Sunday, August 25, 2013

On our way to Haines we spent two nights in Palmer. We had driven through the area several times but never had a reason to stop and check out the area. Palmer is located in the Matanuska Valley. It’s a beautiful area, surrounded by cultivated hay fields, the Palmer Hay Flats, the Matanuska River, the Chugach Mountains and the ancient Talkeetna Mountains.

The valley includes the Matanuska coal fields. With the beginning of WW1 the high quality coal
fields became critical to fueling US battleships. By 1917 the US Navy had constructed a rail line from the port of Seward to the coal deposits.

At the end of the War the US Navy distributed land in the coal fields to veterans and additional land was opened up for homesteading. In one year Palmer transformed from a mere whistle stop rail siding to a planned community. Eleven million dollars was spent to create the town of Palmer and relocate 203 families from economically hard hit Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Each family drew lots for 40-acre tracts and their farming adventure began in earnest. The failure rate was high, but many of their descendants still live in the area and there are still many operating farms in the Palmer area.

The families brought with them Midwest America's small-town values, institutional structures, and a well-planned city center reminiscent of their old hometowns in Minnesota. Many of the structures built are now in a nationally recognized historic district. We visited one of the original farms, now on the National Historic Register.

Also located in Palmer, is the Musk Ox Farm. A private non-profit organization begun in 1954 and dedicated to the development and domestication of the Musk Ox, for the purpose of providing additional subsistence income opportunities for Alaska’s first people. The soft extremely fine under-wool of the Musk Ox, called qiviut, is harvested once a year and delivered to the Alaskan native knitter's co-operative. The knitters work at home in Eskimo villages throughout Alaska creating scarves and luxurious caps. Each village has its own signature pattern derived from traditional designs. Originally Eskimos gathered the qivuit when the Musk Ox shed their coats in the spring. Qivuit is 8 times warmer then sheep’s wool, its softer then cashmere and it’s waterproof. An adult Musk Ox can produce four to seven pounds of qiviut a year. Because the qivuit is so hard to obtain it currently sells for $55 an ounce!

These little guys are this years calves. Aren't they cute!

The Musk Ox is an ancient arctic mammal originally found in Asia, Europe, Greenland, Siberia, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. During the Pleistocene, Musk Ox wandered across the Bering Land Bridge to populate North America with the likes of the wooly mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and giant ground sloth. Teetering on the brink of extinction 34 young Musk Ox were captured in Greenland in 1930 and relocated to Nunivak Island, where by the late 1960s there were over 700 Musk Ox. Small populations were transplanted back to the mainland of Alaska and these have done well. Musk Ox also have been introduced to areas in Siberia. Now there are an estimated 4,000 Musk Ox in Alaska and an estimated 140,000 Musk Ox alive in Alaska, Greenland, Canada and Siberia combined.

As far as we could tell, the Musk Ox farm does not appear to be having much luck domesticating the animals. Employees do not go into the fields with the animals. When it’s time to harvest the qivuit the musk ox are run into a pen of sorts for combing and removal of the qivuit.
Another item on our to do in the Matanuska Valley is the
Independence Mine State Historical Park. On our drive there we saw a Moose grazing WAY UP on the mountain. Can you see her?

Here’s a better photo.


The park  is a huge, abandoned gold mine that sits at the top of Hatcher Pass on Skyscraper Mountain. The drive cuts through the Talkeetna Mountains and is one of the most beautiful side trips in Alaska.The Independence Mine was a hard rock gold mine. At its peak of operation 204 men worked year round  in 12 miles of  tunnels blasted deep in the mountain. Over 150,000 ounces of gold were recovered between 1936 and 1943. The site included a mine managers office, apartments for married couples, two bunkhouses for bachelors, a school, cookhouse, engineers offices, framing shop, assay office, sorting mill and power plant. A covered shed led from the foot of the mill to the mine entrance. It was only 400 plus steps UP to work every day!
By 1942, the United States had entered World War II, and the War Production Board designated gold mining as nonessential to the war effort. Gold mining throughout the United States came to a halt. The wartime ban was lifted in 1946, but gold mining was slow to recover. After the war, gold could be sold only to the U.S. government at a fixed rate of $35 per ounce. Postwar inflation raged, and gold mining became an unprofitable venture. Finally, in January of 1951, after mining nearly 6 million dollars' worth of gold, Independence Mine was closed.

Alaska has been hard at work restoring the mine. Like Kennecott Mine it will be years before the job is finished. And given the mills current condition it’s hard to imagine it can ever be restored.

On the drive to Palmer we saw this cow and calf laying in the grass at the edge of the woods. She was so calm, even when I scrambled down the shoulder of the road to take photos. It was pretty cool.

So we say bye, bye to Palmer and head for Haines.



  1. You are having a great trip! Thanks for sharing the pictures of the beautiful country! How is Jim's leg holding up with all this traveling?

    Continue to be safe!!

  2. He could be better. Ankle is painful so we are not doing much walking. Sorry to hear about Wayne. Hope his recovery goes better and you will be back on the road doing fun things soon.