Chapter 11/FIND FRONTIERS: CHASING YAKS ACROSS THE LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
NOTE: Like all YAK chapters on this site, this chapter is a very rough draft very much in progress. Please email me with any ideas, questions, or good suggestions at email@example.com. Yak on!
Special thanks to the University of Vermont Humanities Center for providing a grant supporting research for this chapter.
“World Famous Yak Burger!” reads the large laminated menu. The accompanying drawing features a whimsical sketch of a bovine that looks like the hairy-headed offspring of a yak’s intimate encounter with a Scottish highlander. “Locally-raised Alaskan yak has a delicious and delicate juicy flavor, and this ½ pound seasoned homemade burger is topped with carmelized onions, applewood-smoked bacon and smoked Gouda cheese, with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, mustard and mayo.” The listed price? A hefty $24.99, but this menu item turns out to be the most delicious eight ounce yak burger I’ve ever eaten, after fasting all day in anticipation, and pairing this yak burger with a five flight paddle of craft beers to temper the chill damp of this rainy Alaskan August afternoon.
49th State Brewery's legendary 8 ounce grass-fed Alaskan yak burger.
As I dig into the giant juicy piece of ground yak meat, my 20-year-old daughter Anneka warms herself in front of a round copper covered fire hearth near the back of Alaska’s legendary 49th State Brewing Company restaurant - “fresh brewed beer from the last frontier,” reads the massive sign on the road between Denali National Park and Healey, a “pass through” tourist town on the way north to Fairbanks. 49th State’s yak burger is well known here in the land of the midnight sun. We’ve been chasing yaks on the ground here for three days, and all roads have led us to this remote establishment - equal parts craft brewery, hipster joint, and reconverted industrial warehouse. The beer is cold, the fire warm, the yak burger delicious – served medium on the rare side, with grassy flavor dripping onto the toppings, all encased in a soft warm bun. For a few moments, time stands still - grass-fed gustatory grunniens ecstasy.
Healey, Alaska's 49th State Craft Brewery and Restaurant.
“The central paradox of Alaska is that it is as small as it is large – an immense landscape with so few people in it that language is stretched to call it a frontier, let alone a state,” observes John McPhee in his magisterial “frontier state” history Coming Into The Country. “A sense of the contemporary appearance of Alaska virtually requires inspection, because the civilized imagination cannot cover such qualities of wild land.”To inspect the Alaskan yak situation, I deputized my daughter as my research partner, and we flew across the continent – Vermont to New York to Seattle to Anchorage – and commandeered a camper van, driving north along the famed Seward Highway. The two-lane road, which winds along expansive river valleys and through stunning mountain scenery, is named after US Secretary of State William Seward, whose 1867 purchased of Alaska from Russia saw him roundly mocked in the US press – “Seward’s Icebox! Seward’s Folly!” – until Americans discovered gold, oil and geostrategic imperatives in this now-melting arctic tundra country. Only 63,000 people inhabited the Alaskan territory in 1900, and the 2010 census reveals a human population of just over 700,000 in a state nearly half the size of the entire continental United States. Alaska’s landscape is awesome country, full of possibility. Over the past century, U.S. settlers, supported by federal incentives, pushed indigenous hunters, fishermen, and wild species to the margins in search of what became one “boom and bust” cycle after another – gold, agriculture, the oil boom, and, yes, yaks. Alaska also is a land of contradictions - big vision, grand ambitions, and a “wild west – anything goes” culture of unlimited promise tempered by more sobering geographical realities: expansive, open, remote, bitterly cold half of the year, a limited growing season, and perpetual cycles of boom and bust make life in Alaskan adventure for man and beast alike. We soon discovered upon our arrival that this contradiction is true of 21stcentury Alaskan yak culture, as well.
Yaks are the very definition of “free range,” making the expansive Alaskan frontier seem a likely place for yaks to thrive. In many yakking cultures around the world, yaks are celebrated for their expansive “room to roam” behavior, and traditional transhumant yakkers in high mountain Himalayan communities and in western Mongolia speak with amazement about the yak’s ability to travel widely when unimpeded by fences and borders, thriving for months at a time in the remote backcountry, including surviving harsh and difficult winters that decimate more domestic more sedentary animal populations. My Mongolian contact Doya oncemrecounted an apocryphal story of a disastrous snow storm that swept across the Mongolian steppe when she was a child. “The yaks that we set free disappeared into the storm, survived in the mountains, and returned home to mate come spring,” she explained,” but the yaks that we kept confined all died of exposure to the prolonged cold in the storm.”
With Doya’s story top of mind, I set out to discover what I could about Alaska’s yakking history, which proved sparse. Alaskans first imported yaks in the early twentieth century, bringing a handful to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in a pilot effort to cultivate hearty cold-weather cattle for milk and beef production. Attempts to cross-breed yaks with Scottish Galloways to create the colorfully-named “Galloyak” proved a dismal failure – the yak hybrids resisted milking, produced leathery meat, and kept busting out of their pens to trample the university flower and vegetable gardens. A century later, all that survives of this initial experiment are a few old photographs in acclaimed Alaskan agricultural pioneer Charles E. Bunnell’s archival collection, and a 1946 summary article recounting the pilot project entitled “Yaks and Yak Hybrids in Alaska,” published in 1946 by the Washington, DC based Journal of Heredity, “an organ of the American Genetic Association. “Observations on the great usefulness of the yak in Central Asia and the limited observations recorded above indicate that it might prove to be a very useful animal in the range area of Alaska described in this paper, if future developments in Alaska warrant the establishment of such an industry,” concludes the article on a cautiously optimistic note. The accompanying archival photographs, however, tell a less sanguine story. “Here are the yak,” reads one photo’s caption, below a black and white image of several cranky-looking grunniens. “They crossed them with Galloways trying to produce an animal for beef that would winter in the open. Results were disappointing, Meat tough as____.” Blank. Apparently, hybrid yak meat was too tough for words back in the day.
Alaska yaks at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks - circa 1921.
