In her recent State of the State address, Gov. Sarah Palin invoked the image of musk oxen circling up to protect their young as a reminder that Alaskans, and Americans in general, need to stand together in these dire times.
This misleading and not at all "poetic" simile comes from the person who has appealed the polar bear's listing as threatened and plans to do the same with regards to Cook Inlet's beluga whales. It comes from the person who, though allegedly "pro-life," supports aerial-predator control and the killing of wolf cubs in their dens. It comes from the very same person who seeks to reinstall wolf bounties and allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the "place where life begins." Her naive comment resurrected from memory an experience I had while guiding wilderness tourists in the refuge a few years ago . . .
Eyes watering in a breeze that snatched its sting from the pack ice, I scan the coastal plain for signs of life. My binoculars frame horizon segments blurred by the midsummer sun, a mindbender like Prudhoe Bay's gas flares, which ripple above oilfields 150 miles to the west. A liquid glare melds earth and sky. Distant "lakes" separate then coalesce, dissolving terra firma into quicksilver, a landscape of uncertainties. When polar fronts straddle warm ground, light flexes into mirages like this, supple and transient as tundra denizens.
I focus on a boulder pair adrift amongst tussocks on this inland sea. Changing position ever so slightly, the mounds look too bulky to be grizzlies, as well as the wrong shade of brown. Propelled by a "Forward, hard!" our blue rubber raft scrapes across gravel, its blunt snout nuzzling shore. Ravines downwind from two grazing musk oxen allow us to sneak up on them single file and hunched over in an effort to reduce our silhouettes, to appear non-threatening.
One hundred yards. Then 50. The bulls raise their prizefighter heads, sampling the wind. We freeze. Catching sight of us, they step away, nimble as dancers, the hemlines on their wool skirts trim and swaying in sync with dainty, white-stockinged feet.
A 2006 survey of traditional musk ox habitat in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge surprisingly came up short: Pilots counted only a single animal within refuge boundaries. It is easy to imagine that loner as one of the two shag piles our boat crew approached on the Aichilik River, which unbeknownst to us then could have been the entire herd.
What triggered this downward slide of a species sculpted by glaciers? Poaching? A mysterious disease? Toxins in the water or soil?
Residents of Kaktovik, an Eskimo village nestled against the Arctic Ocean's blue sweep, increasingly comment on erratic weather. Colder springs delay breakup season, preserving snow sumps deep enough to stop even 900-pound bulls. Untimely thaw-freeze episodes encase grasses and sedges under an ice crust too thick to be cracked by hooves. Malnourished cows may give birth to weak calves, or leave in search of greener pastures farther west or in Canada. Recently, 13 musk oxen drowned in a flood on the Colville River west of the refuge; others got stranded on raw barrier islands where they pawed sand for sustenance and starved to death after the sea ice melted, mingling their bones with bleached driftwood.
The last musk ox topples notions of ecosystem stability and raises questions that cut close to the bone. Is human-caused local extinction less lamentable than its global counterpart? Do we dare reassess our responses to environmental threats, or are we bull-headed enough to repeat destructive behavior ad finitum?
Outlining a philosophy of sound land management, Aldo Leopold cautioned us to preserve every cog and wheel when tinkering. The realization that we don't even hold all the blueprints or fully grasp the interlocking of parts can be as humbling as a face-to-face encounter with ice-age beasts.
Trained as an anthropologist, Michael Engelhard lives in Alaska, where he works as a wilderness guide. His latest book is 'Wild Moments', a collection of writers' adventures with northern fauna.