Daazhraii

dsc05533It’s snowing, which rocks. The trail down the valley looks like bubble-wrap and jolts the snowmachine with every tussock. The snow will soften it.dsc05537We went out several weeks ago and Geoff shot a caribou: a young male. We gutted it where it fell, leaving the entrails for the wolves and foxes. We ate caribou heart for dinner at camp that night before skinning and quartering it. All that week, we cut meat after school and into the evening.

dsc05458dsc05461Camp is about fifteen miles down the trail, and we broke another fifteen two weeks ago. Only seventy more to Venetie!

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We had guests in camp the weekend before last. They didn’t visit while we were home, but the tracks were quite fresh.

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There will be a new challenge as we push down the trail this weekend. His name sounds like something between black and swan in Gwich’in – closer to swan. Daazhraii. He is a malamute/greenland dog mix, and he’s a big boy – 20.5 pounds at 11 weeks. I am smitten, and Geoff is no better. He spent last weekend cooking and freezing caribou chunks for dog treats.

dsc05603dsc05592dsc05574Bringing Daazhraii along will be tough. We’re bringing extra clothes in case of accidents, and I wish now that I’d found a light I could stick to his collar for nighttime romps. He’s an absolute sweetie and never wanders far, but I’d hate to lose sight of him out there. The fresh snow is nice though: his tracks will be obvious, and he won’t make it far, floundering along in the drifts.

Daazhraii: He snuggled up in my lap at Wright Air last weekend and showed his tummy to the world. I played with his feet and his ears and his tail and he just wriggled closer and went to sleep. He has learned to sit and come and look up when we say his name. He hasn’t mastered the bathroom, but he’s learning. The hardest thing has been leaving him for the day. I visit every hour between classes, but he still cries every time he’s left alone.

Bonus pictures:

Did you know

Did you know that salmon hearts, sizzled with butter and garlic, taste just like mussels? I learned to clean fish yesterday, and we set aside the hearts for a treat.

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Feeeeeeesh!

I’m in Soldotna right now, recovering from long nights of dipnetting. Geoff and I got a hotel room for tonight, and tonight will mark the second or third time I’ve slept in a real bed since the beginning of July, the first time since leaving Maine. I’m looking forward to sleep, but this might be my last chance to use the internet for a while, so I’d better make the most of it.

I arrived in Fairbanks two weeks ago after visiting friends in Washington. Geoff was still working, so I had some time to relax. Those days were hot and sweaty, and I spent one whole day in the Museum of the North (where they have some awesome Alaskan art, air conditioning, and some truly weird furniture made of taxidermied animal parts) and another whole day alternating between sizzling on a towel with a good book and plunging into the icy Chena River while ducks laughed at me.

Friday came. The plan was to drive down the Richardson Highway and head for the Kenai to go fishing, which is more or less what we did, though there were some snags. In absolutely typical fashion, Geoff was a little late out of the starting gate. My stuff accounts for about a tenth of the mess, and it still looked like this when I crawled into my sleeping bag at midnight.

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See Geoff. See Geoff pack. See Geoff still packing. Take a nap.

In the morning we finished packing the truck and loading the boat and stopped for the four Fs: Food (breakfast/brunch), Fuel (for the truck), Freddy’s (Fred Meyer for camp groceries) and Fill (water containers, because running water isn’t an everywhere kind of thing) and finally left Fairbanks around two in the afternoon, bound for a good camp spot south of Delta where we would meet friends bound for Dawson on a motorcycle.

I always forget until I’m in it how vast and magnificent Alaska can be.  The Richardson Highway is beautiful. It traces the pipeline from Fairbanks to Valdez, running beside the broad and braided mud of the Tanana and through wide valleys furred with spruce trees, set with jewel-blue lakes. It’s big enough to get comfortably lost on purpose, to build a campfire so far from anyone else that no one sees the smoke. We camped with friends in a quarry that first night. Their dog dragged a whole caribou leg out of the woods while we cooked a midnight dinner.

Geoff and I spent the next night camped in the rain at Quartz lake, then visited Michael, the guy who’s building the canoe, in the morning. He had the hull ready for us to look at, a flexible, lightweight form, ragged at the top. He’s making something wonderful, there. It felt good, pressing my hands to what will be my boat. August seventh is our tentative pickup date. Soon after, we’ll head for the Yukon.