Almost a century later, yaks in Alaska seem to be making a comeback, and I want to find out why. I had met Alaskans Steve and Anita Hill, well known in the North American yakking community, the previous January at Denver, Colorado’s National Western Stock Show, where they enthusiastically invited me to visit their off-the-grid yak operation in the tiny town of Willow, Alaska. “If you’re ever in the area, stop on by and meet our yaks,” they joked. “We’re hard to find, and your GPS won’t work, so we’ll have to send you our own hand drawn map before you come.” Are there other yak operations in Alaska, I queried? Several, they replied. And there’s this world famous ½ pound Alaskan yak burger…” Steve and Anita led me to the handful of other yak operations across Alaska, and the Internet revealed a “Tibetan Yak” exhibit at the Alaska Zoo. With contacts firmly established, Anneka and I headed to the great northwest. Landing on August 1 in Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport (featuring a giant stuffed moose in the main lobby) just before midnight, we picked up our camper van and located a nearby parking lot behind Carr’s Grocery shopping center for a few hours of sleep, the occasional late night car Doppler’ing by on the adjacent road.
The next morning, Anneka and I headed to the Alaska Zoo after fortifying ourselves with a week’s worth of groceries, steaming cups of coffee, and a run along the Chugach Trail, featuring inspired views of Anchorage spread out below. Arriving at 9:15 am for our appointment, we discovered a small parking lot in front of a forlorn looking complex. Founded in 1969, the Alaska Zoo does not much match the grandeur of the state itself, but a young man named Nathan in plaid flannel enthusiastically welcomed us and brought us to the visitor center/gift shop, where we had a few minutes to browse the merchandise – no yak related items, but a bright blue “Alaska Triathalon” tee shirt featuring a sapiensstick figure swimming (away from orcas), climbing (away from bears), and running (away from moose) – a riotous reminder that Alaska is inhabited by creatures who don’t always trifle with humans who wander into their midst.
Zookeeper Jim Rutkowski, our yellow-gloved yak contact, soon joined us. Older, gregarious, balding, white bearded, amiable, and a bit rotund in his work khakis, Xtra tuf rubber boots, and Alaska ball cap, Jim jumped right into his story as we make our way past a giant outdoor tank full of seals towards the yak exhibit. “I’m not a zoologist or anything,” Jim says. “I don’t even have a college degree.” Rutkowski moved from New Hampshire to Alaska years ago to escape east coast humidity and find fresh work. After he was downsized from an Anchorage airport loading job, he became the Alaska Zoo’s part time maintenance guy, and then trained here as a zookeeper. “I got lucky – right place at the right time,” he says, as we walk past a pen of musk ox, yaks’ cold weather cousin. Suddenly, there, right in front of us, is a sign sporting a big black yak, with information about yaks as a species – “bovids with relatively few sweat glands, larger heart and lungs, and hairy coats – equipping them for cold weather success.” Behind the sign stands a beautiful shaggy brown female yak – our first Alaskan yak encounter. “That’s Lisa Marie – she’s 17,” Jim explains with affection in his voice. “And the steer is Valentino - he’s seven, and was born on Valentine’s Day – a big boy at 1300 pounds, he is.”
The two penned yaks stir and Lisa Marie, the cow, sidles closer at the sound of Jim’s voice – clearly, they know him well. As he puts out hay in the corral feeder, Jim tells us he works with the yaks five days every week. Big bull Valentino eventually ambles over and begins gnoshing on the hay, while Jim quietly enters the enclosure, patting and then brushing out the massive bull’s flanks. “Yaks are unique - not a lot of them around,” he says, focused on his task. “They are smart animals,” says Anneka, and Jim nods in agreement and then laughs when she tells him one of her hair-raising Vermont yak stories. “Our yak here at the zoo are often confused with musk ox, and I remember when they first arrived, they were aggressive, but they’ve settled down,” Jim reminisces. “They still get excited, lifting their tales, grunting and running around the pen’s perimeter – when one gets wound up, it’s catching,” says Jim with a smile. Growing quiet, he explains that yak matriarch Priscilla just died here in the corral a few days before our visit at age 21, fairly old by yak standards. “Valentino was real upset when his mama died,” Jim says sadly. With a nod behind him, he tells us how Valentino horned the small shade enclosure over and over, visibly agitated as Jim’s team removed Priscilla’s blanket covered body after failing to nurse her back to health. “At one point, we had seven people try and lift her with fire hoses under her body,” Jim recounts. “The vet checked her heart – it was clear she was done - she hadn’t eaten in several days, and we couldn’t hear the sound of her rumen thundering through the stethoscope, like it does with a healthy yak.”
The Alaska Zoo’s original yak pair – Elvis the bull and Priscilla the cow - arrived from Dick Carr’s ranch up north in the town of Delta Junction several years before, and at one point, this exhibit boasted four yaks, including Priscilla and Elvis. Now, the zoo was down to two grunniens, with no immediate plans to bring in more, though Jim points out that the few yak events they’ve held here over the years have been always well attended, As we talk, Jim’s deep love for these yaks is evident. “I feel tremendous respect for these animals,” he says, brushing Lisa Marie and patting her flank. “I feel honored to work with them – almost like I’m part of the herd.” I ask about the small size of the pen, and he nods, going a bit tight lipped. “I know from talking with folks who raise yaks here in Alaska that these are animals who like lots of room,” he observes. “This pen is pretty small, but we do the best we can, and the yaks are a crowd favorite – so many of our visitors have never seen a yak up close, and I’m surprised by how many don’t even know what a yak is.” I nod, sharing the details of my book project with him as we say good bye to Lisa Marie and Valentino and walk back out towards the parking lot. “Anything else I can do to help with your yak research, just let me know,” says Jim as we shake hands, exchange emails, and say our farewells. “They are amazing animals.”
Alaska zookeeper Jim Rutkowski and Anneka with Valentino the Bull.
On the stunning seven-hour drive from Anchorage through Palmer to Delta Junction, Anneka and I debrief while enjoying awe inspiring views of the Kings River Valley and the Wrangell and Alaska ranges. My daughter is a budding glaciologist, so we stop to take photos in front of the rapidly receding Matanuska glacier. “Gotta get more yaks up here before the ice melts,” I grimly joke. Boom and bust Alaska seems to have retooled itself to cater to motorized recreational tourists –miles of asphalt in various stages of repair punctuated by tiny espresso joints, Tesoro gas stations, old style roadhouses, and plenty of abandoned businesses dot the road, along with crudely lettered LAND FOR SALE signs everywhere. And Thai restaurants! Alaska may be the Thai food capital of the United States – two dozen places in Fairbanks alone, with a tiny Thai resto in almost every reasonably sized town we pass through.
Chasing yaks (and glaciers) along the famed Alaskan Highway.
