The Mighty Musk Ox: A Celebration of Alaska’s Prehistoric Megafauna

Color photograph of musk ox seated on the grass at the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska.

Image courtesy of author. Note the qiviut on the right side of its head, and lighter-colored strands under its dark hair.

Quick question: what Alaskan animal from the Pleistocene era has the softest hair? The answer may surprise you, but it’s none other than the humble musk ox. This iconic animal left over from the ice age provides qiviut, or a downy undercoat, that is knitted into warm weather clothing, without the itchiness of sheep’s wool.

Having paid a visit to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer during my trip last week to Anchorage, I had the privilege of getting up close to these magnificent creatures and to learn more about their history in Alaska.

Red painted sign with text that reads Musk Ox Farm above an illustration of a musk ox superimposed over the state of Alaska

Image courtesy of author.

Around the turn of the 20th century, musk ox numbers were dwindling in Alaska, mostly due to over-hunting. A man named John Teal had a vision. He saw the reintroduction of musk ox as a way to not only revive a dying species, but to provide economic opportunities for local and native communities to harvest qiviut. This undertaking of a captive breeding program in Palmer, known as the Musk Ox Project, started in 1954, with the help from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF). UAF, in turn, hosts its Large Animal Research Station, or LARS, to study musk ox, which started in 1974 by Dr. Robert G. White in the model of Teal’s captive breeding program. The earliest effort began in the mid-1930s, during which time 34 musk oxen were transferred from Greenland, brought over to Fairbanks, before being settled in Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea, where their population grew to 750 musk oxen in 1968. Together these efforts, along with release points on the Seward Peninsula and Prudhoe Bay, have made for a successful reintroduction from the brink of extinction. Roughly 4,000 musk ox exist in the wild today, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Musk Ox Water

Image courtesy of author. Note the sanded-down tips of horn, to prevent injury to humans and other musk oxen.

In addition to qiviut, which helps keep musk ox warm in the punishing arctic winters, their horns provide a hardy tool for survival. Much like moose, deer, or elk, musk ox go into rut, during which time male musk ox compete annually for dominance over breeding by ramming their heads together. Unlike antlers, these horns have an outer layer, known as the boss, that does not shed. Instead, the boss is attached to the skull, and in this way, musk ox are more closely related to goats. Musk ox can protect themselves from predators thanks to their boss, which I was able to see and handle as a part of the skull of a musk ox. (It’s very heavy!)

Color photograph of author holding a musk ox skull

Image courtesy of author.

Of course, newspapers from a century ago regarded musk ox as sources of meat, which led to their near-extinction in the Territory. Despite their relative scarcity, however, many stories from Alaska’s historic newspapers chronicle hunting trips from visitors from the Lower 48. Several articles point to man named Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an arctic explorer, who advocated an all-meat diet well before the current popularity of high-protein nutritional intake. Stefansson advocated musk oxen in terms of more practical matters of meat for sustenance, yet without a practical plan for captive breeding, musk oxen remained in short supply.

 

Empire

Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 31 Jan. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1919-01-31/ed-1/seq-6/>

CDT

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 04 Dec. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1919-12-04/ed-1/seq-5/>

By proclamation of the governor of the Yukon territory the killing of all musk ox, elk or wapita, moose, caribou, deer, mountain sheep or mountain goats, is expressly prohibited, except by miners, prospectors and Indians for their own use, until further notice.

Image credit: Douglas Island news. (Douglas City, Alaska), 08 April 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84021930/1908-04-08/ed-1/seq-4/>

Thanks to the efforts of Teal and all those who helped reintroduce musk ox to Alaska, the population of musk ox today remains stable throughout Alaska. Threats due to climate change are impacting the number of wild musk ox in Nordic countries, which makes these captive breeding programs all the more essential. Just as a fledgling population in Alaska started from a herd of 34 musk ox from Greenland, the Musk Ox Farm may one day send a herd overseas.

Musk Ox Pair

Image courtesy of author. These two musk ox are among the oldest musk oxen, at 25 years old.

Special thanks to the Musk Ox Farm for this unique opportunity to learn more about these amazing animals!

Lone Musk Ox

Image courtesy of author.

