Category Archives: Wild game

How to field dress a moose

Warning: Graphic photo documentary of the moose butchering process

One of my great life-skills mentors, Clarence, and me with my downed moose.

The moose is the largest extant species in the deer family. On average, an adult moose stands 1.8–2.1 m (6–7 ft) high at the shoulder. Males weigh 380–720 kg (850–1580 pounds) and females weigh 270–360 kg (600–800  pounds). Typically,  the antlers of a mature specimen are between 1.2 m (3.9 ft) and 1.5 m (4.9 ft). Behind only the  bison, the Moose is the second largest land animal in both North America and Europe (Wikipedia).

In light of the above statistics, it is not surprising that it is once the hunter’s moose is ‘on the ground’ that the real work begins! Processing 1000 pounds of animal (give or take a couple hundred pounds!) is not for the faint-hearted.

When my brother heard I was going moose hunting, he was quick to advise me that the guys he works with, who also hunt, said I should buy a ‘Dewalt Cordless Sawsall’ in order to make the butchering process easier. However, I knew that Clarence and David would view such a tool as an unnecessary frivolity, and that they would likely teach me how to do this with minimal equipment! As my friend who knows these men well confirmed, “You couldn’t find better teachers, because they will not only teach you amazing bush skills but they’ll also teach you to be tough.” Part of the requisite ‘being tough’ is doing without a lot of luxuries.

Besides Dave’s favourite ‘never-leave-home-without-one (or two)’ Gerber Exchange-a-blade saw, nothing more than a pocket knife and 13 pillow cases are required to fully dress out and process a moose in the field.

Step one: Remove the hide from the moose.

 

Start just above the tail, making sure to cut through the skin but not into the layer of sub-cutaneous fat.

Start skinning just above the tail of the moose and all the way up the back to the head between the ears. Once you have the skin off the exposed side of the animal, it is time to pull it over on to the other side. Repeat the process of skinning on the other side until you have the whole ‘cape’ removed.

Step two: Secure the moose by tying it to something steady.

Roll the moose on to his back so his legs are in the air, and tie the two front legs off  with your parachute cord (see hunting lesson one: the possibles bag) to something solid. In our case, we had one leg tied off to the quad bike and another to a small, twiggy bush. Because this is a big maneuver, I was fully involved and could not take a photo!

Step three: Cut the trachea high in the throat.

 

Dave cutting through the throat meat to remove the trachea. Note the parachute cord tied to front legs in background.

Cut through the throat muscle to get to the trachea and esophagus. Cut through both tubes to free them from the moose. They will be pulled out, along with the other gut contents, through the belly at a later stage in the process.

Step four: Retain proof of the sex.

Proof of sex: exposed penis hanging down with each testicle laying on belly.

Be careful not to lose the penis or testicles until you get the moose home, because ‘proof of sex’ is required by law if you are checked by the Conservation Officer. Cut the hair from the sex glands and expose them, laying one testicle to each hind quarter.

Step five: Open the belly.

Clarence demonstrating how to cut through the moose's belly.

Carefully cut through the belly skin, being sure not to cut any of the gut contents. Begin at the pelvis and work your way up to the rib cage. It is particularly important not to cut through the intestines. Note the tiny pocket knife in Clarence’s hand; it is the only knife I’ve ever seen him use. This is what he butchers all his chickens and turkeys with as well!

84 year old Clarence still going hard and working his way up the belly cut.

Step six: Cut through the breast bone to open up the chest cavity.

Dave hand sawing his way through the breast plate of my moose.

This is the first moment you need to get out your Gerber Exchange-a-blade-saw. Cut through the breast bone, being careful not to damage the guts inside the chest wall. Once the breast plate is completely opened, finish cutting through the belly, meeting the chest wall cut.

Step seven: Haul out the guts.

My right index finger is in the hole where my bullet when through the moose's lungs.

Taking a good grip on the trachea (I cut a small hole in the trachea just large enough to put my fingers in and get a better grip on it), begin to pull the guts out of the moose away from the chest towards the belly. You will have to cut through the diaphragm in order to get the lungs and heart through into the belly cavity. Note the blood on the side of my cheek. Put there by Dave to indicate the first part of my initiation into ‘the wolf pack’; the rest of the initiation required me to eat the some of the heart and liver!

 

Hauling out the guts is a team effort!

Clarence is cutting through the diaphragm so I can get the lungs, heart and trachea through into the belly cavity. Once complete, we then haul out all the contents from the body onto the snow.