After a stop for showers and laundry (it’s common, here, to see places advertising the two. Since lots of folks are traveling through and many do without running water, these are useful services), we drove out of the rain and slept at Paxson Lake under a clear sky. I walked to the shore in the blue and gold morning and sat on a bench overlooking the water. There is so little summer, here, but everything in summer so so lush and lively. I watched the clouds, the minnows, the waving fireweed. I could almost hear the blueberries bulging, the spruce needles spooling out. I speculated about what percent of Alaska is, at any given time, covered with moose poop. I thought about the coming school year. I felt guilty for sitting still in the middle of so much activity and walked back to camp to get ready to head out, singing Beatles tunes to ward off bears (I’d forgotten my bear spray like a dodo and you never know).

Farther south, we took the Glenn highway through the mountains to Wasilla, stopping so that I could get my first long look at a glacier. Matanuska Glacier impressed me profoundly. It has a presence, something very grand and stately and dangerous and fragile that got a grip on me as I perched on the ice chests in the truck, staring from an overlook. I didn’t expect to be moved so deeply, but what should one expect of a glacier? I dried a tear or two and climbed back into the cab, Wasilla-bound.

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The confluence of a blue creek with the muddy Matanuska.

“Hey Geoff, if you got the chance would you go to the moon?”
“Nope. I don’t think I would.”
“Why not?”
“It’s a wasteland! All cold and dark. And the food would be terrible.”
“Kinda like living in the arctic, huh? So isolated…”
“It’s completely different!”

It’s hard to believe we made that whole trip in a day, but we did. We picked up fishing licenses in Wasilla and learned that a fire was burning right beside the Seward highway, south of Anchorage, and that the road could close at any minute. It was nine at night but we decided to press on south.

We drove through the burning area and watched a helicopter dip water out of the ocean. Flames were visible on the cliffs above the road and smoke nearly obscured the rising moon. Still, we stopped for water at a pullout where a pipe pours clean water directly out of a rock face. “You watch for fireballs falling down the cliff while I fill the jugs, Keely.”

DSC04931We were both tired and cranky by the time we made it to the campground at nearly two in the morning, but we found a campsite and got the tent up in the end.

After that, it was a waiting game. Gillnetters fish all day at the mouth of the river, essentially blocking it off. It’s not worth the launch fee to go out when no fish are getting through, so we had to wait for the dipnet fishery to be opened for twenty-four hour access.  Our moment came and we set our alarms for 1:30 am. By 3:30 we were fishing an incoming tide in the not-quite dark of a drizzly night.

There are two ways to dipnet: some folks stand in the water up to their ribs holding long-handled nets.

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Here’s the crowd at the river’s mouth, dipnetting from shore.

Others putt along holding nets out beside their boats. When a fish hits the net, you feel a bang and haul it in. We fished from Geoff’s boat, cruising down the banks of the river all night and into the morning.

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Some very well-fed seals at dawn

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On a good day, in a good year, I hear the boats are shoulder to shoulder.

We pulled the boat out at eleven the next morning and went back to camp to sleep. That night, we put in again, this time in more serious rain. As the extra hands, I had lots of downtime through that night. I figured out I can sleep in the rain and cold tucked in among the ice chests and actionpackers if I’m in full foulies with handwarmers in my boots and a ball cap to shed the water. It was a rough night, but the morning was beautiful.

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DSC04957In all, we put the boat in four times and came home with not nearly enough fish. The run peaked early this year and the dipnetters never had a good opening. Still, I’m amazed that there’s a place in the world where you can just stick a net like that in the water, wait, and pull out a fish. We don’t do that in Maine – there just aren’t fish anymore. Anyone I know at home would be over the moon to come home with just one of the fish we brought in, even a flounder we’d have casually thrown back.

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Good company.

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Pee break.

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Camp

We’re off to Tustumena Lake for a long weekend, well-deserved. I’ll try to remember to take breaks from relaxing and soaking up the wonderful to take a few pictures.

Things that have been making me happy

1. These stories and photos from the Yukon flats. I am interviewing with a somewhat (ha!) nearby school for a position that would start in January. More on that later, if it comes to pass.

2. This package from the incomparable Becky of Westwick Dreaming who will soon be receiving something in return. Probably something strange.

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Note the marvelous lady swineherd card

3. On a related note, reading in French has made me happy. I’m finishing up with Harry Potter the first and getting ready to tackle the second.

4. Pancetta. Especially on pizza. Thank you Sean. You’re an everloving wonder.

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5. Friday ‘s sushi party at Pearl Street. Marianna doesn’t see a lot of sushi parties.