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Play Ball!

Play Ball AK Daily Empire 5-17-18

Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 17 May 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1918-05-17/ed-1/seq-8/>

Greetings from Anchorage, readers!

While baseball season is well underway in the Lower 48, with March 28 marking Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, June 6 marked opening day of the Alaska Baseball League.

The Alaska Baseball League has a rich history: 1906 saw the first annual Midnight Sun Baseball Game, held on the summer solstice beginning at 10:30 p.m. and lasted until well past midnight, the field illuminated solely by sunlight.

The Alaska Baseball League, an amateur collegiate summer baseball league, currently represents 5 teams: the Anchorage Bucs (formerly the Cook Inlet Bucs), the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks, the Mat-Su Miners of Palmer, and the Peninsula Oilers of Kenai.

On opening day, the Anchorage Bucs faced off against the Peninsula Oilers at Mulcahy Stadium. The game started off rather rainy, but the Bucs beat the Oilers 11-1. A thrilling start of the Alaska baseball season!

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Image courtesy of author.

IMG-9566

Image courtesy of author.

IMG-9569

Image courtesy of author.

Play Ball AK Daily Empire 5-16-18

Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 16 May 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1918-05-16/ed-1/seq-8/>

 

R.I.P “Dart Raven” (or, why the Migratory Bird Act still matters)

Dart Raven

Raven with blow dart through its head. Image credit: Jaqueline Androsko

Hello readers,

Over the past few months, downtown Juneau has hosted a peculiar specimen of animal cruelty: an adult raven with a blow dart in its head, still alive. Efforts to catch the raven and remove the dart have failed, as it has (understandably) avoided capture.

In the interest of the bird’s health, and to prevent predators from ingesting the dart, Animal Control officials finally caught the bird earlier this week and euthanized the raven. This story has been picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in several newspapers throughout the state, and in the Lower 48.

Having seen this bird firsthand, and having submitted a report to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game a few months ago, I was taken aback by this cruel act. Ravens, in addition to their importance to Alaska Natives, are protected birds under the 101-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Passed by Congress in 1918, this Treaty provided a progressive conservation measure to protect birds that were in danger of extinction due to the demand for ornate plumage in women’s hats.

Illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper that depicts a hunter shooting at a bird and leaving behind baby birds in a nest, next to a taxidermist in his studio preparing the dead birds, and beneath that an illustration of a fashionable young woman wearing a hat with two dead birds, with a caption that reads: "The cruelties of fashion-- fine feathers make fine birds."

Hyde, John N., Artist. The cruelties of fashion – “fine feathers make fine birds” / Hyde. , 1883. New York: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014645364/.

Although ravens do not migrate, the Treaty was amended in 1972 to extend protections to corvids, which brought the total number of birds protected to 1,026—nearly every native bird species in the United States. This means that those who kill protected birds are subject to hefty fines. In 2016, authorities imposed a fine of $1,125 to one Fairbanks resident who pleaded guilty to killing multiple ravens simply because he saw them as a nuisance.

Migratory bird act

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 20 May 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1921-05-20/ed-1/seq-3/>

Unfortunately, bringing offenders to justice is difficult. One would hope that the widespread attention given to “dart raven” draws awareness to the protections surrounding these iconic birds.

15 Million Pages- And Counting!

 

15 Million

Hello All,

Great news! Chronicling America has just hit its 15 million page mark, which means even more pages of newspapers that have been fully digitized and text-searchable online.

In the coming weeks, expect to see these titles appear on Chronicling America:

Seward Gateway

Daily Gateway

Seward Daily Gateway

Seward Weekly Gateway

The Seward Gateway and the Alaska Evening Post

The Seward Gateway Daily Edition and the Alaska Weekly Post

The Seward Gateway (1920-1923)

 

Exploring Alaska’s Fossils

Mastodon Fossil

Image credit: From the Dr. Daniel S. Neuman Collection, ASL-P307-0030, at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections. Photo caption reads: “Mastadon Head Found in Alaska in 1904- Buried 42-Below the Surface”

Hello Readers,

To celebrate National Museums Day this Saturday, we’d like to bring special attention to  Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline, the Alaska State Museum’s summer exhibit as part of a traveling exhibit from the Anchorage Museum. Featuring illustrations by beloved Alaskan artist Ray Troll and bone fragments from long-extinct megafauna like woolly mammoths (Alaska’s official state fossil!) and dinosaurs, this exhibit highlights Alaska’s prehistoric past in a way that is fresh and engaging. 

