But only for a split second, because unless bears had suddenly started to bunch up in herds of a dozen or more, this was something else. I stared, as dumbstruck by the sight as if I had just seen a pink elephant on a city street. Muskox. Ovibos. Oomingmuk. On the bank of the river, on the shore of McLeod Bay. This was unbelievable.
I ran as fast as I could to the edge of the shore lead, slid the aluminum canoe off the ice edge and into the water, paddled to shore, and rounded up Kristen and the girls. We set off, paddling hard for the river mouth. The herd was still calmly loitering through the alders and spruce and out onto the narrow scrim of cobble at the water’s edge. We counted 21 animals altogether, including 7 calves. We paddled slowly as we approached, and then stopped paddling and just drifted. The only sounds were the clicking of Kristen’s camera shutter and the occasional deep chuff or “ugh” from one of the animals. After at least five deliciously slow minutes they ambled up and away from us, into the trees. We paddled home.
One of many turning points in the time we have lived in this place, that day. That was ten years ago. In every year since, we have seen more and more muskox around here. One memorable morning a few years ago a herd walked up within spitting distance of the guest cabin. Ovibos have now become the most common large mammal (or “charismatic mega-fauna” as some would phrase it) that we see here – more common than moose, more common than bears, wolves, or wolverine. More common even than caribou – at least these years, in the wake of the huge burns and the recent drastic dip in local caribou numbers. This is fascinating to me. Even more fascinating is the fact that we are now north of many large herds, and that there are countless muskox – literally hundreds upon hundreds of animals – happily residing year-round down in the jackpine and poplars along Nonacho Lake, and far southeast from there.
The resurgence raises many baffling questions, and no one I have talked to so far has any solid answers. For starters, with the Arctic climate steadily warming, why are these marvelously cold-adapted mammals spreading their range so dramatically south? For another, why in all these years have I flown over only one spot where I can say for certain that a muskox had been killed by wolves? And is it true, as I hear, that even while these muskox march steadily farther into the boreal forest, the populations on Banks Island and other areas of the high north are collapsing? Why, and how, and where will this resurgence, or colonization, or whatever it is, lead Ovibos over the coming years and decades?
I delight in these questions. It is re-assuring to me, in this age of such confident forecasts and solemn sure-fire pronouncements, to find Science more or less stumped by the sheer serendipity of wild Nature. The other day, flying alone on a caribou survey for the territorial government, I counted 107 muskox, all well to the south of here, all far from the tundra. Clearly, the resurgence is still on the advance. And having these shaggy beasts with their flowing thick coats join the local menagerie is still a thrill to me. Oh and then there is the welcome variety that two of them have in recent years added (legally, I hurry to add) to the Hoarfrost menu, and those luxurious – non-shedding! – sleeping hides spread on the floor of a winter tent at 40 below zero.
To Be Continued
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