Step eight: Cut through the pelvis and anus.

 

Dave beginning the pelvis cut for me.

Be careful not to cut through any intestine when you cut through the pelvis bone and around the anus.

 

Gutted moose held open for quick cooling.

Because it was nearing dark at this stage, we took the heart, liver and tenderloins back to camp, and I had the first taste of my moose that very night!

 

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Filed under Animal issues, Butchering, Educational, Gathering from the wild, How to..., Hunting, Moose, Wild game

Searching for that 1%

My moose all opened up for cooling.

“What you’re looking for is 1% of a moose,” Dave said softly to me as we followed some fresh tracks in the snow, “You’re not going to see 99% of him.” Then slowly bringing his hand up through the air between us, he motioned delicately through the air as if caressing part of the woman he loves, whispering, “You’ll see a leg…”. That example clearly outlined, he shifted his body posture completely to prepare for the next example. He stood up tall, arched his neck and head the way a horse does just before it is going to strike out at you, and brought his hand to his face before placing his index finger down the length of his nose. “You’ll just see the tip of his nose…”, he growled, and his face loomed over me while his body squared off with mine in an aggressive stance. Maintaining that pose, he brought his other hand up to the side of his head, placed his thumb in his ear,  before extending his arm to its limit, whispered, “Or an antler,” and for a brief moment he was a moose. Then, softening, he turned and pointed at a patch of willow brush, his hand tracing a half moon through the air: “Or, you might just see his butt.”

There was a pause in the lesson. I could see he was lost in the memories of various hunting trips past where moments he’d just described had unfolded before him time and time again. This is what makes David a good teacher: not only is he a very experienced man, but also he has a minutely accurate recall of events, and uses them to punctuate his lessons. Suddenly back in the moment, he looked directly at me and his eyes drilled through my mind, riveting the moral of the lesson on the back of my brain: “What you’re not going to see is a whole moose.”

He couldn’t have been more wrong. But the point he was making will stay with me, as will this next lesson. It was the morning of the big day and he was revisiting things he’d said several times before. “I can’t stress this enough Kristeva,” he said. Then, he contextualized the lesson by footnoting the pedigree of this knowledge: “My dad always stressed this to me and so I’m going to stress it to you.” I was struck, once again, by the fact that Dave was referencing his father as he often did when teaching me something, and that his father (Clarence) often referenced to his own father also when teaching me something. This family is steeped in a tradition of oral teaching and thus, a lot of this knowledge must stretch back hundreds of years.

Like his father before him (and I suspect his father before him!), Dave never just says something with his mouth. Instead, his whole body has a role to play in the sharing of information. The more important he deems the information, the more body parts are engaged in the dictum. He leaned towards me and his right shoulder grazed my left one. “The hunt is not over until you’re back in camp,” and his hands became quad bikes moving along imaginary trails and parking in front of the cabin. “And your gun is hung up,” — hands, no longer quad bikes, were daintily gliding through the air as if hanging women’s lingerie rather than a gun-strap!

“I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it… you know, guys on their way back to camp…” his hands came up to squeeze down hard on the imaginary throttle before me, “buzzing home as fast as they can like the hunt is over… you know, just because they’ve turned back towards home.” The look of disgust washed across his face as he pointed to the imaginary hunting camp that ‘those guys’ were rushing back to. He was stressing how we should come home as slowly and attentively as we head out. He implored me regularly to be vigilant at all times, especially when entering a draw or coming up to a meadow. “You can’t move slow enough when hunting,” he insisted. He then went on to describe several different occasions where he’d seen moose, or deer, or whatever it was he was hunting at the time, on the way back to camp when he’d thought the day was over. “One time, I was here,” he said pointing to the meat pole hanging in front of the cabin, “butchering out a moose when I heard a shot go off, right there!” He  butchered and imaginary moose then turned to look towards where the shot had gone off. “I tell you Kristeva,” he  paused and laughed,  recalling the incident, “it scared the living daylights out of me that shot was so close… but I immediately knew it was dad.” His dad had been on his way back to camp on foot and, meters from the camp, seen a big buck deer standing on the other side of the cabin from where Dave was butchering. Dave’s smile disappeared and his stern look returned to his face: “And you know, he made his point.”

