Hunting the musk ox in Norway, only with a Toledo steel knife

The other day I saw the movie of Ice Age. Although it seemed strange to me, when I met again with the main characters of the film (a woolly mammoth, a saber tooth, a giant sloth and a human creature), I realized for the first time that absolutely all these creatures, with the exception of the human, are now extinct. today. Of course, its extinction has made our world a safer to survive, I mean, imagine that you are walking through the Sierra de Guadarrama and a 280-kilo carnivorous bicharraco with 17-centimeter fangs comes out of your way and grabs your neck to to snack. It would be a very unpleasant scene, even for a convinced animalist. But I couldn’t help a hint of nostalgia when I imagined the cute animals from the movie rotting under the ground, when I looked at myself dressed in the synthetic clothing of the Decathlon and I missed the memory of our ancestors who ran around with their lips painted with ash and dressed in the skins of terrifying beasts that they murdered with stones.

And since I am in Norway, in one of the countries that can most resemble the landscape shown in this film of Ice Age (here are impressive glaciers and huge tracts of land and northern lights and mountains easily mistaken for giants), I said to myself, hey, Alfonso, do one thing: find out if there are any animals around here that resemble this magnificent and extinct fauna, look the animal, bring out your rusty skills as a primitive hunter, look for the animal and merge with the earth as we did before. Typing in Google I discovered that in the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park the last European specimens of the musk ox still survive. I am attaching a photo of the incredible creature so that the reader can see how it looks, at least a little, to the characters that swarm through the Pixar movie. And I said to myself, here I go, to play cavemen.

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What is a musk ox?

The English call it muskox, the scientists call it Ovibos moschatus and the Norwegians, attention, the Norwegians know it as moskusfe. If we take into account that the Ice Age ended around 10,000 ago, it would have been perfectly possible to meet this creature that already chewed the grasses of northern Europe and North America in the Pleistocene years. With a height of around one and a half meters and a maximum weight of 450 kilos, at first glance it looks like a strange fusion between a goat, a bull and a sheep, a kind of prehistoric and fascinating Pokémon. It is a goat because of its preference for heights and its resistance to cold (in fact, it is thought to be more related to goats than to oxen), a bull because of its physical resemblance to oxen, and a sheep because of its fur that provides the perfect coat to survive the cold months. We are then faced with a creature that borders on the legendary, a fantastic miracle of nature that men hunted for centuries to eat, feed and feel more macho.

Musk ox. PHOTO: Michael Migos dreamstime

To the point that we get to extinguish them in Europe. If we visited the Tromsø Polar Museum, we could easily find some stuffed specimens that were hunted with great cunning by the ancestors of the Norwegians throughout their country, as well as various explanatory posters indicating how we ended up with all the herds and what hunting is currently prohibited. It was only fortunate that some herds crossed the Bering Strait during the Ice Age, so that they could also spread through Canada and Alaska to occupy large areas of land. In Alaska it was also hunted to extinction (similar to bison in the rest of the United States), but a series of reintegration programs carried out with Canadian specimens throughout the 30s of the last century have allowed this fascinating animal to once again nibble on the grasses of Norway and Alaska. They are not dangerous, poor critters, but they are deeply territorial and when they get pissed off they are capable of running at 60 kilometers per hour (while Ussain Bolt does not reach 45 kilometers per hour), so we suppose it would not be a good idea to approach less 200 meters from them, if we were to meet them. But they will not eat us, of course, so in this aspect we can walk calmly: they feed only on grasses, willows, lichens and mosses.

How to prepare to look for them

Looking for musk oxen is not an easy task. It takes a bit of a Potawatomian Indian or a fearless Viking to find them in the 1,693 km² of Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park. Although It is estimated that around 260 specimens currently reside in the park, and that these move in herds of between 12 and 24 members, depending on the time of year, their dark fur blends in perfectly with their surroundings during the dark weeks of autumn. During the winter, its brown color stands out against the pristine snow, but here we find a new disadvantage, which is that of moving through terrain where the snow reaches our knees. No. It is not easy to search for musk oxen.

In the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park we have two ways to find them. The first, the easiest, is to book a day on one of the safaris that lead you up and down throughout the park in their quest. The price is about 50 euros and the guides know them all. If we go with them we will have the sighting almost guaranteed.

The landscape of the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park consists of a succession of carpets of moss, hedges and lichen. PHOTO: Alfonso Masoliver

But I already warned that I was touched by that Pixar movie and I didn’t want the easy option, the modern safari option, no ma’am; I wanted the difficult option, the primitive option, the one that forces you to climb mountains and descend them and gasp swearing that we will stop smoking and hating nature while you feel immensely dependent on it for its beauty and everything it has to give us. But we will never be primitive at all: we are missing hairs in our ears and we have too many diseases. So the best thing in this case would be to be properly equipped for the adventure with good mountain shoes, binoculars, the Toledo steel knife that we must always carry on this type of trip, warm clothing, a poncho to cover ourselves during the occasional drizzle and almost constant in this corner of the world and some provisions (sugars and proteins) to recharge energy. And since we are still not primitive at all, we can also help ourselves with the markings that mark the Musk Ox Trail, a series of narrow trails that cover a total of 16 kilometers of park and that supposedly mark the areas where muskoxen sightings are most likely.

An exhausting search

And the adventure begins. Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park is incredibly beautiful and in areas where fine deciduous trees do not grow we were faced with an extensive tundra of phosphor green lichens, stunted berry hedges (edible and delicious berries in some cases, I tried them playing primitive and whispering prayers to the spirits of the wind) thick layers of moss and huge granite tongues. When we reach the top of Mount Høgsnyta we can even find the first and early snow of the Norwegian winter. And the adventure continues. Reindeers of a Christmas size and tiny shrews also run around here, facilitating a necessary fusion with the almost glacial nature that surrounds us. Ravens sent by the dying god Odin squawk as we pass, darkening the already cloudy sky with their thick black wings. Everything here is immense, novel, primitive. Only we who sweatily hike the Musk Ox Trail are out of tune with the environment.

One of the musk oxen sighted in Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park. PHOTO: Alfonso Masoliver

We see with the binoculars, perhaps four or five kilometers away, what looks like two silhouettes of musk oxen. They are far away and the clouds threaten a storm. But the adventure must continue. I wanted to play and it took me three days (walking an average of six hours a day) to find myself within a reasonable distance from the damned bug. And I’m glad it was three days, I’m so glad it’s hard to find the musk oxen. Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park is not a zoo and here they do not feed the critters to come near us. It’s a slice of the Pleistocene resurrected in the frozen heart of Norway. The first day I was a contemporary man; the second, a creature to be determined, crouching nimbly through the trees and trotting on light feet among the lichen-wet carpets; the third day I was a real hunter, exhausted, drenched by the refreshing rain, dazed by this psychedelic environment that had gripped me with all its might. I listened to the sleepy rumble of a stream and filled my canteen by the shore. I raised my head and there it was. He could almost have mistaken it for a mossy stone but it was there, grazing in absolute tranquility and giving off an exciting scent of life. It’s a creature from the movies I had come across in the real world. A bleak memory of when man was primitive, elusive, that you can search and trace in this tiny point of the Universe.

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