Scallop sashimi

Scallop sashimi

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6. Swift and efficient butchery of chickens that left us time to spare for laughing at this not-rubber chickenDSC010797. Trapped in the Closet chapters 1-12, which makes an appearance in my life about every five years, go figure. Maybe it can sense when I need to split my sides guffawing. Thank you for this inspiring and delightful film, R. Kelly.

8. Daydreaming about our “Holiday Residency” at the farm with Jesse and Chelsea. I’m planning to focus on video projects and eating.

9. My wonderful, comfortable kitchen in the sunshineDSC0109010. No school this week. Time to enjoy the sun and the quiet and maybe even to start on one of the thousand projects I have waiting in the wings.

this morning on the screen porch
a bird trapped in still cool shadows
impossibly whipping her insubstantial body
failing against the breathing wall.

her lover fluttered outside crying
and there were two silhouettes slamming wretched
and pointless

do I wish now for a bird’s eye view?
I wonder, could they see the screen?

I raised my arms and skirted behind her
she flew the long way round and out the door

Everything that can go wrong when you try to butcher your pigs (GRAPHIC)

Sean and I came home from school on Friday and snapped into action, cleaning the house and putting away anything we didn’t want covered in the inevitable mud and blood attendant with home butchery. We folded up the futon, tucked away the books, moved everything within three feet of the sink to a safe zone. We felt we knew how to prepare for this process. Sizzle would be the fifth pig that we had tackled, and we felt confident and experienced.

The plan:
4:00 get home, clean up, prepare the tools, and light a fire to heat water for scalding
5:00 shoot Sizzle and begin skinning her
7:00 shoot Levi and have one team work on scalding while the other finishes butchering Sizzle.
11:00 bed time.

We had some friends coming over to help, and we experienced a delay when no-one turned up until much later than we’d hoped. No big deal, there was plenty of prep to do. When Katie arrived, we were ready to go and it was getting dark, so we decided not to wait for the rest of the team, but instead to get on with the first pig of the evening.

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#1 The pig won’t die (7:00 pm)
Sizzle was Katie’s pig: she had planned with us for this moment since spring break. Sean gave her a quick primer on where and how to shoot the pig, and she did well, but instead of lying down silently at the first shot, Sizzle ran screaming. It was awful. She wouldn’t stay still enough for us to get a second shot in, and at one point she ran under the front porch for safety. “Straddle her Keely, hold her so I can get a shot!” For the record, I didn’t, but we were in the sort of agonizing panic that makes you do stupid things. Sean put three more shots in her head before she fell. When we examined the skull, we found the four shots clustered just a hair lower than they should have been. I saw Sean sobbing as he ran after her, gun in hand. When she finally dropped, I flipped her and Sean stuck her beautifully. We all took deep breaths while she bled out.

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As a team, we dragged the carcass to the hanging tree. We sprayed the carcass down and laid it out on a board to skin the hams and the belly. Things began smoothly, and I felt good about the skinning process. Belly and hams done, it was time to hang the carcass.

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#2 Equipment failure (8:30 pm)
We had a spreader bar hung by a rope over a limb on the big oak tree in the yard. We had another rope made off to a stump and the two ropes linked by a comealong. We stuck  300lb super zipties through the hocks (we used these same zipties for a much larger pig last fall) and looped the zipties over the hooks in the spreader bar. Using the comealong, we began ratcheting the carcass up to finish the skinning. At about eye-height, one of the zipties snapped and sent the skinned carcass wobbling dangerously over the dirt. We sprang into action and steadied the pig, casting suspicious eyes on the other ziptied leg. Crisis averted, we lowered the spreader bar slowly and tried again, figuring we’d just had a little bad luck with a flawed ziptie. Nope. After another ziptie failure, we strung rope loops through the hocks and got back to ratcheting the carcass into the air, satisfied that those couldn’t possibly fail. Boy we were in for it.
When the hams were at about eye-height, there was an ominous cracking noise. Sean jumped away from the comealong and cursed at the top of his lungs. The bolt that holds the whole thing together had split and jammed the mechanism. It wasn’t slipping, but we’d gotten all the lift we’d ever get out of the tool, and our pig was still resting half on its back.

We considered trying to hoist the carcass using the Nissan, but our truck was officially diagnosed with terminal rust on Friday, and we couldn’t risk ruining the transmission on our only working vehicle.

