From left, Emerald Ferguson, Larry Lewis and Steve Meadows flip a moose carcass as they prepare to carve the flesh away from its left side.
Photo by Patrice Kohl
A group of teens toiled away at a moose carcass near Bear Creek on Saturday, stopped between cuttings to warm their hands in the cow’s steaming flesh.
The teens had really lucked out. The skies had cleared and the weather was unseasonably warm, but still cold enough to cool a skinned carcass quickly and prevent their bounty from spoiling.
At about 9:30 a.m., the six teens gathered under drizzly skies at Kenai Alternative High School to accompany a moose hunt and learn hands-on how to field dress a moose, an animal that can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.
The teens’ educational hunt began the day before in a class about moose, moose hunting and field dressing, and will continue in the weeks ahead when they learn to process the meat and reassemble its skeleton.
“They’re learning about the muscle structure of these animals, the way they’re put together and the internal organs...so it’s kind of a biology and anatomy class as well. There’s a lot of science involved,” said Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “They’re not actually pulling the trigger. They’re not handling any firearms, but they’re there from start to finish on this whole deal. All the way up to cooking it for their families.”
Although moose hunting season ended in September, the Kenai Peninsula chapter of Safari Club International secured a cultural and educational hunting permit for charter member Joe Hardy, and along with help from the high school, the 4-H club and Fish and Game, made the educational hunt possible.
After everyone gathered Saturday morning, Hardy and Lewis led the hunt into the Bear Creek area in a truck with the teens following in a van. Even as the van followed Hardy and Lewis in search of moose, the driver, Kenai Alternative teacher Vickie Roney, continued discussions about moose from the day before.
She noted that moose legs, for example, are like bird legs. Their spindly legs expose very little flesh to the cold, allowing the moose to conserve heat efficiently, a valuable trait in an animal that spends hours standing in cold water.
Less than 30 minutes into the drive, Hardy and Lewis slowed to a stop. A cow stood deep within the trees on the right side of the road. Everyone leaned excitedly toward the passenger’s side of the van until someone spotted a calf. The educational permit would allow Hardy to kill a cow, but only if it did not have a calf. As the search for moose continued, Cody Espey, 17, of Soldotna, and Emerald Ferguson, 17, of Nikiski, slapped their fists into their palms in a game of rock-paper-scissors to see who would take home the moose’s heart.
“(It) makes the best gravy ever,” Ferguson said, explaining why the heart was so desirable.
By 10:30 a.m., the truck stopped again and this time there were three cows. Hardy and Lewis stepped out of the truck, slowly approached the animals and watched carefully to ensure there where no calves. Hardy then lifted his rifle, fired one shot and disappeared into the trees, followed by Lewis. A few minutes later Lewis and Hardy reemerged.
“Now the work begins,” Lewis announced. “It’s far enough that you’ll get a workout.”
A peek into the moose's mouth reveals clusters of papillae, nipple-like projections found along the inside of the moose's cheeks.
Photo by Patrice Kohl
The teens followed Lewis and Hardy to the moose, stretched out on its left side in the lumpy muskeg terrain.
As soon as they were given the go-ahead the teens cut into the moose, starting at its lower neck and working their way down to its rear. Then, using knives to cut the connective tissue between the skin and muscle, they slowly peeled the hide away from its neck, shoulders and back like a rind from an orange.
As the peeling continued, Ferguson drew out a knife that had belonged to his grandfather and started to cut away at the skin on the moose’s right rear leg. His grandfather had skinned three moose with it and now Ferguson would use it to skin his first.
Lewis and Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Jeff Selinger took turns fumbling around in the cow’s mouth, inspecting its teeth and trying to gauge its age. Selinger estimated the cow was between 8 and 10 years old and explained that the wear on a moose’s teeth can be used as an indication of how old it is.
Steve Meadows, 17, of Soldotna, stood back to admire the moose carcass and, with a blood-stained hand, pulled out his cell phone an called up a friend.
“It’s pretty sick,” he said. “Dude, it’s a fatty.”
Meadows later defined “sick” as a good thing.
The dissection gradually revealed more and more of the moose’s organs and everyone got the chance to explore a bit of its anatomy.
“It’s smooth. It’s like a covered slinky,” said Nathan Lefevre, 17, of Kenai, as he probed the inside of its esophagus with his fingers.
Meadows squatted in front of the moose and poked its droopy nose.
“Whoa, I thought it would be hard, but it’s like nothing,” he said.
As the field dressing continued Lewis and Selinger offered regular reminders on how to handle the carcass so that the meat would be well preserved.
For example, it’s important not to puncture the gut sack and to keep hair off of the meat. Hair is often what gives wild meat a gamy taste. And puncturing the gut sack? Well, Selinger likened it to using the bathroom without washing your hands and then making a hamburger.
About two hours into the field-dressing process the gut sack began to swell with gases from beneath the rib cage and looked as though it might bust.
Zachary Truesdell, 14, of Soldotna, thumped his foot against it like a drum.
Selinger assured everyone the gut would not bust and explained that the moose’s stomach flora, the bacteria and insects that help the moose digest food, were continuing to break down food as if the moose were still alive to expel the gases they produce.
“It’s still cooking away in there,” he said.
Selinger stood over the carcass, now being stripped of flesh on its left side, and looked pleased.
“This makes me hungry,” he said.
“Me too,” Lewis replied as he helped cut meat away from the neck and prepared to sever the head from the body.
“Nothing makes me hungrier than cutting meat.”
When finally the last pieces of meat and skeleton where being carried away, Selinger opened the gut sack, excavated for organs and inspected them for signs of sickness. As he fingered the moose’s lungs Selinger discovered hydatid cysts.
Each cyst contains thousands of immature tapeworms which can be passed onto wolves when they prey on moose.
The tapeworms mature inside of wolves and produce eggs. The wolves then excrete the eggs in their feces onto grasses and shrubs, and when moose eat the contaminated vegetation the whole parasitic cycle starts all over again.
Selinger said it is not uncommon for moose to carry hydatid cysts, and that they can severely impair a moose’s ability to breath if they develop too many of them.
Within four and a half hours of the moose’s death the teens had cut up and carted away every bone and edible piece of flesh.
“It teaches people not to waste stuff,” Truesdell said about the educational hunt.
“These kids did a really good job,” Lewis said. “There’s really no wrong way of doing this as long as nothing is wasted.”
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