As a hunter, I’ve come a long way since those green days of my first elk kill in the Weminuche Wilderness of Southwest Colorado. That cow didn’t just fall over after the shot from the .30/06 (they rarely do), and it wasn’t until the next morning that my buddy Dave and I stumbled upon her, in the cool shade, but belly taut with inner heat. We had the hardbound field dressing manual propped open with a rock and did the best we could. I remember the look of that straw-brown elk hide skinned out on the tundra under a flawless October sky, the aspen slopes ablaze in gold, and the blood-tipped game bags hanging solidly in the shade of the spruce. I inhaled the heady tang of the mountain vegetation ripening before winter, the rank musk from the animal now in our presence. I couldn’t shake these things from my mind: they went deeper and I’ve never been the same.
Fifteen years later, the magic of “getting lucky” is still the same, walking up on the gift of big game. The life of an animal arrested and the result at your feet, condensation of all the essences of the woods and mountains into this flesh and blood, hide and hooves. Thoughts of the miracle of this life being transferred from one being to another swirl in my mind as I check to make sure the glassy eyes twitch not.
The forest is usually extra quiet, the other animals seem to give room for this ritual of receiving, a space for us to pull the parts through. Or maybe it’s just a different kind of listening, now that the game is down and I no longer need to be sneaky.
A sigh of relief and gratitude, a swallow of regret over the unavoidable violence of it. An admiring of the animal’s coat, meaty muscles, the details of face, antlers, legs, hooves. The smell of the creature conjures some wisp of childhood for me, an empty hayloft in a sun-filled barnyard. And the feel of its dusty hollow hairs, thick for the coming winter, brings a bittersweet nostalgia for something profound though unnamable. I look around, take a deep breath: a still moment in this hectic human life.
Being a foot hunter without access to pack stock, who has never been able to roll a deer or elk into the pickup truck whole (though I’ve seen it done by others, the lucky dogs!), I’m going to remove the meat from the carcass. In so doing, I’ll both cool the meat quickly (Job #1 with any game processing) and get it into backpackable chunks. All I need is a sharp knife, the custom ram’s horn-handled beauty on my hip, with the drop-point blade of only three and a half inches.
First, I skin the hide off the side of the animal facing up, taking care around the abdomen and to not nick the skin or dull the knife by cutting too much hair in the process. Tanning my deer and elk hides gives me an appreciation for an intact hide, plus I use the soft white skin as a mat to keep the meat clean as I go. Some deer hides, especially still-warm ones, can be peeled off the meat with hardly the need for a knife, fist-punching connective tissue apart. Heat from the meat steams off, and often muscles still jiggle and quiver, a somewhat disconcerting reminder of the basic chemistry that ties us all together.
There are the lean muscular bull elks, whose fatless bodies reveal the rigors of the rut, and the dry cow elk going into winter with plenty of padding, and sometimes a cow who still dribbles milk from recently-used teats. The bucks, just gearing up for their rut, almost always have good layers of fat, the rich skunky funk of it suddenly redolent in the vicinity of the kill site. I pull the greasy white chunks from the meat, the sound like a dinner bell to the scavengers in the woods. It’s amazing that game animals can turn mountain vegetation into a surplus of pure fat. Though we remove it while home butchering because of its gamey flavor (the greasy ribs, however, have never disappointed), the fat is the true white gold for our backyard chickens; certainly our ancestors never discriminated against the rich layers between the hide and meat.
The front legs or shoulders come off easily and there is no danger of mis-cutting into the guts, but the rear leg, or ham, is a little trickier. I keep the knife from puncturing the abdomen while slicing down to the ball and socket joint and around the pelvis. With an elk, I tie the hooves back to a tree, enlist a friend, or just lean my shoulder in to keep the legs spread as I work. I envision myself, viewed from afar: a small human figure straddling the lifeless wild beast, deep in the woods with a flashing blade, a hunter in the age-old tradition of providing.
These heavy hams contain the largest muscles. I can see in my mind the packages labeled “Holiday Roast” and the mountain of ground meat on the butcher table ready for sausage spices. But now in the field they can be hard to handle for one person. I make a slit between the tendon and the ankle bone for a handhold, open the game bag all the way to plop it in, and hunchback toward the shady spot to cool the meat. Packing these hams for miles out of the deep canyons and over the pass on my back the mantra is “Baby steps…baby steps”. I remember trying to stand up with one in my backpack, not mustering enough, sure my partner was standing on my loose pack strap and pinning me down.
Wrapping the clean hide back over this side, I struggle to flip the animal over. Now I’ll repeat the skinning and leg removal on the other side. When all four legs are bagged, my shoulders and arms are fatigued, I’m sweating but psyched, a growing sense of satisfaction with each chunk of meat processed. I sit back, count my blessings, and sharpen my knife for removing the choice backstraps: long thick cords of meat nestled on either side of the spine. The tidbits left on the skeleton when the backstraps come free are a favorite appetizer for those hunters interested in a small flavor of the animal au natural. The translucent ruby flesh swims in my mouth, shooting sparks of grass and osha, ice water and iron.
By now, the life of the animal seems far away. That it was free and breathing this morning is hard to fathom. The scene has finally chummed in the birds: the gray jays especially are unafraid, staking out the kill site with inquisitive chortles and quick grabs of fat. Clark’s nutcrackers visit, attempting to add to their cache of pine nuts, and undoubtedly the ravens have circled, sensing the bounty.
The only reason to gut the animal is to retrieve the tenderloins, heart, and liver. I roll up my sleeves, keeping that blade pointed up. Going on feel, I slit the abdomen and around the diaphragm, reach up through a burst of steam and blood, fingering past the fluffy lung tissue until I can find the hose-like esophagus toward the neck. With this severed and pulled, the guts easily spill out. The rigid grey bag of the stomach, the coils of intestine, the other slippery strange organs, all seem eager for the pull of gravity: an awkward slosh, a host of new sometimes daunting smells, a few more slices to clean things out.
The liver and the heart come still hot from the body cavity. The dark liver is a floppy thick saucer, dense with nutrients; the heart, valves dripping coagulated blood, is always startling to hold in my hand in its meaty perfection. The two tenderloins are the only meat left on the underside of the spine, buttery soft cutlets, soon free and slick in my palm. Carefully removing any connective tissue, I’ll wipe these parts down with clean snow if possible, and pat dry on the outside of a game bag.
I keep a tidy field-dressing area: inedible scraps are kept contained nearby, and the guts are rolled away, discreetly covered with duff or rocks. This goes a long way toward confidence in full retrieval of useable meat without snitchings from bears, coyotes, or other meat scavengers. Leaving a human-stinky shirt with the meat is recommended; I also wrap the game bags with a spare emergency blanket. What could be stranger to a meat marauder than this crinkly foil-like material?
The pack out, usually over a few days, is one of my life’s most enjoyable efforts. The work of it can be extreme, but after a couple trips – fueled by fresh liver or heartmeat – my body grows to relish the challenge. Unlike the hunt before the kill, there is little unknown. Usually friends arrive to help and the mood is festive and reverent. These steps through the countryside are accented by the belief that the meat now in me contains the spirit of the animal: it likes to look all around, visit its old haunts, feels respect at being shown again its home landscape. In contrast, the wild animal – the dense essence of it – seems to push down, to resist in a silent forceful way this removal of its body from the homeland. Yet the hike uphill with a meat-heavy pack always somehow feels good, and does make the meat sweeter. Maybe it is a spiritual exercise, or maybe it’s just a man making meat. e