Pre-hunt lessons over, we struck out for the day — and it was a glorious one to boot. This was a nice change from the several days of the worst conditions Dave had ever seen in his 42 years of hunting in the area! Yes, I even braved those days (though more for the experience of driving the quad than looking for moose). “The animals will all holed up in this weather,” Dave yelled over the incessant drone of the rain, “But we can break trail!” And break trail we did. For two days solid we climbed hills and plunged through meadows and even very nearly got stuck in a bog that should have been iced over by this time of year. That was the first time I’d ever seen a mole. Dave was ahead of me as we came to the bog. I watched with horror as he entered the meadow ahead of me and his bike broke through the ice before beginning to sink. He increased his throttle until his tires spun and the bike lurched forward out of danger, but as the tires spun, they spat a wee mole out of its shelter and onto the ice. I watched, fascinated, as it scurried across the path in front of me and disappeared a few meters away into another one of its snow-covered tunnels. Though it was not all that cold, the heavy rain and sleet made the going tough. On those days in particular, it was nice to see the smoke from the cabin billowing up to the sky as we crept our way back home. Today was a different story.

Though today was glorious, we were still breaking trail. While we made our way from the cabin at our usual ‘top speed’, me in the lead, I was mindful of all that he had taught me. “I see you’re practicing,” he said, maneuvering his quad beside mine. He smiled as he reached into his breast pocket for his tobacco before rolling a cigarette. Wherever we stopped, impromptu wilderness classrooms were erected and his stories enlivened each new lesson — his smoke breaks became signals that class was in session! This time, instead of waiting to hear what he had to tell me, I took the opportunity to get an answer to a tiny detail from one of his stories that had caught my attention but had  gone unanswered, until now.

“Last year, you told me that when you shoot a moose you always wait for twenty minutes before going after him… Why?”

“Oh, OK. You need to know this.”

He paused, finished rolling the cigarette, lit it, and took one long drag before answering. “If you take off after a moose once you’ve shot it… you’ll be running for miles.” He took another drag on his cigarette and the smoke billowed up around his face as he completed the lesson through his exhalation. “But if you wait…” he said matter-of-factly, “he’ll just go over there and lay down and not get up again.”

One of the bikes started to act up so we headed home a bit early so Dave could take a look at it. I made a sandwich while he fiddled with the bike. “I wanna go out and just give it a test drive before tomorrow,” he said, pointing towards my bike and gesturing that I should ‘start it up’. There was still a lot of hunting time left in the day and he was sure to emphasize that detail before we left. We headed out on the trail we’d been on earlier. “This trail is dated now,” he explained, referring to the fact that we knew when it was cut and that there had been no tracks on it at that time. So, if we cut tracks now, we’d know they were fresh. The bike was running smoothly and it was now time to head home. I took the lead again and puttered quietly along the meadow looking from side to side for that 1% of a moose. My eyes scanned the foreground and plumbed the depths of the forest, but encountered nothing.

We were getting close to camp again and I could feel disappointment rising. Trying to lift my spirits, I reminded myself of David’s lesson to me that was passed down from his father to him, “The hunt is not over until it is over.” I kept repeating it to myself as we crept our way homeward. One might say that the mantra paid off, because as I turned a corner and inched into an open meadow, suddenly, there it was — 99% of a moose. Jesus God, there he is! I got off the quad quickly and quietly, and kept myself small beside the bike hoping the moose wouldn’t notice any change.  He’d obviously not been spooked by the sound of the approaching bike. I reached into my pocket and got two cartridges out and loaded them into my gun. I winced as they clicked into place worried that the unnatural noise might spook the moose (Dave had warned me about that too). The sound of my bolt action got his attention and his head came up from the willow brush he been ruminating over, but it was too late. Now on one knee with the moose’s chest in my sights, I pulled the trigger. The moose flinched, but I wasn’t sure if it was from the sound of the gun or if I’d actually gotten him. “Again!” Dave directed, bringing me back to the task at hand. I reloaded, aimed at the now moving target and fired. This time he stumbled and it was obvious he’d been shot. He disappeared into the bush and it was all I could to not to take off running after him. “You did it hun!” Dave cheered as he grabbed me up into a bear hug before kissing the side of my hat-covered forehead. “Isn’t this exciting?” Indeed it was.

Not one to let an opportunity to prove a point, Dave held forth while waiting out the requisite twenty minutes before tracking him down. “Well, this didn’t quite go as I said it would… but I was right about one thing,” he said, and reached into his pocket for his tobacco pouch: “I told you that you wouldn’t see a whole moose.” Before proceeding with the explanation, he opened up a zig-zag rolling paper and stuffed it full of his tobacco. “Well you didn’t,” he continued, pausing to bring the rolling paper to his lips then lick and seal it. He stuck the freshly made cigarette into the corner of his mouth and held it there with the side of his lips, setting the stage: “You only saw 99% of the moose,” he declared, taking a deep drag on his smoke and savoring both the moment and the smokey flavour. Then, eyes twinkling, he stuck one leg out and pointed at his boot: “His toes were buried in the snow.”

