Bush life

Working by the light of a headlamp, Miki skins out the Collins’s 2016 moose. 

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — Last September, after we waited all morning in a chilly rain for a bull moose to emerge from a knee-deep swamp, the massive beast finally cooperated and we knocked him down on solid ground. Unfortunately, despite two well-placed bullets, he lurched to his feet for a few seconds, backtracking the way he came before dropping for good across 50 yards of water.

As I watched my sister Miki wade through chest-high grass, sinking in muck and falling into hip-deep holes to claim our winter’s meat, I had the sarcastic thought that seems a recurring theme in our rowdy Bush life: “Well, this is gonna be fun!”

The moose luckily crossed over the deepest, muckiest water and crashed down in an ankle-deep swamp with a bottom of short grass and soft silt instead of deep, rotting vegetation and submerged stumps. However, he was too far from timber to winch him ashore, and the nearby fingerling willows wouldn’t anchor a hand winch even if we tied a bunch together.

The stagnant water would soon be churned up with mud and blood. We were anxious to keep the meat clean and dry, but it would take careful work to accomplish that. Although the task looked intimidating, other factors played in our favor. For one, the moose lay only 300 yards from home and could be accessed without crossing the deep swamp. Our canoe could travel half that distance, and the remaining trek through loose brush was mostly on firm ground, making it easy to scamper home for extra tools and rope.

The eager help of three friends made our struggle vastly easier, with Coup and Julia performing the heavy work while our energetic neighbor, Carol, scurried busily back and forth carrying equipment, buckets, bags and scraps. We’d butchered moose in tough spots before and had learned a few tricks to cope with the difficulty.

In mucky ground we usually lay down a board to offer a solid working surface, but this water was too deep. Instead, we rested the plywood across three buckets as a table for knives and razor blades, the jig saw for cutting ribs, and the drill for making holes in the bone through which we could tie toggles. The antlers served as a rack for saws, cord, game bags and the rain coats that we shed as the drizzle tapered off and a squinty sun peered through the shredding clouds.

Instead of the usual assortment of poly bags, a half-dozen five-gallon buckets stood in the water to accept edible organs, scraps and guts. Two more buckets contained blood scooped from the gut cavity, destined for the dog pot to feed the sled dogs, which reduced the quantity spilled in the work area.

We prefer to lay the quarters of meat on moose hide or a tarp to keep them clean and dry, but that wasn’t an option in the sloppy ankle-deep water. Our greatest asset was the tall-sided black plastic sled that we call a tote sled because it neatly holds two big plastic totes. Floating it on the grassy water, we could shove it against the moose’s back before lifting and cutting away the top two legs and rolling them directly into the waterproof sled to keep the meat dry. Tying three-inch toggles cut from green sticks to each piece before lifting provided us with easy handles that gave us better control over the 100-pound chunks, ensuring that they didn’t topple sideways into the muck.

Coup stood ready to hoist each heavy piece from the sled to his shoulders, packing them the short distance to the river and transferring them from his backpack to the canoe, and again at home to another sled on the beach. Our shaggy Icelandic horse, Mr. B., cheerfully pulled the heavy loads to the meat shed, where we used toggles, winches, and Coup and Julia’s muscles to hang the meat.

The more we peeled off moose parts, the closer to the water we had to work. With the skin mostly intact, the meat remained protected from swamp water, but eventually we had to commit to the final cuts through the spine. We sawed through the backbone behind the ribs and in front of the pelvis to remove the loin with its luscious meat and peeled the hunk away from the hide before carefully removing the pelvis and hind leg. Anticipating using the antlers for trapline bait, we chose the easy way to remove the head, sawing off one wide palm before leveraging the tines on the other palm as we cut through the neck. The head was moved off to the side, forehead down to safely elevate the jaw which housed the tongue, a choice cut that we always enjoy.

Flipping the body to remove the last two legs wasn’t an option, so instead we awkwardly cut the backbone from the lower ribcage. Finally we gathered to leverage the ribs and final front leg, still joined in one massive piece, into the tote sled, letting the filthy water drain from the thick hair as we removed the ribs. While the crew transferred the last meat home, I sliced open the jaw and carefully extracted the meaty tongue.

With the final load of meat hung, we turned our attention to salvaging the offal for trapline bait. For the first time in years we would have been willing to abandon the hooves, head and guts in the field because the early date combined with warm fall weather meant these treasures would be fly-blown before freeze-up, making them less desirable even for bait. However, we left absolutely nothing on the site because its proximity to home meant the dogs would scavenge anything left there.

Despite the challenging situation, with plenty of help our job played out smoothly, and with pleasure and relief we had the winter’s meat secure.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.