One of my hopes coming up here was to see musk ox. Several groups of this hardy animal had been seen near the Dalton Highway, but they remained elusive, when I traveled up north. Then, one drizzly afternoon, there they were, walking next to the road. Smaller than expected, moving with poise despite hordes of mosquitoes swarming around their heads. What does that eye tell you?
Inupiaqs call this “the animal with skin like a beard”. Musk ox live in the open tundra, where there is no place to hide, not from weather nor from predators. Apparently they have changed little since the last ice age and are well-adapted to the harsh living conditions of the arctic.
Musk oxen are more closely related to sheep and goats than bison and buffalo, if you ask a taxonomists. They disappeared from Alaska in the 1800’s, due to over-hunting, what else is new? In 1930, 34 musk oxen were captured in Greenland and reintroduced to Nunivak Island. From there musk oxen were transplanted to former habitats. Today, there are more than 3000 musk oxen found in Alaska. Considering the size of the state it is still a rare event to spot one of these gregarious animals.
Some folks call this another success story in wildlife conservation. I call it another sad example of the devastating effect of inconsiderate human behavior that lead to the extinction in the first place.
“What shocked me the most about the polar regions was neither the cold nor the remoteness, but a bewildering confrontation with my own lack of understanding.”
When Galen Rowell visited the Brooks Range for the first time, he was not prepared for the loss of daily rhythms, such as sunrise and sunset. He describes the time as “flowing without punctuation “and “days merging into undark nights”.
Especially after a long winter this period of continuous daylight becomes a challenge to all visitors of the polar regions. Life seems abundant, with constant change. No time to sleep, no time to rest.
Well, it’s the end of August. The midnight sun has come and gone. For a few hours the sky turns dark at night. For the first time in several months I have seen stars. Last night the Northern Lights were dancing above the mountains. The tundra colors have changed from lush green to red, orange, yellow, and brown in some places. Quite a display.
About 2 more weeks for me in the Arctic. I will savor every day, rain or shine.
“A land of enormous geometry etched by the cutting edge of light. Implacable, raw, elemental, beautiful and threatened.”
T. H. Watkins
A picture-perfect day at the North Slope. 140 miles of undulating hills covered with wet tundra until the Arctic Ocean. This is the place that unimaginable herds of caribou crossed in the spring to give birth to their young, to escape from the mosquitoes and to find summer feeding grounds. Come fall the migration pattern reverses.
Musk ox and arctic foxes roam this place that looks so innocent on a warm and sunny day. It will turn into a frigid, wind-blown freezer that only a few species can tolerate and even thrive in.
This place needs to be experienced with all senses. A photograph does not do it justice. It will serve me as a reminder of a summer north of the Arctic Circle.
Do you have 10 minutes?
Take a trip into the beautiful world of Vincent Munier.
The essence of wildlife photography: Arctique