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Monday, June 29, 2015

Norway Adventure Part I: The Muskox

Our family vacation in 2014 was a ten day excursion to the beautiful country of Norway. Why Norway you ask? Well, it happened like this: We decided we wanted to go to Europe (I was the only one that had never been....) so I started researching wildlife vacations (or "holidays" as the rest of the world calls them) and found a few promising locations. But what really tipped the scales for Norway was the combination of brown bears and muskox. This post will focus on the first leg of the trip and our muskox encounters, but our full itinerary was a simple one: We flew in to Oslo and took the train from the airport to Kongsvoll Station where we spent three nights at the Kongsvold Fjeldstue Hotel. We then took the train North to Grong Station where our host and guide Jan Bjornar Totsas. We rented a cabin from Jan in Lierne and also hired him to guide us for day trips (the subject of my next post). After five nights, we returned to Grong and boarded the train for a ten-hour journey back to the Oslo airport. We had a fantastic time! Our mammal list for the trip in order of appearance:
We stayed in the Trollheim  (troll home) at Kongsvold Fjeldstue
(8/14, Oppdal, Norway)

European moose (Elg)
Caribou (reindeer)
Mountain lemming
Red fox
Mountain hare
European pine marten
Roe deer

And we saw sign of brown bear and beaver.

The Land of Muskox
Our adventure really begins the moment we exit the driveway for the (first) airport. It is an hour to the airport, but it is a relatively small one so our next stop is a major hub. On this trip, we flew from Rochester, NY to Newark International then Amsterdam before landing at the Oslo airport. There is a train station right at the airport so we never did see the city of Oslo. The weather was great and our train ride was beautiful. We arrived at the unstaffed Kongsvoll Station and walked with our luggage the short distance to our lodging. We were ready for dinner and sleep. I managed a short hike around the historic grounds. Although the oldest buildings standing today date back to the early 1700s, this location has been a stopping point for travelers for over a thousand years. But the history was lost on us that first night as we settled in for some much needed sleep. By ten am we were well fed and ready for our muskox tour. Having no familiarity with the area, we decided to join the "muskox safari" that leaves directly from the hotel. The weather was good and the group was a bit large, about two dozen. Our guide was a likable young man but I would not consider him an expert. We car pooled a short distance down the road to a parking area and started our hike there. In fact, we had a muskox in view from the road.
As you enter the muskox area, there are signs in several languages warning hikers to keep their distance. They recommend 200 meters. Our guide did get us a bit closer than that, but not nearly close enough for good photos.
Warning signs in Norway
The fear is that a person would be charged by a muskox that feels threatened. Although charging muskox can cause injury and even death (last report I can find is this 1964 incident), the mighty charge often ends in a bluff as shown in this video. This is all in stark contrast to historical information I read in preparation for our journey.

Before our trip, I read the chapter "The Musk-Ox" by Caspar Whitney from the 1904 classic Musk Ox, Bison, Sheep and Goat. I completely enjoyed reading Whitney's account of his 57-day hunt for musk ox. He had hired several Natives as guides and they spent a considerable amount of time just traveling to musk ox country. Once there, they had some trouble actually locating their first band of the creatures. But once they did, all hell broke loose. The dogs were unharnessed and sent to chase the musk ox. The men strapped on snow shoes and chased the dogs. Whitney did the same but his
Photo of musk ox from first day
(8/14, Norway)
store-bought buckles and harnesses were difficult to manage with his inexperienced hands, thus he was the last to set off. "My preconceived notions of the musk-ox hunting game were in a jiffy jolted to the point of destruction, as I now found myself in a situation neither expected nor joyful. It was natural to suppose some assistance would be given me in this strange environment...but we were a long way from the Post and interpreters and restraining influences..."(p.21). Whitney worried about getting lost and about not getting to shoot a musk ox himself. He recounts running in the direction of the dogs for an hour and a half before he caught sight of them. More chasing ensued with the actual  kill (to me at least) anticlimactic. Whitney ran on to try for another but was unsuccessful. He finally gave in and was able to find the rest of the party by back tracking his own footprints. The last paragraph of the chapter: "Then in a sixty-seven degrees below zero temperature we rolled up in our furs, while the dogs howled and fought over the carcass of my first musk ox." (p. 31).

I was most interested in what Whitney had to say regarding the danger of these animals. I had read (see above) the warnings about the musk ox and wanted to know the thoughts of this man who spent a long time in their company in an era that was not concerned about liability insurance. On page 56 he states: "...hunters and trained dogs could practically wipe out every herd of musk-oxen they encountered; for while it is true that musk-oxen give you a long run once you have sighted them, yet when you get up to them, when the dogs have brought them to bay, it is almost like shooting cattle in a corral." I of course would not have trained dogs and nor was I planning to stand a rifle-shot away. What did he have to say about that?
Musk ox habitat
(8/14, Norway)
"Several Arctic explorers who have written on the musk-ox also refer to it as 'formidable' appearing and 'ferocious', but those are the last adjectives that I should apply to the creature," writes Whitney. "The Indians and some of the Arctic authors also say that it is dangerous to approach, especially when wounded. My experience does not indorse  [sic] that statement. We encountered one hundred and twenty-five musk-oxen, killing forty-seven, and I did not see one that even suggested the charging proclivities for which it is given credit." (p. 73). And my favorite line of this entertaining read: "Perhaps the musk-ox might charge if you walked up and pulled his ear, but I doubt if he would under less provocation, and really, I do not feel so certain that he would even then." (p. 74).

Danika at trail junction
(8/15, Norway)
On day two, we decided to head back to the musk ox area on our own. There is a fantastic trail that began across the road from our lodging and went up into the alpine tundra. We left at sunrise and it didn't take us long to reach the top. It was now a matter of finding musk ox. That proved just as easy. There were several other small parties already on top. One group was slowly approaching two females with calves. The musk ox wanted nothing to do with them and kept out-distancing them. Slowly, the herd was getting farther from the hikers. As much as I wanted photos of calves, I saw little point in trying for these. Their comfort zone was too large. Instead, we spotted a single (male) muskox on a rise ahead of us. We set off over the lichens to try our luck with him. Along the way, we spotted a single male caribou on a distant patch of snow. This was our only caribou of the trip but a truly wild one (many tourists see only captive or semi captive reindeer as they disembark the cruise ships at a native village. We also spooked up a mountain lemming and some ptarmigan (no photos). We approached the musk ox, the sun came out and I set up the tripod. We had made the right decision.

Male musk ox
(8/15, Norway)
I would have been happy with this view. We were so much closer than we had been the day before. And as you can tell, the musk ox didn't seem to be bothered by our presence. As it turned out, we had stumbled on the perfect scenario. From our vantage point, we were not able to see that there was a narrow but deep ravine between us and the musk ox. What luck! I could now get much closer... so I did.

Musk ox rubbing side on a rock
(8/15, Norway)

Musk ox scat pellets
(8/15, Norway)
Musk ox fur
(8/15, Norway)
Musk ox
(8/15, Norway)
He eventually made his way down the ravine and into the stream. We watched him for several hours before moving on and trying our luck with others. But by then, there were many other visitors and the musk ox seemed a lot more skittish. We headed back down the mountain and readied ourselves for the second half of our journey.

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