By late afternoon, we reach our next destination, Delta Junction, a rough-around-the-edges frontier way station comprised of several gas stations, bars, and a reasonably nice campground, where we grab a site for the night. At first glance, Delta Junction looks like a tourist economy in seasonal decline –abandoned homes and businesses, a defunct Thai place and a laundromat both for sale, looking like retro throwbacks to a previous millennium. Delta Junction is also home to Alaska yak patriarch Dick Carr, who helped jump start the Alaskan yak network two decades ago. Carr is now retired from yakking and currently out of town. We are here to visit his protégé at the Kaspari Yak Ranch – 20 miles outside of Delta Junction at the Saw Mill Creek Road 2.2 mile marker near a local mountain cluster known as the Granite Range. After a few tries, I reach Phil Kaspari by phone, and he agrees to host us at his yak ranch the next morning.
Phil’s reputation precedes him, courtesy the Anchorage Daily News, which published a 2016 feature article on the Kaspari operation entitled “Family farmer making it with a day job, an understanding wife, and a herd of yaks.” A midwestern farm native with roots in North Dakota and Minnesota, Phil traveled to Delta Junction in the mid-1990s to support an ambitious state-sponsored agricultural project aimed at turning this region into an international grain production center. When the top-heavy project failed, Phil went to work for a potato farmer, rented land to farm and sell hay, and trained as a University of Alaska extension agent. He married his long-time Minnesota friend Mary, a registered nurse, (his first and her second marriage, after her first husband suffered a fatal heart attack), and they’ve built a life and a family here on the Alaskan frontier. And Phil is tough. In 2013, while working in the yak pasture, Phil got butted by a yak bull without warning, throwing him into the air – twice – breaking his leg, and sidelining him for a whole month, but only after Phil finished the afternoon of haying, tying his his injured leg in place with baling twine. While Phil was still on crutches, the same bull gored his son-in-law Steve in the chest and thigh, breaking vertebrae in his back – Steve lived, and he and his wife gave Phil and Mary a grandbaby. Such is yakking on the Alaskan frontier, and the Kasparis have tried just about everything with their yaks short of milking them – fiber recovery, halter training, animal breeding, and of course, meat production.
We drive more the thirty minutes from Delta Junction to the Kaspari ranch – turns out, “just outside of town” in Alaska can mean dozens of miles in distance. The Kaspari homestead is comprised of 400 acres of perimeter fencing in various stages of durability, heavily pastured, and punctuated by patches of brilliantly pink fireweed and copses of small trees. Presiding over the place like sentinels are two 10 kilowatt wind mills, which spin slowly and evenly next to the long bumpy gravel driveway up to the Kaspari home, a rectangular house sitting atop a small knoll surrounded by farm equipment – baler, tedder, metal trailer, odds and ends. Below, meanwhile, towards the pasture, sits a barn with a small herd of yaks and several long marshmallowed columns of wrapped giant round hay bales. Phil greets us in the driveway - Scandinavian and hearty in appearance, a Kencove ball cap over his tufty white hair, and dressed in newish brown Carhartts, a blue and white pinstripe work short, and black Bog boots, a multipurpose tool with a big wrench attached to his belt. We greet each other, and he invites us to jump in his car, walking with a rolling gait to the right side. A bit reticent, Phil talks in single words and short phrases, halting often, as if thinking through the effect of his words well in advance of delivering them.
Delta Junction's Phil Kaspari and family, including yaks. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Daily News.)
The three of us clamber into Phil’s car and drive past the barn, through a fence gate, and out toward the Alaska Range (the “Granite Range” we call it, says Phil) and there, before us, sprawls a sizeable herd herd of yaks,– close to 100 of them– mostly blacks (brown), with a few royals sprinkled in. There’s even, surprise! a few bison in the mix. “The calves came here with a crop of hunting bison bulls years ago,” explains Phil. “The bulls went, and the bison calves stayed, and they don’t seem to know any better.” We laugh, remembering that yaks and bison are the closest of bos cousins, evolutionarily speaking. How do you separate the calves from the mamas when you need to?” I ask. “Funny you should ask,” he replies. “We use salmon nets to scoop up the calves – it breaks my wife Mary’s heart, though, to separate the mamas and the babies.” “This is amazing, Phil,” I say, gesturing around and changing the subject. “One of the largest yak herds in Alaska, right here - it feels like western Mongolia,” I joke, “with fences and even taller mountains.” Phil, smiles, telling me of a Mongolian visitor who came by his yak ranch a few years before and was awed by the size and scale of the operation.
We immediately jump in to comparing notes – the challenges of capitalizing on yaks, slow growth rates, lack of steady market opportunities, butchers in Alaska being few and far between, the “exotic” nature of yaks, the marketing juggernaut that is the US corporate commercial beef industry. “A number of us just invested in a cooperative slaughterhouse up in the town of North Pole, Alaska,” explains Phil. “We’re under no illusions, but we hope it will give us steady option for meat processing.” “Would the University of Alaska agricultural extension want to run with yaks?” I wonder out loud, remembering their failed cross-breeding attempt with the Galloyaks a century before. Phil explains he already works forty hours a week for the Alaska Ag Extension, the Alaska state budget is $134 million in the red, and many university employees are wondering if they’ll have a job next year. Not an ideal time for expansion.
As we drive slowly through the herd with the windows rolled down, Phil thoughtfully unpacks the many challenges of raising yaks here in Alaska. “After helping Dick Carr with his yaks for several years, I convinced my wife Mary that we should buy a small starter herd from him – a few bulls, a few calves, and some cows – 20 or so yaks – that was 11 years ago,” he says, almost ruefully. “On the commercial side, we’ve tried everything with the yaks except for milking – hair, animal sales, and now, mostly meat. We sold 17 yaks’ worth of meat to Delta Meats up the road last year – they give us $6 per pound on the hoof – which nets us enough to break even and pay for fertilizer to keep the grass healthy and thriving.” Anneka and I nod, listening. “I told Mary when we bought the yaks that we wouldn’t make any money for at least five years – we’re well past that. I’d love to hear what worked for you when you raised your yaks,” he said, a note of hope in his voice. Now a retired Vermont yak farmer, I can empathize. “I’m no expert, but I can tell you based on my experience that ‘value added’ seems to be the way to go,” I explain. He nods, acknowledging how hard it is to make money in grass-fed meat farming at such a small scale, and I tell him about our YakItToMe! food cart. “I can take a pound of grass-fed yak burger selling for $10, and turn it into 4 x ¼ pound yak burgers at $10 plus each. We discuss the pros and cons of a CSA meat share alternative - and the challenges of building a regular yak meat customer network.
Driving through the Kaspari yak herd - Delta Junction, Alaska.