Below are a few items from Alaska’s historic newspapers that mention Alaska’s pre-Ice Age climate based on its fossil finds:

fossil 3

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 13 Feb. 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1922-02-13/ed-1/seq-3/>

The Fossil Flora of Cape Lisburne, Alaska: Peculiar and absorbing interest attaches to the study of the fossil floras of the Arctic regions, for they indicate climatic conditions very unlike those now existing there. In place of the present snow and ice and the scant, almost perpetually frozen soil which supports but a handful of depauperate plants, the conditions from at least late Paleozoic to middle Cenozoic geologic time--many millions of years ago, before the development of mammals--made possible, at least during certain periods, an abundant and luxuriant vegetation, consisting of ferns and palmlike plants that could grow only in a mild and probably frostless climate. Although these lands are now so inhospitable, and hence but rarely visited, an astonishing amount of information concerning their fossil floras has been accumulated, and to this knowledge Alaska has contributed its full quota, says F. H. Knowlton, a paleontologist of the United States Geological Survey, in a short paper on the "Jurassic Flora of Cape Lisburne", just published as Part D of Professional Paper 85. The fossil plants described by Mr. Knowlton were collected by A. J. Collier, a geologist of the Survey, while engaged in the study of the coal resources of the Cape Lisburne region. The coal deposits are extensive and are the only mineral resources of the region known to be of commercial importance. A little mining has been done by vessels short of fuel, which occasionally lie off shore and load on a few sacks of coal. This, however, is a rather dangerous practice, as there is no harbor. Cape Lisburne is the bold headland which marks the northwestern extremity of a land mass projecting into the Arctic Ocean from the western coast of Alaska between latitudes 68 degrees and 69 degrees. It lies 160 miles north of the Arctic Circle, about 300 miles directly north of Nome, and is the only point in Alaska north of the Bering Strait where hills above 1,000 feet in height approach the sea. The Jurassic section to which the name Corwin formation has been given is said by Collier to consist of shales, sandstones, conglomerates, and coal beds. Fossil plants occur in the shale beds wherever they have been examined. This formation reaches the enormous thickness of over 15,000 feet and contains 40 to 50 coal beds which range in thickness from 1 to 2 to over 30 feet, ten of them being 4 feet thick and suitable for mining. The various beds aggregate at least 150 feet of coal. Mr. Knowlton correlates the Jurassic flora of Alaska with that of eastern Siberia and concludes that the land connection between North America and Asia at this early period of the world must have been practically continuous. In reviewing the character and geographic range of Jurassic floras, especially as developed in Arctic and Antarctic regions, he states that the wide areal distribution of of Middle and Upper Jurassic floras has long been one of the marvels of plant distribution. The living flora of today, of course, affords many individual examples of wide distribution, such as those found throughout the Tropics of both hemispheres, and others, chiefly weeds, that have, largely through human agencies, spread widely over temperate lands, but altogether these plants form but an insignificant part of of the whole flora, whereas in Jurassic time a large percentage of the whole flora was practically world wide in its range. Even Cape Lisburne is by no means the northern limit of this nearly tropical vegetation; it has been found, preserved for all time in the rocks, 180 miles northeast of Cape Lisburne.

Image credit: The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 23 Feb. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014189/1914-02-23/ed-1/seq-2/>

Fossil 2

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 17 Oct. 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1922-10-17/ed-1/seq-1/>

It’s certainly hard to imagine an Alaska without ice, isn’t it?

Be sure to check out Cruisin’ the Fossil Coast this summer at the Alaska State Library in Juneau!

Mother’s Day

The Alaska Citizen: Fairbanks, Alaska, Monday Morning, May 14, 1917.; Beneath a black and white illustration of a carnation tied with a ribbon text reads: Mother's Day---God Bless Her in Every Nation.