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Filed under Animal issues, Educational, Hunting, Moose, personal food sovereignty, Wild game

Getting cold feet

CoffepotfireIMGP3144

The tin holding the water is Clarence's billy can from his time in WWII!

One of the things that most terrified me about going hunting  (apart from getting lost!) was getting cold. I hate being cold and what is worse, I get cold quite easily — much more easily than David, my hunting partner (who I would swear could stand barefooted in sub-freezing temperatures smoking a cigarette and puzzling over the fact that I’m shivering).

This, coupled with the fact that he and his family are serious hunters who will tolerate the worst of conditions, had me quite concerned about my ability to keep up. “Those guys are successful because they work hard at it and are willing to do whatever it takes,” a friend who knows them well warned me. “I’m just no longer willing to work that hard,” he confessed and then added, “For example, David thinks nothing of heading out after dark to return to a downed moose miles from camp and spending the night out there processing the meat.”

The thought of spending the night on the side of a grizzly bear infested mountain with a fresh kill on the ground was a bit beyond my comfort level. I wanted to have a ‘nice’ time and the thought of what he might put me through in order to ‘be successful’ had me quite terrified. As it happened, last year the above scenario did unfold exactly as my friend had described. Luckily I had the excuse of having to return home and tend to my animals that night and, when I declined his offer seeing the moose butchering process by mag-light, I could tell that David was not impressed. He’s a hard man (or at least that’s what I thought then).

This fear of having to face all possible scenarios, coupled with my worry about not ‘cutting the mustard’, were the main reasons I spent last hunting season with David’s father, Clarence.  At the tender age of 83, he had finally slowed down — and softened just enough — for me to feel confident enough to ask him to teach me how to hunt. This year however I was more determined to get out there and really experience ‘the bush’, so I mustered up enough courage to head out with the ‘Jr. Edition’. I worked hard to convince myself that I was now brave enough to face any such scenario that might unfold — even if that meant spending the night on the side of a mountain gutting moose while holding a mag-light between my teeth.

Our first day out together I knew we’d be testing both our friendship and our tolerance for each other: it would be the making or breaking of the deal. David is not one to mince words or candy coat things to make you feel good. If you weren’t up to a task he’d let you know and he wouldn’t worry about whether or not he’d hurt your feelings. Facts are facts, period — and there’s no sense taking it personally. As fate and poetic irony would have it, the day was bitterly cold and it was snowing heavily. “I’m a bit worried about my boots,” I said tentatively as we were getting ready to leave. He turned and paused at the door long enough to say, “We’ll know soon whether they are any good,” and then he hoisted his rifle down off its nail in the cabin, slung it over his neck so it rested against his chest, and walked out the door signaling it was time to leave and the end of the discussion.

Not only was it my first day out with David; it was also my first time driving a quad-bike through mountain terrain. Until this point, my only experience with a quad-bike was harrowing the arena where I kept my horse and driving one between my ‘front forty’ that we’d been clearing and the woodshed, most of the distance being paved road. The temperatures had dropped significantly overnight which affected our equipment: the quad-bikes’ rear brakes were frozen and we couldn’t move either of them. It took some time and some monkeying around to get their wheels free, but we were soon on our way. It was cold and snowing as we headed down the trail.

We worked our way through the woods and into an open meadow before heading up an old logging slash to a bench with wonderful views of where we’d come from. “This is as good a place as any to spot moose,” he told me in hushed tones before providing colorful examples of ‘moose spottings of hunting trips past’. He is a grand orator and  is continuously describing scenarios he’d been up against or experienced at each spot we came to. After reciting a charming story about  a moose and her calf that he’d seen in this very spot years before — replete with sound effects and hand gestures — the task at hand and teacher in him suddenly took over:

“Now, has dad had you practicing loading your rifle and dry firing?”

“A little bit, but I haven’t done any of that since last year.”

“Well, that’s what we’re going to do then.”

I followed his instructions: load the rifle, pretend to ‘spot’ a moose, get into position, and ‘fire’. “Again,” he motioned silently with his hands. We spent the better part of an hour doing this, him scouting for moose while I practiced shooting them. “Even as seasoned and experienced as dad and I are, we still do this… It helps keep you fresh.” When he sees animals he can’t shoot (like a cow moose or a herd of doe deers) he’ll study them and practice dry firing on them. “You can’t do that enough,” he said turning back to where we’d parked the bikes. It was then that I noticed my feet were ice cold.