We drive back past the barn and house, and out around to a stunningly beautiful field of pasture and fireweed. “This is my this Saturday project,” Phil says. “I’m gonna move the yaks onto this fresh grass, and separate out some bulls and butchering steers in the process.” I nod, amazed. “This is stunning - lots of land here,” I comment. Phil nods slowly. “I’d like to get my yak herd up to around 150+, so we can do 20 meat animals annually,” he explains. “This feels like the right number for us. Farming is in my blood, but I’m 57 now, I’m new at this livestock game, and I don’t know how many more years of farming I have in me.” With Anneka listening and snapping photos from the back seat, we talk about our kids, getting more help for his operation, marketing, web sites, social media, and what we can learn from other yakkers.
“What if you do for yaks here what Alaska has done with salmon?” I ask. He nods, becoming more animated. “The ‘Alaska Mystique’ is powerful,” he says. “Everyone I know here gets this.” Could you ship frozen yak meat to a continental market?” I wonder out loud. He smiles – “I think about this all the time.” “And it would be another full time job for you,” I say, completing his thought. I like Phil – he is earnest, hard-working, thoughtful, committed to his family and his yaks, and he really wants to find some measure of yakking success up here on the Alaskan frontier, in a place that clearly needs some new economic options. We exchange emails, and he suggests we visit the local abattoir just up the road, where he processes his yaks. “The owner, Jeannie, likes us yak owners to be present when the yaks come in,” Phil says. “They’re a bit more ornery than most cattle and the slaughterhouse guys get a bit nervous.”
Following Phil’s lead, we make a brief stop up the road at Delta Meats, where Jeannie, the owner, is hard at work. An older woman, purposeful and sharp, Jeannie is in the cutting room, no nonsense in a pink shirt, eye liner to match, and denim shorts. Their “Place To Meat” sign indicates that, in addition to yak, they sell “Alaska Grown” bison, elk and reindeer meat with “no hormones or steroids.” “We’re cutting up a yak right now,” Jeannie says, gesturing with a nod behind her at two young guys in gloves and hairnets holding sharp knives with which they delicately trim a yak carcass. “We add 10% fat to our yak – it’s almost too lean,” Jeannie explains. “We pay $6 per pound on the hoof, and we sell the ground meat for $12.75 per pound to 49thState Brewery. They’ve got two locations - in Denali up the road and down in Anchorage - and they have a popular yak burger on the menu. Dave is the co-owner and really likes yaks - do you want his mobile number?” She passes me his number on a paper Delta Meats inventory list, and I thank her as we head back south in the camper towards the town of Willow for our next yak appointment. “125 yaks on 425 acres, and two captive yaks in a zoo pen,” I muse out loud while Anneka drives. “Not quite the definition of ‘free range’ you might expect up here in the land of the midnight sun.”
After several hours of driving, we reach the tiny town of Willow in Alaska’s Upper Susitna Valley by late afternoon, and reserve a camp site off the Alaska Highway at Montana Creek Campground - 100 miles north of Anchorage and 65 miles south of Denali, North America’s tallest mountain peak. CJ, the campsite manager, steers us to the local Thai restaurant for dinner. “The best Thai food in the state,” she exclaims cheerfully. “I know Alaska’s got a lot of Thai places, but she’s the best! Tell her I sent you.” While waiting for our Thai takeout, we strike up a conversation with three older locals on the restaurant porch. Turns out, they go to a nearby church with Todd Burleson, who runs a Denali/Everest mountain yak packing operation called Alpine Ascents here in the neighborhood. Having talked with Todd before our trip, I knew he was on the mountain on a yak expedition, but the woman in the party offered to contact his girlfriend, “though she isn’t as interested in yaks as Todd is,” she explains. “You looking for yaks?” asks her companion, gesturing to his right. “There are a few yaks for sale right up the Talkeetna Road. Mile 10. Can’t miss ‘em.” Anneka and I exchange glances, thank our welcoming committee, and head back to the campsite for pad thai, guitar lessons, and sleep. The next morning, after a hit of coffee, we head down the road to Steve and Anita’s place. Sunny Hill Ranch is semi-legendary among North American yakkers. Steve and Anita raise yaks off grid in the wilds of Alaska miles from anywhere, with Steve serving as an elected officer on the International Yak Association (IYAK) board of directors for many years.
We navigate our way to Sunny Hill Ranch past roads with names like Dog Sled Way, using the hand-drawn map that Steve texted to us the night before. After several miles of gravel, fireweed, and “thank you, fire fighter” signs (in honor of a successfully suppressed July wildfire in the region), we pull in to Sunny Hill Ranch, driving up a fireweed choked gravel driveway through an extensive logging operation, complete with heavy machinery - log skidder, bulldozer, Caterpillar, and ubiquitous ag equipment. The “kids’ house” stands on the hill to the left of the main house and barn – spare, unadorned, and simple, with two dogs outside, one of which was a beautiful white maremma sheepdog puppy, from the Italian side of the Pyrenees.
Steve came out of the house as we pulled up. “Perfect timing,” he says with a grin. “I just finished the morning chores.” 55 years old, tall and rangy, with a salt and pepper mustache and beard, Steve proves a remarkable host - friendly, affable, and understated in blue jeans, a gray tee shirt, red ball cap, and muddy brown work boots. He has a quiet sense of humor, and like many yakkers, has a fondness for yak alliteration – “let’s go scratch some yak” he says, leading us out towards the fields. The three of us walk out to the yak pasture, and Steve gets right down to business. “We got 325 acres here, and 36 yaks currently, and I am nine years into our ‘retirement project,’ Steve says, explaining that he came to Alaska with the air force, and then worked as a machine contractor. As we talk, two sandhill cranes squawk raucously on top of a nearby dirt pile, surrounded by dozing yaks. “They come back every year and nest here,” Steve observes offhandedly - the yaks unfazed by the birds’ noise. Looking around, I immediately notice that Steve runs a tight operation – neatly laid out paddocks and fences for four different yak groups – which Steve describes in order as “breeding bulls, meat steers and eating bulls, calves and mamas, and then miscellaneous.” The head gate, squeeze chute, and temporary fencing all look well used, with lots of wear and tear, but sturdy. Like many Alaskans, Steve and Anita are churchgoers, and their yaks all have Biblical names – bulls called Zechariah, Shem, Silas, Dorcas and Jacob - strangely fitting, given the yaks’ biblical look and feel.
Yakking at Willow, Alaska's Sunny Hill Ranch.