Somewhere in there our other friends showed up with no clue what they’d bargained for. We put them right to work by having them help to lift the carcass while I tightened the rope around the stump. All of their help got the carcass resting on its shoulders, and we had to settle for that.
This constituted a serious setback. We’d planned to skin the entire pig, gut it, then saw it clean down the middle, judging whether to saw through the skull or cut off the head, depending on what was easier. With the weight of the carcass resting on the head and shoulder, we couldn’t finish skinning it. Each time we made a major shift in the position of the carcass, we risked soiling the exposed flesh.

Here’s where we made an unforgiveable mistake that will haunt us for a long time.

 #3 Human Stupidity (11:00 pm)

We shot the second pig. We knew full well that we didn’t have a comealong (we’d tried calling neighbors, but no one had answered) and that we wouldn’t be able to hang the carcass. We were already exhausted, frustrated and we knew processing Levi would take some doing. It was a profoundly stupid, careless thing to do.
Sean lured Levi out of the pen with corn and she was clearly nervous. She wandered around the yard a bit, anxious, and Sean took the first good shot he could get. Levi dropped quiet after three quick shots, right behind the tree where we’d strung the first carcass. As she died, she kicked and wriggled and spattered dirt over all of the bystanders.

#4 Spiteful Porcine Sabotage (11:05 pm)

Levi’s death throes spewed clod after clod of dirt directly onto the skinned carcass hanging from the tree. I dived between the kicking hooves and the hanging flesh, trying to block the dirt with my body, and I have the bruises to prove it.

We split the group into two teams, one to focus on scalding the newly-dead pig, one to finish up the already hanging, nearly-skinned carcass. We on the skinning team soon encountered item #5.

#5 Ants (11:30 pm and ongoing)

Perhaps hosing down the carcass stirred up the hive. Whatever it was, our crew was soon hopping and swatting at clothes and shoes. The ant bites sting for long minutes, and the drop in morale that went with the pain made us realize how foolish we’d been in killing the second hog. Our friends weren’t enjoying themselves at all, and the end of the chore was a long way away. We looked at the unfinished hog hanging from the tree and the dead one lying beside the fire and suddenly felt the weight of all the work to come.

The scalding team began dipping the hog in the barrel we’d positioned on an angle over the pit-fire we’d prepared hours before. The water was good and hot and they experienced some success. It put a smile back on Sean’s face: he’d been looking forward to having some skin-on cuts for charcuterie and things finally seemed to be going his way.

I did as much skinning as I could, and I called him up to the tree for assistance with gutting and halving. DSC00777The gutting went smoothly, and the halving went well until we reached the shoulders. Here the spine curved because the weight of the carcass was still resting on the unskinned head. We tried ziptying the forelegs to our swingset, but the zipties failed (we are slow learners). We wound up bleaching the hood of the car and driving it up under the tree, then lifting the carcass onto it to finish splitting the halves and cutting away the head. DSC00793The shoulders were a little botched, but we finally had the first pig in the freezer at 1:00 am.

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#6 Scalding ain’t happenin’ y’all (1:30 am)

At first the scalding had worked: the scalding team had one shoulder and half the head scraped clean, but the water in the barrel had mostly splashed out onto the fire. They had begun heating pots on the stove, and the stove-heated water just wasn’t working. Sean was starting to have a mental breakdown, and everyone was staring off into space sort of blankly.

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We had to skin it, which was a brutal letdown, but we did it fast and we did it as a team.

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We hung the second carcass by its hocks from the swingset, and, when it came time, we drove the car up and slung it over the hood.

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We processed the whole hog in under three hours, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. We spilled some shit from the intestines all over ourselves and made a tremendous mess, but the carcass stayed surprisingly clean. Some meat had to be discarded the next day when the carcass was cut into primals, but the loss wasn’t nearly what it could have been.

I was in bed at 4:30 am and my entire body already hurt. There was mud and blood (as predicted) all over my house, and I had days of processing work ahead of me before I could sit down and blog about it all.

Thank you 7.8 times ten to the millionth to our amazing friends who came to our aid the strength of oxen and the stamina of nuclear submarines. There’s just no freaking way we would have survived Friday without you all.