“Before Judy got her first animal I made her do this for over an hour on a herd of caribou that came through our camp… She was mad at me at the time, but she got her first animal that trip.” His face was stern as he described teaching his wife to hunt. In fact, his face is generally stern. Hunting is serious business and you take it as such. It is not something you do two weeks per year; it is a way of life for him. It was this fact and his stern look that made me nervous last year and hesitant to admit to having cold feet now.

So much so that I was considering suffering through the day as is. Suck it up Princess, you’ll live. He was about to start his quad when I mentioned my feet and almost held my breath in anticipation of his reaction. He immediately took his hand off the starter button, got off the quad, and, face softening, said, “That’s no good. You can’t hunt well when all you can think about is how cold your feet are… Let’s light a fire and get them warmed up.” Well that was easier than I thought it would be.

And so began my first how-to-light-a-fire-with-nothing-around lesson. He gathered enough material and had it lit in seconds. In fact, it was up and roaring so fast that I missed the actual ‘how to’ part. When I said this to him he looked up at me, saying gently, “Don’t be afraid to ask me to do it again.”

DavesFireIMGP3143

Dave takes the time to make a fire, coffee, toast a sandwich and let me warm my feet.

Thankfully, I brought another pair of ‘back up boots’ and a change of socks. While tending to my cold tootsies, Dave busied himself with coffee break preparations. Already famished, I got out my sandwich. He motioned towards the grill, then said of the corner of his mouth that wasn’t holding the cigarette, “Toast it on the fire… That ham and cheese will be great warmed up and melting. Um-hum.” And so it was.

With feet securely placed in warm boots, I was now ready to go. We headed west along the trail away from our fire spot and it was not long before we cut our first moose track, then a second. It was this second set of tracks that got Dave excited: “That is more like it… see how he’s dragging his feet heavily?” he said pointing to the tracks in the snow.  “Cow moose tend to be like ladies, you know, they go more daintily through the world,” he explained as his hand came up in front of my eyes, fingers pointing downward, walking them daintily through the air. Then suddenly, he stepped heavily  through the snow out in front of me and rocked side to side exaggeratedly: “The bulls are more like us males.” He turned on his heel to head back towards me in the same aggressive manner,  declaring, “We kind of stomp our way through life, heavy like.” Gender distinctiveness demonstration over, he pointed down at the tracks,  and as an afterthought added, “Plus, these are more the size of a bull!”

A little distance beyond the second track we turned south along another trail, this one much more difficult going than the first. The moose track did not cut this trail, “Well, we know he’s still out there somewhere,” he said pointing to the northeast. So, we now knew where he wasn’t on two sides. “We’ll triangulate and box him in,” Dave said explaining that we’d head northeast back towards the original trail where we’d first seen this print. Several hours later we were back on our original trail and near our fire spot. “Well hun, he’s not come out of there… Now we’ve got him boxed in… He’ll be there for the night.”

It was nearing dark and getting cold. Back at our fire spot, this time I lit the fire.  “You can’t shoot now, but you can practice some more.” Once again, Dave made coffee while I went back to my stump and practiced spotting and firing on imaginary moose. Bellies warmed by the coffee, we fired up the quads and meandered our way back to camp in the dark. If he had told me we’d be staying out till dark before we left, I would have had ‘cold feet’ about heading out. Reflecting on this, I marveled at the fact that I was warm, comfortable in the dark and completely at peace in the moment. Not once had I been scared all day. It was a nice feeling.

As we neared camp David stopped the quad and signaled that I should pull up beside him. He lit a smoke before turning to me, murmuring, “Now, ain’t that a welcome sight?” nodding through the trees towards the dimly lit cabin. Smoke was billowing from the chimney and the light was beckoning us home to its warm glow. Indeed it was a welcoming ‘site’.

Clarence was relieved to see us and let us know he’d been worried once it got dark. He scolded David for keeping me out that late. I chuckled to myself as I watched the 84 year old patriarch of the family reprimand his 57 year old son for keeping me out after dark. He thought he would scare me and turn me off hunting and that he should take it more easily on me. I felt cared for and protected, like I was part of the family. I also realised that I’d graduated from being scared of the idea of hunting, to being thrilled by it.

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Filed under Animal issues, Gathering from the wild, Hunting, Wild game