In March of 2015 I posted a piece here called “The Ovibos Resurgence.” Muskox, genus Ovibos, species moschatus, had by then been piling into this taiga neighborhood in such numbers that within one decade, 2005-2015, they became far and away the most common large mammal seen here from day to day. I ended that post with “To be continued…” and today I will continue the saga, since the Ovibos, bless their wooly hides, have certainly kept their story interesting. The shaggy beasts surround us. We see them constantly, and nowadays they barely elicit more notable mention here than a red-throated loon on the lake or a marten scurrying under a shed. The past weeks have seen two notable events in our little niche of the muskoxen’s ever-expanding forest habitat.
First, on an afternoon in June, an old bull, who by then we had nicknamed Buster, decided to barge right in through the gate of the wooden slab-fence surrounding the dog yard and bully a few huskies around with his head. Luckily, very luckily, for three of our sled dogs – Rugan, Susitna, and Yentna – Buster had no horns left, only a thick bone “boss” on the crown of his forehead. He had first appeared here in June of 2020, with one horn broken right off to a bloody, scabbed-over stump. I wondered whether he would even survive, what with warm weather, flies, and the likely severity of a bone infection. Then, in 2021, he came back in June again, this time with both horns broken off. Remember, these are horns, not antlers. Muskox, like bighorn sheep and beef cattle, do not shed their horns annually. (Moose and caribou and the rest of the deer tribe have antlers, not horns.)
When old bald Buster appeared again this year, in June, he had a sidekick with him, whom we had nicknamed Buddy. Buddy came fully equipped with an impressive pair of curving horns, one on each side, and he is “size large.” Maybe 650 pounds on the hoof.
(I would gladly ramble on longer about encounters with Buster and Buddy, but it is my informed impression that no one reads anything much longer than around a thousand words these days; 300 being more popular and 160 characters, start to end, being the coin of the realm. So I best be hurrying along.)
I was away from home the day Buster changed his tune, but a few .30-06 rounds lofted over his belligerent but hornless head, courtesy of Kristen and our daughters, soon put the run on him and he busted out a portion of wooden fence and blasted south right out of the kennel area. Next morning, he was back, browsing just up the hill from the dog yard, intentions unknown. And, well, let’s just say we were wondering the other night over dinner just how many tables on the planet were likely to be graced with “muskox-moose lasagna.” Maybe only one, that evening, and we were sitting at it.
So that was wake-up call number three or four in our local muskox saga. Then, the other day, out on a flying contract with a trio of biologists, I offered to pitch in and assist the effort of retrieving some remote-sensing equipment. We were down in the jack-pine forests forty miles southwest of here. (We have no jack-pine here at home, being ten miles from treeline and miles north of the boreal forest proper.) The pine trunks were thick where we were working, and beneath the canopy of needles the ground was mostly smooth sand and lichen. The walking was fast and easy, and I was closing in on the coordinates of the equipment post when – whoa – something very big and jet black loomed into view fifty feet ahead of me. Just a giant black lump, mostly blocked from my sight by the tree trunks. If that is a bear, thinks me, that is a frickin’ big one.
I started shouting and making myself obvious. The beast turned, and through the dense scrim of pine I caught a glimpse of curved brown horn. Okay, not bear, muskox bull. Relax. A little. Hand on pepper spray, trigger guard off, still shouting. “Hey there mister, move along now, out of my way. Comin’ through. Hey! You!”
Nope. He was coming toward me. And now I was wondering, as my family and I have often wondered in the last fifteen years or so, just what and how much goes on in the brain sequestered deep down inside that armour-plated, bashed-around skull? (Talk about Bobby Clobber…) Not sure. And of course, animals are all individuals. They are not generic specimens stamped from a mold.
Blank fixed stare, shambling but steady gait, not slow, not running, but coming on and keeping eye contact with me. What the **%$## — ? Then, oh shit oh dear, this is getting scary. Fifteen feet, ten, eight. “Get a move on, bud!”
Pppsssshhhhhhhtttttt! goes the pepper spray. (Hmm, I remember thinking, not much oomph left in this one – a guy might be wise to check the expiry date on these things now and then…) A whiff of pale aerosol cloud did reach that bristly black ovoid snout, even with the breeze blowing back at me like it was. Mister M.O. gave a deep coughing grunt, spun like an 800-pound fullback, and crashed away at a gallop. I yanked out my walkie-talkie and keyed the mike: “I just sprayed a big bull muskox and he is galloping north. Copy?” Within a few seconds Jeanne chimed in: “He just blew past me. Still galloping.” Then Dan: “All okay here. Can’t see him.” Biologist number three is evidently on another channel; no response from him.
These two events, inside of ten weeks, might herald the start of another twist in the saga of Ovibos and their strange expansion southward from the tundra. We still find these new neighbors interesting, but from time to time, to tell the truth, we have all been a little annoyed by them. Perplexed, at least, by big critters so oblivious to our presence, so nonchalant when we do run into them, and – to wit – so unpredictable.
992 words. Well, better wrap up. Hey, might be something else in the Metaverse that needs a few seconds of your time, and probably a half-dozen text messages just in.
Muskox waltzing through the jack-pine. Whodathunkit? And again, “To be continued…”
In a postscript, some optimism. Up on the tundra north of here on dozens of flights in the past month, I am seeing more caribou, farther south and at an earlier date, than I have seen up there for more than twelve years. Fingers crossed, folks. We might be watching the slight uptick of a sine curve, right before our eyes. Wouldn’t that be some welcome good news about now?