Muskoxen on Banks Island
There were two reasons that we wanted to paddle the Thomsen. First, it seemed cool to paddle such a remote island in the
Arctic Ocean. Second, there is no place like it for Muskoxen. Banks has half the world's population of Muskoxen, and we saw
dozens of Muskoxen on a daily basis. On previous trips we were happy to have one or two encounters.
The tale of the muskoxen on Banks is a curious one. By the early 1850's, before the arrival of the white man, the Eskimos had
hunted the muskoxen to near extinction on Banks Island. A man who hiked across Banks Island from south to north in the
1950s saw exactly one muskoxen. It appears that muskoxen from Victoria Island walked across the ice in the winter and an
incredible repopulation of the island has occurred.
A full grown male muskoxen can weigh 600 pounds. They survive because of a marvelous coat of hair. Underneath the hair,
they are in fact goat shaped. They are nimble. They move at two paces. A leisurely walk or a gallop.
They are very wary of humans. The only way to get close is to sneak up from the downwind direction.
In the summer, the muskoxen generally move in herds of ten to twenty. In the winter the numbers can be three times as high.
The muskoxen move as one when they detect a potential enemy with the females and young grouping in the center. Normally,
they run at the sight of humans, but they are unpredictable. Robert, the man who hiked across the island, was charged twice
by male muskoxen while sitting by his tent minding his own business. When we remembered, we carried bear spray (pepper
spray) to ward off aggressive muskoxen in case of attack. Fortunately, all our muskoxen experiences were good thanks to
David's keen understanding of muskoxen behaviour.
Our encounters with muskoxen followed a typical pattern.
First, the muskoxen behaved normally unaware of our presence (as in this encounter by kayak).
Second, the muskoxen become aware of our presence and together joining in a circle. The big bull is the last to run and the
first to settle down.
Third, the herd stops to check out the enemy. In every picture I took, the young are always towards the center.
Finally, if the muskoxen did not feel cornered, they would normally run. David expressed concern one day when some of the
group crept up on a muskoxen from two sides. This could have made the bull feel threatened and attack. Fortunately, it chose
to run away.