DG Wildlife by Dalia Kvedaraite and Giedrius Stakauskas | Musk Ox Photography in Norway

Musk Ox Photography in Norway

February, 2015

We just came back from an unforgettable trip to Norway, Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park. If you want to get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself, this trip is definitely for you.

The idea to photograph Musk Ox in winter came spontaneously and quite unexpectedly. We’ve done quite a lot of preparation for a trip to Japan but with the things not going as planned, we gave up an idea of Japan and decided to fly to Norway in a search of Musk ox. 

Musk Ox, NorwayMusk Ox, Norway Male Musk Ox FightingMale Musk Ox Fighting

Travel info. Our trip was divided in two parts. First we headed to Oppdal and stayed there for 3 days; later we headed to another village of Dombas where we stayed 3 more days. Both villages are based near Dovrefjell mountain range where in 1932 a population of musk oxen was reintroduced.

We reached Oppdal via train from Trondheim. The journey was around 1 hour 40 minutes. If you fly to Oslo, there are direct trains to Oppdal but the journey takes 5 hours. We booked tickets online in advance and saved some pounds. From Oppdal to Dombas we took another train. The journey was around 1 hour.

Photography. In the early hours we left Oppdal accompanied by Sigbjørn and his truly amazing dog, and headed to a so called 'Sweaty hill' in search of the Norwegian population of Musk oxen. For couple of days, we booked a guide to show us the area, as the Dovrefjell national park occupies around 654 sq miles. It's a bit tricky to find musk oxen in a new, unfamiliar place.

The first unforgettable sight of musk ox male we spotted early afternoon. In winter musk oxen conserve heat and energy, so they spend much of their time resting and sleeping. This means lots of waiting for any action to happen.   In winter, musk oxen prefer to stay high in mountains where winds blow the snow away from dried grass, sedges, and willows. This poor vegetation is the main food source for the animals during the time of cold. Their front hooves are larger than hind hooves, making it easier for the muskox to dig through snow for food. During summer months musk oxen typically stay in areas near water.

Musk ox has an average height of 135 centimetres and an average length of 245 centimetres. The long, thick coat makes the animal look larger than it really is. The big bulls can weigh over 300 kilos and can survive in the extreme arctic environment for up to 20 years. 

After finding the musk oxen, we’ve stayed with them till the sun went down.  Musk Ox at Sunset, DovrefjellMusk Ox at Sunset, Dovrefjell Late afternoon we found a sheltered place and started to set up a tent. We followed lots of advice how to stay warm in winter in tent, for example have a warm drink before bed, invest in thick thermals, have warm floor insulators and etc., but nothing helped. We have managed to get couple hours of sleep but it was really very very cold... A sky with millions of stars, freezing cold, nice company and warm breakfast... These are the things we will never forget...

 As we were up early, just before the sunrise, we headed back up to the mountains. 

Musk Ox, Dovrefjell National ParkMusk Ox, Dovrefjell National Park Musk Ox, Dovrefjell National ParkMusk Ox, Dovrefjell National Park  Just when we wanted to head to another location, musk oxen decided to challenge each other and test their strength. Males that compete for dominance are typically between the ages of 6 and 8 years old.  

Much more powerful fights for dominance can be seen  in late summer/early autumn. During head butting, males charge up to 25 miles per hour (40 km/h) and crash together on the horn bosses on the forehead. This behavior is rarely fatal. To cushion the blow and prevent brain damage, they have an air pocket between their brain and skull.  

Early afternoon, when we headed to another location. Musk Ox in BlizzardMusk Ox in Blizzard    In half an hour the snow became heavier and the visibility was very poor. 

Musk Ox in the SnowstormMusk Ox in the Snowstorm

We continued climbing the mountain. Our energy and strength was almost gone. Luckily on one slope we managed to spot a group of musk oxen. We stayed with them for couple of hours which in snow storm and cold was quite a challenge.

Musk Oxen in SnowstormMusk Oxen in Snowstorm Over the course of their 600,000 year long history, musk oxen have developed ways to stay warm and protected during the long cold winter months. The most significant adaptation is a layer of extremely fine under-wool. It is said to be one of the finest fibers in the world, more luxurious than cashmere and much warmer than sheep wool. 

On a third day we headed to photograph musk ox using sledges with Alaskan huskies as transportation. 

Dog sledding ride with super enthusiastic Alaskan huskies was filled with adrenaline from start to finish. First off all we had to take huskies from the lorry and harness the dogs ourselves; one of our sledges had 5, another – 6 dogs. After a short instruction how to use breaks, we didn’t have much time to think as huskies were energetically moving, howling and jumping around as they couldn’t wait to pull the sledges. Seconds later off we went down the steep hill at the full speed and of course ended up flying out of the sledges in a soft deep snow. At that moment there was only one thought in our heads – run as fast as you can and catch the dogs. Later of course we didn’t forget to use the breaks on steeper hills and sharp turns.

The weather that day was very changeable; within a few minutes the sunshine used to turn to such heavy snowstorms that each other’s location we knew only from the howling of huskies. When the wind calmed down, we’ve managed to spot musk oxen.

Musk Ox, NorwayMusk Ox, Norway Musk oxen really adore a good rub against a stone.

They might even queue for one particular spot. 

Further down we’ve spotted couple calves infected with scabby mouth (nor. Munnskurv).

This virus causes skin lesions which are painful and often occur on lips, muzzle and nostrils. They develop into scabs which bleed easily. Generally animals recover but in severe cases they might die from starvation. The rest of the young animals looked strong and healthy.

Juvenile Musk OxJuvenile Musk Ox Juvenile Musk Ox in WinterJuvenile Musk Ox in Winter  After such an exciting and action-packed day, our adrenalin was pumping.

During the last days of our stay in Norway, the temperature dropped down to -20C. Luckily the cold didn’t cause any problems with equipment and we didn’t get frostbite. As  we mentioned before, we divided our trip to two parts. After exploring Oppdal, we headed to another location - small village of Dombas. There we mainly saw groups of females with calves.

Musk oxen are very social animals. Most herds average between 10 and 20 animals. Musk oxen have two separate hierarchies – one for males and one for females. Calves are generally lowest in the hierarchy, although they determine dominance among themselves through chasing, mounting, and play. 

As in Dombas mainly we saw herds of females with calves, on our last day we decided to go back to Oppdal to look for males. We were very lucky to come across three different sightings of musk oxen.

Musk Ox, Dovrefjell National ParkMusk Ox, Dovrefjell National Park We decided to stay with a group of males chasing each other quite high in the mountains. Musk Ox may run at the speed of 60 km/h. In general they are not aggressive towards human but if threatened or approached unexpectedly they can attack.

Good photo opportunities came when the males started to challenge each other. 

Musk Oxen FightMusk Oxen Fight Early in the afternoon the snow arrived giving as one more opportunity to enjoy beautiful winter scenes.

Musk Ox, NorwayMusk Ox, Norway In total we've spent six days photographing musk oxen. This trip pushed as to the limits but honestly it was a truly fantastic and unforgettable experience. If you want to experience a bit of extreme, pack your bags and go for it. If you have any questions on need any advice, please get in touch.

A bit of History
The Musk ox died out in Norway almost 2000 years ago. There have been three attempts to reintroduce this animal. In 1931, 10 animals were transported to Norway from Greenland, and after 7 more years two new animals were introduced to increase the genetic variation. Unfortunately during the Second World War musk oxen were killed for food and clothes. The last attempt to reintroduce the musk ox at Dovrefjells national park was between 1947 and 1953. The herd has now grown to around 300 animals.
There are perhaps as many as 130,000 musk oxen in the world today. 



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