The other remarkable aspect of Sunny Hill? All of these yaks seem docile, gentle, content – we have plenty of opportunities for yak scratching and petting. The bull named Zechariah, meanwhile, seems to be meditating, as if in prayer, his eyes half closed, all blissed out, ruminating in a spiritual sort of manner on a comfy looking dirt pile – yak zazen in the making - along the fence’s edge. Clearly, Steve has a very good relationship with all of his yaks – comfortable and intimate - they trust him and he them. “We have mostly blacks and trims, with one Royal in the herd, the daughter of a mean Royal cow who, I swear, used to growl at me when she got feisty,” Steve explains with a laugh. “Growl, not grunt?” I ask. Never heard anything like it,” Steve replies, shaking his head. “I don’t like my breeding bulls to be too friendly – if everyone gets too comfortable with each other, well…”
“How’s business?” I ask. “We’ve got two commercial tracks,” says Steve, “meat and fiber, and you can divide meat into wholesale and retail opportunities.” Three years prior, lured by of the culinary promise of grass-fed yak meat, a nearby farm-to-table operation called Arctic Harvest showed up at Sunny Hill with twelve chefs in tow. “I laid out various yak cuts on my counter, and these twelve chefs went to work,” explains Steve. “One cooked up a rib eye, another made some meatballs – they loved the taste and texture of the yak – the meat sells itself - and soon, we were doing business.” Arctic Harvest now buys half a dozen yaks worth of meat annually. “The challenge for us– how do we get our meat animals as big as possible?” Steve asks rhetorically. “We don’t steer the butcher bulls – instead we try to grow them as big as we can,” he explains, recounting a story of ‘steering’ a beautiful bull too early and only later, figuring out his mistake. Sunny Hill also sells frozen packages of ground yak for $10 per pound retail right out of their home freezers. “How do people find you?” I ask, nodding around at the seeming remoteness of their yak ranch. “We always have people showing up here during summer months to tour the yak farm, meet our yaks, buy meat and fiber – we just had four in the last week,” Steve answers, his voice a mixture of quiet pride and amazement.
“What about yak fiber?” I ask. “I’m doing hair off the hide with a local leather worker - he’ll make me a yak belt for $13 and I can sell it for $60,” Steve answers. “We get $5 an ounce for bagged yak hair, and we sold twelve pounds last year – labor intensive, and you gotta work with the fiber spinners, we call ‘em ‘cat ladies,’’ he says with a grin. “They are a particular crowd, but they love our yak.” Anneka, meanwhile, is engaged in an extended scratching session with a variety of yaks, from a gentle bull to two calves that frisk their way over to the fence line to say their hellos. Afterwards, we walk back towards the house, and Steve invites us in for coffee. Inside, the Sunny Hill Yak ranch HQ is an open, pleasantly cluttered environment, well lived in, well loved, with a giant yak hide stretched out on a wooden frame which dominates the space. The walls, meanwhile, are adorned with photos of family, awards, yak pictures, drawings, and religious iconography – “Jesus Saves.” Over the kitchen table hangs a lacquered yak skull and a beautiful sign: Sunny Hill Ranch, established 2010.“I’m sorry you’ll miss Anita today,” Steve says, explaining that she is in Anchorage with a friend in need of medical attention. “Let me call her and get some yak contacts for you,” he offers, putting on hot water for coffee and prepping a giant French press. While he and Anneka chat, I look at the photos. Three generations of Hills – Steve and Anita as the Patriarch and Matriarch, with everyone else in the Hill family involved in Sunny Hill yakking while pursuing their own personal and professional passions. This, I think, is a good way to yak – multigenerational, strategic, with a bit more room for the yaks to roam and a diverse commercial revenue model in the making.
We say our goodbyes, and Anneka and I make a quick side strip up the 14 mile Talkeetna Road, following up on the Thai lead. “A fourteen-mile road to nowhere,” Steve jokes, Talkeetna is a way station for climbers, mountaineers, and tourists in search of Alaskan merch. Sure enough, at the mile ten marker, a hand lettered YAKS FOR SALE sign advertises a forlorn-looking yak herd penned in behind a tall heavy-duty mesh fence. Deprived of any grass, and surrounded by excavating equipment and dilapidated out buildings, these half dozen yaks look completely out of their element, and (was it my imagination?) a bit miserable. After cursing under my breath, and silently entertaining fantasies of bolt cutting these yaks out of their junk yard pen and herding them towards the nearby mountains, we make a quick stop in Talkeetna and then head north towards Denali National Park, for a rendezvous with destiny - the 1/2 pound grass-fed yak burger.
Our next two days saw rain – the sort of warm August drizzle that Alaska is famous for (“If the bears and bugs don’t kill you, the rain will,” joshes one local at a Tesoro gas stop.) After a scouting stop into Denali National Park, our transcendental yak burger experience in Healey at the 49th State Brewery, and a night of sleep at a local campground, we continued north to Fairbanks, home of the original yak importation experiment of a century before. According to the Internet, a few yaks were chilling in Fairbanks at a local a B and B called Arctic Roots Farm (ARF), just outside of town. Or so rumor had it. Steve down in Willow at Sunny Hill had never heard of them, the ARF web page was under construction and a bit dated, my phone calls to ARF went unanswered, and I had trouble pulling up ARF’s address on my GPS. Reading up on the University of Alaska “Galloyak” experiment, I inquired after yaks and books about them at a few local bookstores in Fairbanks, and got nowhere.
After morning coffee and exercise, Anneka and I decided to cut our losses and head south to visit our last scheduled stop – Alaska Yaks at Circle F ranch in a town called Kenny Lake. Located near Wrangell St Elias National Park, Alaska Yaks reputedly had the largest herd of yaks in the state, but once again, my calls to several numbers listed on the web site went unanswered. We drove south through a town called the North Pole, (where Phil Kaspari and other farmers were building out their new cooperative slaughterhouse), down through Delta Junction to Glenallen, and then headed east to stunning mountain views - the Chugach and the Wrangells – as the clouds lifted and the late afternoon sun poked through. Reserving a camp site at the Kenny Lake Mercantile, we ate an early dinner, played guitar, took a nap, tossed a frisbee to stretch out, and then headed down the road to locate Circle F ranch – happily, Heath Fithian had confirmed a 9 am visit with us for the following morning via a text message. As “golden hour” arrived, we found the Alaska Yak ranch, a modest operation as seen from the road, a single hairy bull yak ambling across a shady tree line toward a corral pen in the near distance. A few other yaks were ruminating under the tree copse – no humans in sight.
