Palmer Alaska, located just an hour or so north of Anchorage was a good place to layover for a few days. The Elks Lodge has RV parking with electric hookups right on an awesome lake between Palmer and Wasilla. Upon arrival I wasted no time assembling my stand up Paddle equipment and getting out on the lake. Over the next few days paddling became a daily occurrence worked in around rain showers and busy weekend lake users.
Palmer and Wasilla are both located in the Matanuska-Susitna (or Mat-Su as the locals call it) Valley, 23,000 square miles of mountains, lakes, glaciers and rivers. The Mat-Su Valley has an interesting farming history.
“In the city, we work until quitting time. On the farm, we work until the job is finished.” – John Bytheway
In 1935, Americans were struggling through the worst economic depression in history. Rural areas of the northern states were among the worst of sufferers. As part of a Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) project, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned families from the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to migrate north to live in an experimental farming community in the Territory of Alaska. These three northern states were chosen because of the 48 states in the Union, their climate was most similar to that of Alaska.
The administration believed representatives from these states were well suited to survive the harsh elements of subarctic winters. Also, the would-be colonists were chosen from areas where the percentage of bankrupt citizens was the greatest in the nation. Ultimately, 203 select families received passage to Alaska to claim and work 40 acres of farmland near the foot of Pioneer Peak in the Matanuska Valley, north of Anchorage.
The community of Palmer had been established in 1916 as a stop on the Alaska Railroad’s branch line to the Chickaloon coal mines, but very little development had occurred since that time. When Palmer was chosen as the base of operations for FERA’s project, the community grew quickly. The tent city erected for the colonists and government officials changed configuration rapidly as colonists moved to their tracts, offices were built for the officials, and other services and facilities were constructed. Despite the quarreling, the disease, and the difficulty that came from farming in new land and elements, most of the settlers survived. They were able to meet basic needs and provide for their families. Admittedly, many left for already established townships. But there is no denying the effect this project had on the region. The townsite of Palmer was laid out and the small city of Anchorage grew in population, at least in part from the notoriety of the Matanuska colonists.
There are few animals more representative of those living in the ancient arctic times than the Musk Ox. During the Pleistocene, musk oxen wandered across the Bering Land Bridge to populate North America with the likes of the wooly mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and giant ground sloth. Fossil records indicate the musk ox ranged as far south as France and Ohio during the last Ice Age.
Despite their common name, musk oxen have no musk glands and are not oxen. Although they may resemble bison, musk ox are more closely related to goats and sheep.
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” – Carl Sagan
In the 1940’s and 50’s wild musk oxen were a disaster or two away from extinction and the villages of coastal Alaska were moving into a cash economy. There existed an opportunity for Native people to live together peaceably with this animal such that both would thrive. The Musk Ox Project started Alaska’s first domestic musk ox farm in Fairbanks in 1964. Supported by funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as well as assistance from the University of Alaska and countless volunteers, the herd grows each year. Each year their qiviut (described below) is combed, collected and spun into exquisite yarn as part of the original project to preserve the Musk Ox and their uses by the native people.
The muskox is a stocky, long-haired animal with a slight shoulder hump and a very short tail. Inupiaq-speaking Eskimos call itomingmak, meaning “the animal with skin like a beard,” a reference to the long guard hair that hangs nearly to the ground. The Coloration is generally dark brown with creamy-colored hair on the “saddle,” forehead, and legs with a coat that consists of a long, coarse, outer layer, and a short, fine underhair. Mature bulls are about 5 feet high at the shoulder and weigh 600-800 pounds whereas cows are smaller, averaging approximately 4 feet in height and weighing 400-500 pounds. This is actually much smaller than I was expecting when I saw them in person.
“Evolution does not necessarily favor the longest-lived. It doesn’t necessarily favor the biggest or the strongest or the fastest, and not even the smartest. Evolution favors those creatures best adapted to their environment. That is the sole test of survival and success.” – Harvey V. Fineberg
At the close of the last ice age, muskoxen were found across northern Europe, Asia, Greenland and North America, including Alaska. By the mid-1800s, muskox had disappeared from Europe and Asia. By the 1920s, muskox had also disappeared from Alaska, with the only remaining animals being found in east Greenland and Arctic Canada. International concern over impending extinction of this animal led to an effort to restore a population in Alaska.
In 1930, 34 muskox were captured in East Greenland and brought to Fairbanks. This group was then transferred to Nunivak Island, a large island in the Bering Sea. The muskoxen thrived there and, by 1968, the herd had grown to 750 animals. Muskox from the Nunivak herd were later relocated to establish new herds on the Seward Peninsula, on Cape Thompson and Nelson Islands, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and on Wrangel Island and the Taimyr Peninsula in Russia. Once in danger of disappearing completely, musk ox populations have made a dramatic comeback with a current worldwide population of about 150,000 animals.
