A musk ox butchery

I helped the cutting of meat
Up here where muskox is a treat
I took a small share
I hear it’s great fare
Though the hunting’s not a hard feat.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, travelled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I am back having adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record System (EMR) I can get along with. Right now I’m in Nome, Alaska.

Community colleges form a part of the American landscape; they constitute educational institutions close to the people who want to learn. Administrators time courses to suit the needs of students who also need to work, and demand dictates academic choices.

The Northwest Campus in Nome published its spring semester catalogue. Along with the usual courses of Human Anatomy and Physiology, Basic Excel, Elementary Algebra, and Preparatory College Writing, I found 4 courses on beading, 5 on ceramics, 2 on birding, and one each on Snow Machine Maintenance and Repair, Arctic Survival, Subarctic Horticulture, Conversational Inupiaq, Qiviiut Lace Knitting, and Working With Qiviut: harvesting, processing, and knitting.

Qiviut comes from the muskox; these holdovers from the Ice Age grow an under layer in the winter and shed it in the summer. The only mammalian fiber with no scales and hence impervious to felting, it has unique insulating characteristics and rates as the warmest yarn in the world.

The demand for meat in Alaska’s gold rush wiped out the native muskox; the current herd descends from a dozen animals imported from Greenland in the 30’s. Late last century musk ox hunting only happened when individuals strayed onto sea ice floes and faced certain death. Since then they have done well, and now have a population large enough to sustain hunting. Because of the high value of the qiviut, domestic muskox husbandry has become economically feasible.

These shaggy, short-tempered animals roam wild in the Nome area and sometimes stray into town. The Nome Nugget (Alaska’s oldest newspaper) carried two stories this last year concerning the conflict between the local muskox and the local sled dogs; both times the dogs lost.

Yesterday afternoon, I held a discussion with the most seriously ill patient I’ve seen since my arrival. I can’t give details about the case or the demographics; though I can write my words :”Weight loss in the US in the 21st century is not normal,” a point on which we agreed. After I proposed a diagnostic plan, I asked some geographic questions, and in the process revealed my fondness for hunting. Which led to a discussion of local hunting, which led to a mention of muskox, and I expressed my eagerness to try the meat. The patient told me to go ask a (specific) dentist, who had gotten one just outside town two days ago.

When my clinic work finished, I ascended the thrillingly beautiful front staircase while the subarctic sunset blazed in the south over the Bering Sea, announced myself at the dental reception desk, found the dentist and offered to help with the meat cutting. Above all, I said, I can keep the knives sharp using nothing else but the back of a china plate.

He pointed me to the dentist two cubicles over. I repeated my offer.

That evening the crowd gathered. The dentists had already broken the carcass into primal cuts.

This bull muskox compared favorably to the largest elk I’ve taken in terms of size. Over the next three hours two dentists and I cut the meat, while the spouses wrapped and labelled. We talked about our backgrounds and our back stories. Hunting stories flew thick as mosquitos in spring. I got to recount the 70’s and even told of my jail time served for the crime of illegal pedestrian. I made good on my boast of knife sharpening.

At the end, I trimmed the meat from the two hind shanks, and gratefully took it for myself. With very large animals so abundant here, hunters usually give that cut to the dogs. I talked about the joys of braising the tough cuts, especially the shanks.

But generosity didn’t end there; I also got a couple of back strap steaks, and the promise of burger after grinding,

I have heard it said that a hunter’s emotional attachment to the meat varies inversely with the time from the kill, but here the willingness to share seems to start as soon as the animal hits the ground. The first dentist had taken a few pieces and passed the rest on to the second dentist, who passed much of it on to friends, coworkers, and me.

Before I left, I got to see two tanned musk ox hides and three brown bear rugs.

Tomorrow I’ll cook musk ox meat for the first time.


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2 Responses to “A musk ox butchery”

  1. Terry Says:

    And how was it? I’ve never tried it.

    • walkaboutdoc Says:

      Quite tasty. Comaprable to lean beef. In fact no gamey taste at all. Nor a distinctive taste. And today I’ll be lunching on musk-ox red chile stew, New Mexico style. Which I made a trifle too spicey.

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