We met Heath the next morning just after 9:00 am – “Welcome to the Fithian farm!” he says, ambling across the fence line towards us as we get out of the van. Dressed in brown Carhartts, Merrill slip-ons, a green HH technical shirt, and a Ford Super Duty brown ball cap, Heath is welcoming, amiable, friendly, and a yak lover– the three of us connected immediately. “Could’ve hayed all night last night,” Heath says, by way of conversation starter. “Beautiful evening – went on forever. Sorry the place is a bit disorganized,” he apologizes, gesturing around at the property, which actually looks fairly well tended. I say as much, and he smiles. “Never enough time in the day,” he says. “But I was born to be a farmer, so here I am.”
We walk around the modest house and over to the main corral – and immediately run face to horns into “Chisolm,” a 1,300 pound yak bull – handsome and wooly, with an impressive rack, soulful eyes, and a decidedly friendly disposition. “He loves people,” says Heath. “I swear he’d jump right into my lap if he could.” Just behind a squeeze chute and head gate, heavily fortified, we see hay flying for a couple of smaller yaks, and then three kids emerge from the pile – Esther, Laura and Bobby – decked out in dirty farm jeans and sporting tousled hair, piercing inquisitive eyes, and shy smiles. “Meet three of our nine children,” says Heath, after introductions. “All homeschooled. We spend a lot of time here on the ranch with the yaks.” Before we know it, Heath is lifting Anneka up onto Chisolm’s giant humped back, and she beams from atop his massive frame while the giant bull yak stands in quiet attentiveness, as if carrying sapienson his back is an everyday occurrence (which Heath tells us it is.)
After an easy dismount, Anneka and the two girls slip into conversation behind us, while Heath, Bobby and I amble down the hill towards the main pasture. Like a giant hairy hovercraft, Chisolm shadows us from behind, as another big steer – a Royal named Drifter – shuffles towards us from down below, shaking off clouds of dust as he approaches. “This ain’t my first yak rodeo - do these two get along?” I ask Heath, caution in my voice. “Oh yeah,” he says. “They just get jealous when one of them isn’t being scratched as much as the other,” he explains with a smile. Boyish, compassionate, and content, Heath speaks like a man who deeply appreciates what he has, fueled by a mix of religious conviction and the gratitude of a survivor. “I made some bad decisions in my youth,” he explains to me, getting personal. “I drank too much, too many drugs, car wrecks, my body is a mess – I’m here and on a better path thanks to the grace of God.”
Circle F’s yak pasture slopes down and away into the woods, the Chugach range immediately in front of us to the east – a magisterial spectacle, only enhanced by a massive herd of yaks spread out across the fields directly in front of us. We walk and talk shop – turns out Heath manages the Circle F on behalf of his parents, who pay Heath and his second wife Sarah – “she’s beautiful inside and out!” says Laura – a modest monthly stipend to run this whole operation.. I ask after his parents, who are listed on the web site as the ranch owners. Bob, Heath’s dad, is currently working as a hard rock miner in another part of Alaska, and his absence means that Heath, his wife Sarah, and their nine homeschooled kids are managing 300 yaks on 180 acres of grass here at Alaska Yak/Circle F. Looking at the brown grass, Anneka and I ask about their scorched-looking pasture, and Heath explains the unusually hot summer and overgrazing have meant their pasture has taken a beating this summer. Given the impressive size of their yak herd, I’m not surprised. “The good news is we are also able to bale our own hay on another 300 + acres,” explains Heath. “And we use hay during these tough summer months as supplement.”
I do the math. Two adults, nine kids, 600 acres, and 300 yaks, with 30 yaks “retired” at the Mt McKinley Meats abattoir in Palmer for meat. Rumor is that every pound of ground yak from this operation goes to supply the two 49thStaterestaurants in Denali and Anchorage. “You guys supply the yak meat for 49thState Brewery, right?” I ask Heath. “Every one of our meat animals here on the ranch is already spoken for,” explains Heath, “and demand is going up. People love the yak burgers. We don’t even have any in our own freezers. It all goes out the door.” I tell him about eating one of his delicious eight ounce yak burgers in Denali two nights before. “Good, right?” he says, smiling. “Delicious,” I say. “We love it here,” he gestures again, looking around at the stunning scene - the Chugach mountains stretching into the Wrangells, the yaks, and his children. “I don’t have a retirement plan, but this time with my kids, well, I wouldn’t trade it.” His wife Sarah is currently off site, hauling via pickup truck the 4,000 gallons of water it takes to sustain the yaks through another hot summer day. Heath sees my raised eyebrows. “We go through seven x 1,000 pound round hay bales a day to get us through the winter,” he adds. “It got down to 30 below for the month of December this past year, which isn’t bad, compared with what it used to be,” with a nod towards climate change, which clearly has taken its toll on this operation.
As we walk across the pasture, Chisolm and Drifter quietly in tow, Heath and his kids regale us with yak stories, like the time Heath hopped on the back of a mama yak to ride her, and she took off at full gallop, running with a gait much smoother than any horse – “like a Lincoln Continental,” Heath says, still amazed at the retelling. “My body can’t handle riding horses for an extended period, but the yaks – they run so smoothly, even flat out.” “And they can JUMP,” says Laura. “Really high,” chimes Bobby, pointing to one six-foot fence. “We had a yak hop right over that last spring.” “What other amazing things have you seen yaks do?” I prompt. “I saw one of our yaks named Hazel stand up on her two back legs to eat leave off a tall tree branch,” says Esther shyly. “Then she used her horns to walk her way back down the tree trunk ‘til she was standing again.” I goggle at her, amazed. “I’ve never heard of a yak doing that,” I say. She nods. I believe her.
Our tour of Circle F at an end, we take our cars across the street to an ancillary pasture to meet the rest of the herd – Alaska Yak cows, calves, yearlings, and two-year olds. Here, too, the grass is heavily denuded, with trails of fresh hay scattered across the pasture, unusual for midsummer foraging, but a result of dramatic herd size increase (“good news,” says Heath) and a hot dry summer (bad news). “We dropped a bunch of square bales in here last night,” Heath says. “We could run these yaks into that pasture next door,” he says, gesturing toward a lush deep green fenced-in area, “but we need that section for haying.” Walking through the herd, playful calves and protective mamas occasionally grunting and shaking their horns at us as we pass to warn us to keep our distance, Heath and I talk more shop – daily salt supplements for the yaks, as well as regular copper and mineral’ing to ensure proper rumination and digestion. “We grow amazing high-protein grome grass here,” Heath explains scientifically, “14% higher in protein than typical pasture grass, like your fescue and clover, and one of our neighbors pioneered a cold-resistant alfalfa grass years ago, so we are fortunate enough to have it around, too.”
