Musk ox safari in the Norwegian mountains

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen

No, it is not related to the bison even though it looks an awful lot like it from where I stand in the middle of the Norwegian alpine tundra! Actually, it is more related to sheep and goats. The prehistoric-looking musk ox lives in the arctic regions of the world, and the only musk ox population in Norway roams the mountain slopes of Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park where I am hiking with my passionate guide Jo Even Kolstad on a musk ox safari.

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A few hours ago, as we were gaining altitude through the birch forest to pass the tree line, I picked up some soft musk ox wool from a branch. As Jo Even pointed it out, it is 8 times warmer than sheep wool to keep these mammals warm. It is so warm that NASA used it in its space suits for the first space programs! Having inhabited the area during the last Ice Age along mammoths, their stocky bodies and woolly coats make them perfectly adapted to the harsh winter conditions in these mountains. In the summer, as I can notice it myself, they graze as much as they can as during the winter, they shed 40% of their body weight: food is scarce and it is mostly on the windy mountain tops that they can find a bit to sustain themselves under the thinner snow cover.

As I am now digging into my backpack to find my dawn jacket, I realize how such a warm wool must come in very handy in the summer too! No wonder musk ox wool is often used by locals. The weather changes fast and some threatening clouds are packing up on the horizon while the wind has picked up and the temperature has already dropped. We know we will have to move soon to go back to our starting point in Kongsvold Fjeldstue. It is not so much to avoid getting soaking wet and cold, but to not influence the natural behaviours of the musk oxen.

The two male specimens we have been tracking and observing seem undisturbed. The wind rearranges their long rags and their white legs barely stick out under them. These very long hairs, actually the longest of any animals, also contribute to keeping them warm during the arctic winter. After the last Ice Age, they migrated to Greenland which remain a stronghold for musk oxen.

If today, this population of 200 to 300 individuals in Norway is not predated upon, this has not always been the case. In the early 1900’s, whale hunters brought musk oxen back to Norway from Greenland, and they started being hunted down. It is not so much for their meat as it is very strong, but during WWII, the resistance fighters hiding in the mountains needed to stay warm and sustain themselves while soldiers were practicing shooting on them… Eventually, musk oxen disappeared in Norway.

In 1953, 27 calves were reintroduced. This year only, 60 calves were born: a record! Some rare and expensive hunting permits will be delivered in the next few months to maintain the population at a sustainable level given the limited amount of food available to musk oxen in the 300km² of mountains of the park, that they share with small rodents, wolverines, arctic foxes and reindeers.

In the spring and fall, the shy wild reindeers migrate through the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park to conserve their spare food resources and avoid overgrazing. It is a very special population of about 1,800 as this is the last genetically pure wild reindeer population in Europe. Historically Norway’s first export, the wild reindeers have been hunted with methods evolving from a simple hole in the ground to trap one to fences to guide hundreds of them to get slaughtered. Their numbers plummeted drastically. Fortunately, this precious wild reindeer population is closely monitored now.

We feel the first rain drops. It is really time to move on. We take a last look at the furry musk oxen from a distance. After grazing for a while, the males lay down, looking at us while ruminating. Even from a distance, they look massive, but they are most likely teenagers only. They need to gain some more muscle mass before they can challenge a dominating male heading a small herd of cows in these mountains. A big male musk ox can be up to 1.60-meter tall for 450 kilograms. When they challenge each other, they simply run at about 60 kilometres an hour towards each other, and hit their skulls violently, over and over again, until one gives up! Jo Even describes the terrible sounds that resonate throughout the mountains in the early fall each year.

If spotting the musk ox was the objective of this walking safari, exploring the unique vegetation of the tundra in these mountains from up close makes the hike all the more interesting. During the last Ice Age, the highest peaks of the Dovrefjell and Sunndalsfjella mountains extended over the ice sheet, forming isolated sites. Special alpine flora with endemic species such as Dovre dandelion or Knutshø meadow-grass developed in these specific ecosystems. It is fascinating to see how small plants, lichens and mosses have adapted to these harsh conditions. Despite the rain, we pay close attention to the explosion of colours on the mountain slopes as flowers are blooming.

We are soon back to Kongsvold Fjeldstue, the historic hotel where we departed from. Sipping a cup of coffee in one of the beautifully furnished eighteenth-century living rooms, we warm up easily looking at our photos. The comfortable mountain lodge has been hosting travellers and pilgrims on their way to Trondheim since the 1100s. Today, the oldest building dates back to 1720 as the site has been rebuilt following fires and wars. In the harsh landscape of the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park, the warmth, character and charm of the lodge is all the more appreciated, and we are already looking forward to yet another fantastic dinner after this day in the outdoors!

Travel tips:

  • To fully enjoy the musk ox safari, make sure to arrive the night before and stay at Kongsvold Fjeldstue, now called Frich’s Hotel & Spiseri Kongsvold.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

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