Caribou

We were walking through a regenerating burn. As we traveled through the bright, prolific fireweed, charred spruce trunks left ashy marks on our clothes. Every now and then we’d stop to pick a few blueberries, popping the tart treats into our mouths as we approached the ridge we had seen earlier that morning. It was just me and Jason, chit-chatting along, enjoying being alone in this place along Birch Creek.

Jason and I were hunting for caribou. Our expectations were fairly low, as many of the animals in this particular herd had already passed through the area. However, we had seen a few females in the morning, and those sightings buoyed our hopes.

We reached the ridge and realized we had traveled higher than the tussock clearing that was our initial goal. As Jason raised the binoculars to his eyes, he said, “Being higher is good for spotting caribou…” and in the next moment exclaimed, “…like that one!” He had seen a lone bull moving across the meadow.

Slight digression: one of Jason’s favorite endearing nicknames for me is “slug.” It’s true that I’m slower than him at almost everything, including biking, canoeing, chopping veggies, hanging laundry, etc. I’ve gamely embraced this designation and upon locating the caribou knew that I’d need to accept my slug-like nature now more than ever. I turned to Jason and said, “If you need to run to meet the caribou, don’t worry about me. We’ll find each other later.” (Update 28 Aug 18: I embrace the nickname “slug” and recognize that I am actually not that slow. Jason suggested I give myself more credit.)

Jason took off through the burn. I walked along, keeping my eyes away from the tempting blueberries and on the meadow. I hadn’t yet seen the caribou and wanted to spot it so I could have a better idea of where to walk to meet Jason.

Then I saw it. The bull was ambling along towards a ravine that was directly in front of me. I didn’t know it then, but it would walk through this forest for only three more minutes. It quickly disappeared into thicker trees and I changed my course to match its trajectory.

I heard the shot. It echoed throughout the valley, a “boom-BOOM” sound that helped me pinpoint where I might find Jason. I trudged through the brush and blackened trees, looking for an old red backpack and a blonde head. I soon saw both and slugged over. I hadn’t heard a second shot so I knew he had been successful, but I asked anyway. He led me to the other side of the ravine and stopped. I tried to see the caribou from this vantage point but couldn’t; it was too well camouflaged.

We crossed a little creek and I soon saw antlers poking up through the fireweed. For the first time I was gazing upon an animal that had been shot for its meat, to sustain me and Jason and Cole and our friends and family for the next many months. Its trunk and legs were laid gracefully upon the ground, but its head and neck were twisted around in a funny way. Even so, it was breathtakingly beautiful.

Jason moved its shoulder a little, and then more firmly, to ensure it was no longer alive. Then we started to field dress it. The whole process — opening the animal, carefully removing the organs, and slicing off the muscles — was one of the most incredible things I have ever experienced. It was just Jason and I, alone in the forest, with the creek and the fireweed and the animal. We loaded up our backs with 150 pounds of muscle, bone, and organs and walked the (thankfully short) mile-and-a-half back to our camp.

That night we ate pork chops grilled over the fire. In terms of meat in Fairbanks, it was as good as it could get: sourced from a small butcher that processed animals from the interior of Alaska. However, I had never seen this animal and wasn’t privy to how it was treated or butchered. I’ve never seen the inside of a pig or touched its hide while delicately removing the muscles in its neck. Being involved in the taking of an animal’s life so we could eat felt infinitely more meaningful than picking up a steak from the store. And there was something more: the creation of a special memory for me and Jason to share — the feeling of camaraderie, of a shared project, of a job well done.

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