Yakker Heath Fithian and three of his nine children at Alaska Yak Ranch in Kenny Lake.
Coming to the end of our tour, we check in on a newborn who is having trouble with one of her hooves. “She can walk but can’t put weight on one of her legs,” says Heath, sadly. “I’m not sure what we’re gonna do about her.” The girls, meanwhile, are across the pasture, checking in on another mama and newborn, who lying down, appears lifeless in the grass. “That calf is OK, just resting,” says Heath to his kids. “Let’s leave ‘em alone,” as her mama throws us a warning grunt and a brief shake in our direction. Another cow comes close and makes a sudden feint at Heath, who throws his can of energy drink at here with a warning word, and we notice this yak is about to give birth, placental material emerging from her back side. “Why isn’t she off by herself?” asks one of the girls, all business. Heath nods, clearly wondering the same thing. “We sometime have yak mamas drop their calves right in the middle of the herd,” he muses out loud to us. “Every yak is different.” We walk back to the gate, and pose for a photo – Anneka, Heath and his three of nine happy kids –the yaks in the background, all of us bathed in the warmth of the morning sun rising over the Wrangells to our east.
During our final day’s driving back towards Anchorage, Anneka and I are both pensive, processing the morning’s Circle F experience. Is this the future of yak farming in Alaska? I wonder. A few large yak herds confined on tiny parcels of grass? I think of the Alaska Zoo’s two remaining yaks ensconced in their tiny pen, Phil and Mary 125 yak operation, Steve and Anita’s three generation 36 yak “retirement project” at Sunny Hill Ranch, and the Fithians – running what is clearly Alaska’s biggest 300 head yak herd with a family of eleven, including nine homeschooled kids who probably know more about yak behavior than any ethologist. Alaska’s fabled free-range frontier landscape could handle so many more yaks, but given Alaska’s “boom and bust” history, and its mixed yak track record, what “the last frontier” holds for the future of yakking is anyone’s guess.
“It’s great to hear from someone who is as excited about yaks as me!” reads the text message on my phone as we drive south. “Happy to meet you in Anchorage on your way out.” The message’s sender? 49th State Brewery co-founder David McCoy – responding to my query, courtesy of Jeannie at Delta Meats, and saying he’d like to yak with us at his flagship restaurant in Anchorage. Jubilant, Anneka and I spent our last afternoon packing, cleaning up our van, and blowing off some steam climbing at the Alaska Rock Gym, and then head across town to 49thState to meet David. His Anchorage restaurant bears little resemblance to its frontier roadhouse hipster sister up north in Denali – open and expansive, with two stories of giant glass windows, a massive bar, and an upstairs outdoor deck looking out towards the water. This iteration of 49th State in Anchorage is “Alaska big.” We meet David and Ellen, his welcoming PR person, in a quiet upstairs booth, having ordered a craft beer and (of course) the “world famous ½ pound yak burger.” While I wait impatiently for the burger to arrive, David – gregarious and tall, sporting a black pulled back pony tail, blue jeans and a white tee shirt under a short sleeve button down – jumps right into his yak story.
Yakking with 49th State Brewery co-founder David McCoy in Anchorage.
“We got into serving yak about ten years ago, and our goal was to create a self-perpetuating business in Alaska, so we did a lot of research on the history of raising beef here,” he explains. I mention the University of Alaska “Galloyak” disaster of a century before, and he explains that, in the 1960s, with much lower winter temperatures, Alaskan beef cattle would freeze standing up – Alaska’s quest for cold weather hearty beef, we acknowledge, has been ongoing. David met Circle F Alaska Yak Bob Fithian, who shared his emerging knowledge of yaks, and the rest, as they say, is yak history. “Ten years ago when I met Bob, I decided to jump on the yak bandwagon right away,” explains David. “It’s challenging – we’re looking for unique menu items, and when you meet ranchers trying to take care of their families and keep money here in the state, you realize you have an obligation to try and support the supply chain.” The very first processed yak pelt from a decade ago hangs in the antler room at49th State’s Denali restaurant, a hairy way to commemorate the start of their supply chain experiment. “We almost wiped out Bob’s yak herd when we put the yak burger on the menu in Denali several years ago, because our customers love it and they keep coming back.”
How difficult was it initially to convince your customers to try yak? I ask. “People came here and they had no idea what a yak is,” explains David. “We went through a lot of phases trying to get customers to eat yak – it’s been amazing seeing how hesitant people were to try it. Our customers were not used to the name ‘yak,’ they didn’t understand what the animal is, they don’t have a history of walking into the supermarket and seeing yak steaks available, so to create a self-perpetuating business, we had to find the right medium to get our customers to try yak meat.” 49thStatetried yak steaks with no success – “very expensive and it was hard to translate this to the guest experience,” David recounts, “because people are nervous to spend that much money on a ‘maybe.’” But then 49th State struck culinary pay dirt with the “yakadilla,” David says, smiling. “The US has more salsa sales than ketchup sales today – so we baked yak meat into a traditional quesadilla and it was a hit.”
The natural next move? A yak burger, he says, just as our server delivers my plate of eight ounces of grass-fed yak. I hold the giant burger up in front us in wonderment. Round 2. David says they sell between 50 and 70 grass-fed ½ pound yak burger every day in each location, as many during the winter months for locals as during the summer months for tourists. “At first, many people are shocked at the $24.99 sticker price, but then they eat it and I’ve never heard anyone complain - this should be a $50 hamburger,” explains David. “Yak is so lean, if we make the burger smaller than ½ pound, we can’t guarantee flavor at the core. Americans overcook their meat, and we’re proving that you can eat ground meat more rare than well done.”
As we talk, David becomes more animated as I ask him about his philosophy and the future of Alaska yak as a culinary industry. “We want 49th State Brewing Company to be the pride of Alaska and help sell us to the world one beer at a time,” David says. “We want to make sure we pair our award-winning beers with other local industries like Alaska yak farmers and ranchers raising such a unique animal here. Can we grow yak into a successful business and can we start exporting Alaskan yak to other places?” he asks. “This has been our goal since the beginning.” To do this successfully, David explains, requires growing the yak herd, finding more in-state partners to adopt yak all along the supply chain, and educating customers about the many benefits of yak meat. The challenges are many: a small yak herd statewide, slower weight gain per each individual animal, limited butchering facilities, cold and harsh winters, and beef industry propaganda, which has “erased” from popular consciousness the possibility of eating a grass-fed, leaner and more healthy beef than what most Americans currently find in most supermarkets and restaurants.
