On a late-evening drive to the Eagle River Nature Center one expects to see a moose or a bear—but never a yak.
The English word “yak” derives from the Tibetan “gyag,” (which actually refers to the male of the species), and the females are called “naks.” So, a male and female twosome might be called a “yak” and a “nak.”
But I digress:
On the hillside a few dozen feet from the highway stood a worried-looking man with a lasso, and two others with herding sticks. A bulky black creature lumbered in front of them. It glanced at our our Honda as we passed, and I asked my wife, “Did you just see that?”
“What was it?”
“I think it was a yak!” I said.
We continued on to the Nature Center, but upon our return trip, indeed, the yak was back in our chat. The drovers were herding the majestic black yak in our lane. The bovine nonchalantly moseyed, his dense hair hanging beneath his belly, waving in the breeze like a skirt of ebony corn silk. His cloven hooves clumped carelessly, with no apparent destination in mind. As cars began lining up behind us, the yak halted to study our intentions for an instant, then resumed his plodding pace.
The yak’s ears were smaller than cattle, and his thick tail looked like it should be attached to the rump of a horse, rather than a bovine. Two 18-inch horns jutted from either side of the yak’s forehead, curving forward, and his head swayed to and fro as he walked. His short neck and a bulging shoulder hump might have produced a threatening mystique, but his deep brown eyes expressed only a gentle, mounting confusion instead:
Was he supposed to continue down Eagle River Road, or should he break for the trees? And, how did he end up so far from home, anyway?
My wife and I had questions too, so as the yak drovers waved us by, we asked one who was directing traffic how a Tibetan yak ended up on an Alaska road through the back country.
He said that his neighbors were raising five yaks along Eagle River Road—this male and four pretty naks.
“A grizzly stalked the herd tonight, and the bull bolted through the fence! He ran away, and left his four females to fend for themselves.”
He said it laughing — but he was obviously embarrassed over the example the yak set for males of all species. He gestured toward a yak paddock hidden somewhere beyond a wall of brush and birches, and we wished him luck as we drove away.
In my rear-view mirror I watched scaredy-yak suddenly lunge toward thick alders—his shepherds hot on his cloven heels.