I stood over the bull caribou, honing my knife. Never mind that huge, multi-tined rack; I’d leave it in the field along with so many before, curve of antlers wide to the sky. A different trophy lay before me. At this time of year, a month before the rut, big horns and a rounded butt signaled prime meat, layered with fat—enough to top off my freezer for the fall and offer neighbors choice parts besides. The September tundra shimmered in the north wind, and bands of more caribou flowed past. I rolled up my sleeves, murmured taiku (thank you) to the bull, and began the first cuts, including nigiluk (slitting the trachea to let the soul escape)—gestures I’d learned from now-gone elders like Clarence Wood and Minnie Gray. I hoped they were enough.
Three hours later, I stood panting at my jet skiff. I’d lugged four quarters, backstraps, ribs, neck, and various smaller pieces including tongue, liver, and heart, all shielded as best I could by plastic trash bags tucked into gunnysacks lashed to an aluminum pack frame, across a half mile of tussock-riddled tundra—three round trips in all, lugging loads between 50 and 100 pounds. Ahead lay a 40-mile journey down the rock-studded Ambler River as the autumn twilight faded into stars.
I’d arrive home just after dark, then haul everything up the hill to my place, where I’d hang that meat in my shed and call it a night, though there’d still be many hours of work ahead, stretched over days: monitoring the aging process, then butchering, packaging, labeling, and freezing, and meanwhile, of course, eating and distributing pieces best enjoyed fresh.
Meat care, the real work
If living in arctic Alaska taught me anything, it’s that the hardest part of hunting isn’t what most folks might think: finding your quarry, stalking, and shooting well. The real work, and the full measure of hunting knowledge and skill, begins after the animal is down. Working cleanly above all, you’ve got to gut and skin whatever it is—bear, moose, Dall sheep, caribou—where it lies, and sever it into logical, portable chunks, a string of tasks easily done poorly and hard to execute well. Then multiple trips, often through rough country, continuing to protect each load from dirt, the animal’s own hair, leaves, and bugs, not to mention from the possibility of a passing grizzly who just might think it’s all his. Then transport that precious meat, the stuff you’ll be seeing in your freezer and tasting for a long time—home by boat, ATV, or snowmobile-drawn sled in conditions often less than ideal for its preservation. Getting it wet or too warm is a particular worry, and on the other end, fresh, hard-frozen carcasses, unavoidable more than half the year, present their own issues.
Once home, yet more work. To taste its best, meat needs to age well—always a tricky business. Ideally, hung a bit above freezing in dry conditions so that a shiny crust called a pellicle can form, sealing and protecting the meat as it ages and tenderizes. Then step back and wait for at least a week, several if the weather cooperates. Meanwhile, you need to protect your trove from an array of interlopers, including shrews, ravens, blow flies, foxes, weasels, loose sled dogs, martens…well, you get the idea. And who in this part of the world has their own temperature-regulated, pest-proof meat locker? You do the best you can and stay on it. Not uncommon for people to move entire carcasses inside their houses to protect and work on, with cardboard, blue tarps, or pieces of plywood splayed on the floor.
Then comes that butchering into manageable portions and preserving those by freezing or making jerky called panuktuk until you’re ready to eat whatever it is, weeks or months later. All said, meat care is an intensive, ongoing process, far from selecting neatly curated cuts in Styrofoam trays at the supermarket, where there’s no blood, guts, or glazed-over eyes, and a resulting separation from owning what you eat.
Respecting the animal
Consider the original purpose of the hunt—gathering necessary food. If you’ve gone through the work of lugging home a thousand pounds of moose or caribou that went sour, all that effort, plus killing for nothing, you know the true meaning of heartbreak. But meat doesn’t have to totally spoil to be a disappointment. Freezers across Alaska are full of off-tasting, rubbery, gritty, poorly cared for meat that could have been far better—doomed by inexperience, carelessness, bad luck, or neglect. I’ve witnessed outright wasteful handling of meat among sport hunters who really didn’t care about anything beyond trophy hides or horns; and from lifelong residents, including some village-born-and-raised folks, who surely should have known better. As Clarence once muttered to me, shaking his head in disgust after watching sloppy field butchering by some young Inupiaq hunters, pretty tough to eat sand.
No accident that some of the best hunters in a village, the ones who always manage to find meat, much of which they share freely, are sticklers for meticulous selection, as well as unstinting care of what they kill. Bringing back skinny or poorly handled meat is a matter of disrespect to both the animal and the land, and a public display of ineptitude in the skillset that lies at the core of The People’s being. Watching a lifelong expert perfectly, reverently skinning a beaver, caribou, or bear, as I recall elders I knew doing so many times, is a reminder of where we came from, and why we should remember.