Image credit: The Alaska citizen. (Fairbanks, Alaska), 14 May 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn96060002/1917-05-14/ed-1/seq-1/>

Happy Mother’s Day!

Carnations are said to represent a mother’s love, dating back to 1907 when Anna Jarvis (creator of Mother’s Day) selected white carnations as the symbol of the holiday, based on her own mother’s love of the flower.

Over time, however, floral companies chose pink carnations as the Mother’s Day flower, and reserved white carnations to symbolize mothers who had died or were away from their families (which inflated the prices of carnations and other flowers during the month of May– and continue to do so).

This, to Jarvis, represented one of the many ways in which her holiday became commodified and over-commercialized, and she attempted to “take back” the holiday she created, but by then, it had grown into the national phenomenon it remains to this day.

The following assortment of Mother’s Day news items from Alaska’s historic newspapers date back to a time when the holiday was celebrated with church service and the wearing of carnations. Newspaper advertisements, which generally indicate the popularity of a holiday, make seldom mention of a Mother’s Day at all. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Mother’s Day was once a more muted, reverential affair– exactly the way Anna Jarvis wanted it.

Mother's Day Will Be Observed Here: Mother's Day is Sunday, May 12. It will be properly observed with special services at the Presbyterian church, Sunday evening at eight o'clock. If your mother is alive, honor her by attending this service, if she is gone honor her memory in the same manner. Special music and an appropriate address will help you keep aright the day.

Image credit: The Alaska citizen. (Fairbanks, Alaska), 14 May 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn96060002/1917-05-14/ed-1/seq-1/>

Mother's Day. Tomorrow, the second Sunday in May, has been set aside as "Mother's Day." We believe it was Col. Roosevelt who suggested the day and its purpose. Mother's Day, one might imagine, was a peculiarly Alaskan observation, for in no other land over which the Stars and Stripes wave, have there been more men who have severed all ties with those left behind. Not, perhaps, that our men are different that those of other localities, but rather, that conditions in the earlier days were such that correspondence was either very difficult if not impossible. Of mail service, there was often none or else it was bad or indifferent. The hardy prospector went into the unknown depths of a new country, out of the beaten paths. Successes were not as frequently marked as failures, with the inevitable result that home, fireside, mother and family were laid aside as of the past. Years rolled on and then came a fear to write lest we learn that mother had gone missing with the missing son's name on her lips. Yes, Mothers' day should be a grand day for Alaskans. On that day, all of us who are still blessed with mother's presence on earth, should devote a portion of the day to telling mother those things she likes best to hear. We should be able to say to her that though our material successes have been few, yet we stand upright among men. That as we rest under the star light or are delving in the bowels of the earth our thoughts often recur to her and to home and the loved ones. Such a letter, we owe to her to write. To ourselves we owe much more. It is for us to remember her sacrifices in our behalf; the wealth of love she lavished upon us; the ends to which she would have gone for our well being. There is nothing on earth so pure, unselfish and self-sacrificing as mother love; nothing so infinite that one human can give another. Let us, then, on the morrow, make amends for our past silence, and write to mother the outpouring of our hearts and thank God that He, in His infinite mercy, has permitted mother to remain until her long and last wish had been attained-- she had heard from her long lost boy.

Image credit: Valdez daily prospector. (Valdez, Alaska), 11 May 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060264/1912-05-11/ed-1/seq-2/>

Mother's Day is Observed: "Mother's Day" was observed by the school children of Chatanika on Friday with appropriate ceremonies, according to word received in Fairbanks from the creek city. There were exercises at the school house participated in by practically all of the children, and attended by a large number of the grown-ups.

Image credit: The Alaska citizen. (Fairbanks, Alaska), 14 May 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn96060002/1917-05-14/ed-1/seq-1/>

Congressional Church to Observe Mothers' Day: Douglas, May 8.--The Congressional church at this place will observe "Mothers' Day" Sunday. An invitation has been extended everybody to attend the services, and each one is requested to wear a white carnation, the emblem of the day, if that is possible. Three girls will give the welcoming address, and present every mother present with a white carnation. There fore, every mother is particularly urged to be present. The flowers are gifts from Sunday School students. Mr. V. A. von Godeen will sing, "My Mother's Prayer." The choir will have special music for the occasion. The subject of the sermon will be "Mother." It has been suggested by those who are interested in "Mothers' Day" that everybody who can do so visit his mother Sunday, and that those who cannot do so write her a letter.

Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 08 May 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1914-05-08/ed-1/seq-4/>

Tomorrow is Mother's Day: Observed All Over Country; Badge is White Carnation and Civic League Makes Arrangements for a Supply of These Flowers-- Will Arrive on Evans. Tomorrow is Mother's Day, which will be celebrated in practically every community throughout the United States, usually by special services in the various churches. The founders of the movement for an annual observance of the day give the following as its object: An all-nations and simultaneous observance for the well-being and honor of the home. The observances of the day through some distinct act of kindness, visit, letter, tribute, showing remembrance of the mother and father to whom grateful affection is due. Its slogan is "In honor of the Best Mother Who Ever Lived." The badge is a white carnation. That all who wish to observe the day in Valdez may wear the distinctive badge, the Civic League has made arrangements for a large shipment of white carnations, which will arrive here this evening on the steamer Evans. Arrangements will be made for their sale soon after they arrive.

Image credit: Valdez daily prospector. (Valdez, Alaska), 06 May 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060264/1916-05-06/ed-1/seq-4/>

Be sure to share your love and appreciation for your mother, or mothering figure in your life, this Sunday!

Patsy Ann: Juneau’s Canine Mascot and Greeter of Boats

Hello all,

It’s that time of year again! This week marks the start of cruise ship season in Alaska. Get used to seeing massive cruise ships in docks and harbors all along the Alaska coastline! Juneau saw its first ship this past Sunday, April 28, and we’re ready to greet more tourists and show the world what’s great about Alaska’s capital city.

PatsyAnn2

One Juneau resident who greeted every ship was a bull terrier named Patsy Ann, deaf since birth, who sensed the oncoming boats and was named the “Official Greeter of Juneau” in 1934. She is even memorialized in a scrapbook here at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections!

Patsy Ann 1 scrapbook

Image credit: From page 38 of Scrapbook 2 of the Maxcine M. Williams Photograph Collection, 1928-1940s, 1983. Identifier: ASL-P121-3-2. Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Captain Lloyd “Kinky” Bayers, a chronicler of local Juneau history, compiled news items that involved Patsy Ann into an index, cards of which are held at the Research Room of the Alaska State Library.

 

Kinky Bayers Patsy Ann 1

Image credit: from the Captain Lloyd H. “Kinky” Bayers Collection, 1898-1967, MS 10, courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

 

One news item found by Jacki Swearingen for KTOO Public Media involves a mischievous Patsy Ann laying fresh paw prints on a newly paved sidewalk on South Seward Street. Sadly, it has long since been paved over.

Patsy Ann Leaves Marks for Posterity: Patsy Ann, Juneau's canine boat greeter, many years a "landmark" on the waterfront, left her footprints for posterity today. Workmen had just completed paving the South Seward Street sidewalk and it lay smooth and clean in the light of high noon- until Patsy Ann came along. Without concern, Patsy Ann trotted down the middle of the new cement. Workmen chased her and she increased her speed, but she kept to the middle of the fresh sidewalk and assured coming generations of some memory of Patsy Ann, the dog that all Juneau knows.

Image credit: from the July 20, 1939 issue of the Daily Alaska Empire, courtesy of the Alaska State Library’s Historical Collections.

When she passed, the town rallied together and gave her a proper burial at sea, and Captain Bayers wrote the following eulogy:

Kinky Bayers Patsy Ann 2

Image credit: from the Captain Lloyd H. “Kinky” Bayers Collection, 1898-1967, MS 10, courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

 

Patsy Ann has inspired a picture book for children and a novel for young readers. Today she still greets ships in the harbor- as a bronze statue, which has become its own tourist attraction!

PatsyAnn3

Image courtesy of author.

For more photos of Patsy Ann from Alaska State Library’s Historical Collections, click here.

Special thanks to Jacki Swearingen and the Juneau Douglas City Museum!