“Humans regard animals as worthy of protection only when they are on the verge of extinction.” – Paul Craig Roberts
The musk ox has adapted well to the harsh conditions in the Arctic. At temperatures of 80 below zero human skin freezes within 30 seconds. For us it is not simply cold outside, it is painful. For the Musk Ox, it’s just another day on the tundra and in fact they thrive under these harsh conditions. Over the course of their 600,000 year long history (remember – prehistoric), musk oxen have developed some very interesting ways to stay warm and protected during the long cold winter months. Their most significant adaptation against the frigid temperatures of their natural environment is a layer of extremely fine under-wool grown every fall called qiviut. Eight times warmer than sheep’s wool by weight, a layer of this qiviut can protect the animals from temperatures down to 100 degrees below zero. Qiviut is shed naturally by the animals each spring and collected on the Musk Ox Farm by combing. Five to seven pounds of this rare fiber is collected from each animal every year. The qiviut is then shipped to Oomingmak, Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative as the raw material for a thriving native cottage industry. They make beautiful soft knitted products from the musk ox qiviut that I of course couldn’t resist purchasing one of the neck warmers.
Watching the Musk Ox at the farm gives one a sense of another time and a look into the lives of these very cool animals. Although I would have loved to see one in the wild this was certainly the next best thing and an opportunity to learn about these animals.
“Nature doesn’t need people – people need nature; nature would survive the extinction of the human being and go on just fine, but human culture, human beings, cannot survive without nature.” – Harrison Ford
A few days around the Palmer area would not have been complete without a drive over Hatcher Pass. A beautiful backcountry getaway just an hour away from Anchorage (by far Alaska’s largest city and home to most of its population). With numerous hikes to choose from I decided to hit Reed Lakes Trail. Following Reed Creek and passing a number of small lakes as well as an abandoned mine before climbing to lower and upper Reed lakes. Along the trail I discovered the largest beaver dam that I have ever seen. There were really no trees to speak of left in the area and it was obvious the beavers had been quite busy with their construction as this wasn’t the only dam along the way. Unfortunately I did not see any beavers on the hike and the interpretive signs explained that they had likely left the area after depleting the tree population. Interesting behavior, utilizing all of the natural resources that you depend on for your survival and then simply moving on to do the same in a new area.
“We’ll lose more species of plants and animals between 2000 and 2065 than we’ve lost in the last 65 million years. If we don’t find answers to these problems, we’re gonna be victims of this extinction event that we’re at fault for.” – Paul Watson
Hatcher Pass is also the home to Independence Mine State Park. In 1906 lode (hard rock) gold was discovered near the summit of skyscraper Mountain and the area was quickly overrun and exploited for its mineral value. Independence Mine was run by the Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company (APC). APC had 83 mining claims in the area and by 1941 extracted over 34 thousand ounces of gold from its holdings but when the US entered WWII gold production was deemed non-essential and by 1943 the mines were all but silent, their cost exceeding the value (extinction). Today what is left of the mines buildings and history is managed by the Alaska State Parks. There are numerous interpretive panels, a visitor center and many very interesting buildings in a variety of stages left on the site. The park seems to be popular with both tourists and locals and a great place to stop when traveling over Hatcher Pass.
Alaskans were quick to discover this abandoned mining area held great and varied opportunities for recreation. Paraglider’s flock to the top of the pass whoever there is any sign of wind to practice their sport. Add that to the hiking, biking and sightseeing opportunities and Hatcher Pass becomes a must see part of this area and of Alaska!
That takes us back to my awesome camping location at the Elks Lodge on the shore of Finger Lake. Big enough for many types of recreation including boating, fishing, paddling and even the launching of flat planes with an amazing backdrop of mountains this was a great place to spend a few days.
Almost the first thing I did after parking the RV was to inflate the paddle board and get out on the water. Just about every day that I was there, even under clouds and threat of rain, I was out on the water.
The best time of day was early morning before the recreational boaters when I could keep company with the solitude and the beautiful loons on the lake.
The other great thing about this location was the people I met hanging at the Elks Lodge. Very warm and welcoming we had some great conversations over drinks at the bar in the evenings.
I may just make a plan to get back here again before heading south in August – it would definitely be worth the effort. But now it’s time to continue my journey south and head to Anchorage (the big city) to see the sights and get ready to pick up my sister who will be staying with me for a week. Will be great to see family!
“The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.” – George Santayana