Musk Ox and More in Fairbanks

We were in Fairbanks for almost a week, but, because it had been more than a month since we’d been in a city, we had so many errands to run that we hardly had enough time to sightsee. We did squeeze in some fun, though.

Musk Ox & Reindeer Research Station

The Large Animal Research Station (LARS) was the highlight, for me, at least. University of Alaska, Fairbanks, runs this multi-acre center for researching large mammals from the arctic, namely musk ox and reindeer. They imported a few fields’ full of both species and observe what makes them thrive in arctic cold.

Turns out, “musk ox,” is a misnomer, as they’re neither oxen nor musky. The indigenous name for them is “animal with skin like a beard,” which is perfect.

They are actually quite short and cute, like giant hamsters, really, although they’re related the closest to goats.

Reindeer are kin to caribou but not the same (contrary to what I’ve said here); reindeer are closer to being domesticated than caribou ever will be.

The male musk ox skull and horns are super thick and dense so they can ram each other head-on to vie for herd dominance. I swear, that skull Tracy is holding had to be 40 pounds. Oh, and their nasal passages are spiral in shape so the incoming air is warmed by blood flow.

The reindeer skull and antlers weighed almost as much at the musk ox (or maybe they just seemed to because they were so dang big). Female reindeer grow antlers as well the males but at different times of year, so that throughout the year someone in the herd has antlers no matter who’s shedding theirs.

Quivuit is the word for the soft layer of fur the musk ox shed, and it’s one of the warmest fibers on Earth. Folks collect it here and send it out to indigenous craftsmen to spin and knit. This lovely hat has a price tag of $300! Of course, Jacqui knew right away what I was talking about when I texted her about it, and Jess swears she’s going to knit us something with quivuit one day. I was just so freaking excited to touch it in a basket.

Bicycling along Chena Lake

Tracy had an obscene amount of errands to run in Fairbanks, including buying plexiglass to replace the shower door with, so while he was out buying things, I rode my bike around the Chena Lake Recreation Area, which is where our campsite was.

I biked beside flood-control levees for the Tanana River. It rained lightly a good deal, but that keeps the mosquitos down enough so I could get off my bike to take pictures. Otherwise, you gotta keep moving.

I rode around the lake and through aspen groves and generally just rode rode rode. I spend very little time by myself, so when I get it, I make the most of it.

The famous fireweed is out, which is in so much indigenous art, like the bead work on a dress I saw in Whitehorse.

Human Contact!

Doug and Melanie met us at Chena Lake and were our neighbors the whole time, as well as a new friend, fellow traveler Carl, whom they met in the Arctic. Carl is an incredible photographer, and he and Doug have been geeking it up with their cameras and bird apps, and Tracy’s been filling in the corners of birding info when he’s out with them.

They all had a lot to get done in Fairbanks, too (showers, laundry, propane, window repair!), but we found time to meet at breweries each day as a break. That’s where Tracy finally replaced his beer glasses he’s broken over the past three years.

That seems to be a theme these days: break things, look for replacements, break other things. It’s entertaining to hang out with other people who have the same weirdo agendas that we have.

Our final social treat was meeting Tracy’s former colleague, Eric, who frequently travels with his sophisticated wife, Natalia, and their charming neighbors, Tony and Gloria. They’d flown in to Alaska and had visited areas we’re about to see, so we grilled them about it all while we had lunch downtown. What good sports to take a break from their vacation to sit with us vagabonds. I swear, I would have felt intimidated by their air of international travel and refined tastes (and cleanliness, compared to us) had they not been overwhelmingly friendly. Thanks for making time for us, Eric!

And that was Fairbanks. Doug and Melanie are coming back this winter—they loved it that much.

9 thoughts to “Musk Ox and More in Fairbanks”

  1. Wonderful photos! Enjoy Denali too. I’ve been to Fairbanks, but was speaking and “saw” very little. We took a day and drove up to Denali, but they’d just closed the park for the beginning of the winter season to the public (except for tour buses), so we saw the visitors’ center and headed back to Fairbanks to come home.

    1. Alaska is so big you do spend a day just getting anywhere, then you need several days there and a day to get back! I hope you get to return.

  2. It was awesome to see you all!! I won’t take bets on where next, but I will that there will be a when!

    1. It’s so cool that you guys know each other – but then I thought, of course, you have FCC in common!