“I’m such a strong believer of farms and food processing locally here in Alaska, and we want to reinvest in our Alaska farmers and ranchers,” David says. “Locally grown farm-to-plate is growing as a percentage of our business model thanks to this “you are what you eat” philosophy which is catching on here,” he adds. “We now have three ranches involved in the Alaskan yak industry, up from one guy and a single yak just a few years ago – think about that!” He explains how 49thState takes a bit of a financial hit to stabilize their buying price of yak, creating incentives for more local farmers to get into the yak business. “Is Alaskan yak ever going to be at the level of the beef industry?” David wonders out loud. “It’s a dream – what I see in the future is a self-perpetuating local yak business model working with Bob Fithian, Jeannie at Delta Meats, and other yak farmers, who will find a sweet production spot where they are happy.” I ask about incentivizing future yakkers to get into the business. “The great thing for yak ranchers here is that they don’t have to run around finding a market for their yaks – we can write 10,000 - $17,000 checks at a time, and it allows yak ranchers like Bob to keep doing what he’s doing.”
You are talking about terrior, I say. Some sort of culinary ‘Alaska Mystique,’ right?” invoking the same phrase I heard Phil Kaspari use four days before outside of Delta Junction. “I’m passionate about creating a lasting legacy based on culinary experiences,” David says, smiling again. “More and more people are saying they want this kind of grassroots connection in such a beautiful place like Alaska – with animals like yaks who can be grown and raised in this challenging environment.” Where do you see all of this yakking going? I ask. The growth potential, David replies, is enormous. “Maybe it sounds like a crazy idea to be raising yaks in Alaska, and eventually have an export item, right?” David asks. “You say that, but then you look at truffles in the world, and ham coming out of Iberico, which no one else can replicate – maybe there’s gonna be a dried cured product of Alaskan yak that people in Italy are gonna be importing to serve on their charcuterie plate!” I nod, my mouth full, enjoying the last few bites of my burger. “Hundreds of years from now, I want us to look back to 2010, when we worked together to create a unique yak Alaska brand that we bring to the globe, a legacy that lasts - our locally grown food, matched with our locally brewed beer, matched with this beautiful environment,” David finishes with a flourish. “We want to yak be an extension of the Alaska Mystique - and we want to be authentic.”
Yak Podcast! Listen and watch my interview with 49th State co-founder David McCoy.
My belly full of delicious yak burger. I can’t help but getting swept up in David’s enthusiasm for yaks and his commitment to the Alaskan yak industry for the long haul - his vision for the future of yakking in Alaska is about as compelling as any I’ve heard anywhere. His use of the word “authentic” stayed with me as Anneka and I drove towards the Chugach Trailhead, in the neighborhood of Valentino and Lisa Marie, the two yaks we first met at the Alaskan Zoo. I applaud everything 49th State Brewing is doing. My Alaskan grass-fed yak burgers – two now! – have proved among the best yak dishes I’d ever eaten. I also wondered how we sapiensmight create an authentic experience for yaks on their own terms, a conversation Anneka and I have had the entire trip. Might it be possible, given Alaska’s vast size and natural resources, to create opportunities for yaks to survive and thrive here, beyond simply serving as a speciesslaughtered and served up in the service of expanding the “Alaska Mystique?”
Just beyond Alaska Yaks / Circle F ranch lies the Wrangell St Elias wilderness, which, together with three other international parks (the Yukon Territory’s Kluane National Park, Glacier Bay National Park, and British Columbia’s Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park) comprise 24 million acres – “the largest internationally protected area in the world,” according to the Wrangell St Elias visitor center exhibit, where Anneka and I visited on our way out of Kenny Lake. “The features of these sites are of such universally recognized quality,” the site explains, “that they merit the protection of all people, worldwide.” All people. And what of other species, like, yaks?
So – I present a modest proposal, a high tech, low cost, interspecies solution to “rewilding” yaks right here in Alaska. Let’s create a research partnership between the University of Alaska, 49th State Brewery, and existing and emerging yak operations, including those in the towns of Delta Junction (Kasparis), Willow (Hills), and Kenny Lake (Fithians). Assemble a sturdy Alaskan yak starter herd – say, two bulls, ten breeding cows, six yearlings, and six two-year olds – and equip each of these two dozen yaks with “nano body cams” and RFID transmitters. In making our animal selection, let’s use the same criteria yak herders have used for centuries: “100% pure, disease free; strongest bull of any of the same age; healthy – no deformities or illness; black bulls – can tolerate more cold than white or blue yak,” as explained by Pakistani yak zoologist Shakoor Ali in interviewing traditional yak herders for his book Yak: The Cryophilic Species Of Baltistan. Bring these 24 Alaska yaks together for one year on managed pasture under the close observation of trained ethologists so everyone – grunniensand sapiens- can get comfortable getting to know one other.
One year in - the moment of truth! Release this yak starter herd into the Wrangell St Elias range - “rewild” yaks back into North America on their own terms, reviving a Wilderness Park idea proposed most famously by 19thcentury US landscape painter and environmentalist George Catlin. “What a splendid contemplation too, when one (who has traveled these realms, and can duly appreciate them) imagines them as they might in future be seen (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come,” expounded Catlin in 1841, in his book Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians.“What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A Nations Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!”
Two centuries later, let’s revive Catlin’s idea – with yaks here in Alaska. Cultivate “free range” tendencies in Alaska’s yaks – for real. Bring back, as Paul Shephard would say, our “wild genome.” Rip a page or two from Mongolians and other Asian transhumant communities in nomad country, where yaks freely chase one another across pastured valleys and majestic mountains for seasons at a time on their own terms. In this way, over subsequent generations, yaks would establish a real foothold in Alaska, and we sapienswould be able study and learn from their example. Free ranging yaks here on “the last frontier.” Sure, we can continue to raise and eat grass-fed yaks – but think of this “free ranging yaks” experiment as a parallel pilot project, one that honors grunniens as a species, and demonstrates, as sapiens, our collective commitment to rewilding the planet.
On our last night in Anchorage, Anneka and I park our rented van at the Chugach mountain trailhead in anticipation of one last morning run before we leave Alaska. Lying in my sleeping bag, I close my eyes and picture the hundreds of miles of territory we’ve covered by van, by foot, and on yak back over the past week. And, as my eyes close, I imagine Alaska yaks freely roaming across the famed mountains and valleys here in the land of the Midnight Sun.