Why do we do it? Why put ourselves through the pain and stress and mess and risk?
I do it to for that moment when I feel like Alanna on the roof of the world, stepping up and making decisions and pushing through the pain when everyone else is flagging around me. I do it for the challenge of solving an urgent problem that seemed impossible and devastating moments ago.  I do it because I like to eat local, antibiotic-free, happy-meat and my region doesn’t have farmers markets or co-ops or natural food stores. I do it because my partner dreams of salami and dry-cured ham. I do it because I like having pigs around for their characters and spunk and garden utility, but I don’t want to feed a three or four-hundred-pound pet. I do it because I believe I can raise and slaughter an animal more humanely than a factory can. I do it because there’s nothing more incredible than the taste of Sean’s fresh-ground bratwurst, unless it’s the breakfast sausage or spicy Italian or chorizo or just plain pork medallions, never-been-frozen, fried up in the skillet.

I’ll do it again, and I’ll do it better.

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Advice From a Not-Quite-Rookie Butcher

There’s a nip in the air today, bizarrely. At the football games these past two evenings, we’ve been grateful for the picnic quilt that’s always somehow left in the back seat. The cool night air got me to thinking of friends in Maine who are planning to butcher their own hogs for the first time very soon. We have to wait for colder nights before we tackle Levi and Sizzle, but it’s a good time to start mentally preparing.

This is the list of things we need to find, clean, sharpen and jury rig before the big day:

  1. A variety of knives
  2. A butcher’s saw
  3. A fairly level location with running water and something to hang the carcass from
  4. An indoor (bug and possum free) space to hang the halves
  5. A barrel and plenty of dry firewood
  6. A (working, ahem) vacuum sealer and plenty of bags
  7. Clean containers to sort sausage scraps and lard chunks into
  8. Trays for freezing or chilling chunks of meat and lard before grinding
  9. Plenty of freezer space
  10. A comealong
  11. A shovel
  12. Several heavy duty (200 lb+) zipties for hanging the hog.
  13. The gun

These are the things I wish we had known mistakes we made when butchering our hogs last fall. With a little preparation, this year will go much more smoothly.

  1. We usually always (we’re four for four on this) underestimate how long boiling water to scald the pig will take, especially since we use a metal barrel on an open fire, and there are a lot of variables there. It’s a lot of water, and it’s important early in the process, so give it a couple of hours. We haven’t successfully scalded and scraped either of the large hogs we’ve butchered (I suspect we haven’t gotten the water hot enough), but we’re going to try again. Sean has some particular cuts he’s hoping to get for charcuterie projects which will require that the skin be left on.
  2. I’ve twice found myself standing beside a wheelbarrow full of viscera, beating back exhaustion while chipping away at the ground with a shovel after dark. Dig a hole for unwanted guts and, if you aren’t scraping, the skin, well in advance of butchery. It’s awful doing this after dark, when you’re exhausted from manhandling a carcass, knowing that if you don’t take care of it, the coyotes will, and they’ll create a really truly disgusting mess, then eat your chickens.
  3. We once moved a 250-pound, mud-and-blood-covered hog into the pickup and then up a steep grassy hill, though our truck’s 4wd is questionable at best. If the hog is sizeable, shoot and stick it as near as possible to where you plan to hang it for evisceration.
  4. It’s hard to get the little bits of bark that inevitably fall from the tree off of the flesh and fat, so try to avoid hanging the carcass from a tree.
  5. When you halve the carcass, make sure you get a straight cut down the spine from the beginning. It’ll be hard to correct, and a botched cut will damage the loin (oh the pork chops!).
  6. Consider wearing a poncho or raincoat that can be soaped and rinsed with the hose to carry the halves to your workspace. They’re very heavy and awkward (Pinkie’s halves took three strapping farmers to shift) and you have to kind of hug them to your chest. You’ll get covered in lard, and it doesn’t wash out of winter work coats very well.
  7. I washed ground-in bits of raw fat out of the carpet once, and I hope to never do it again. If you’re butchering in your home, tape off a designated meat-free walkway through the room, and wear shoes that are easy to kick off and on for when you need to go grab the forgotten tool or hit the head or look something up on youtube. You will totally grease the area that you’re using, so plan ahead and avoid tracking chunks of flesh all over the house. Keeping the raw meat contamination zone contained did wonders for my stress level the second time we butchered.
  8. We made the mistake of packing soft chunks of lard that we couldn’t process right away into grocery bags for freezing, and that resulted in twenty-pound lardbergs that had to be thawed and refrozen before grating. As you process each half, set aside the leaf lard for pastries and cooking and the caul fat (my friend says this is delicious wrapped around cubes of liver, seasoned with herbs, and grilled, though I can’t speak to this myself), and use the rest for soap. You can grind and render it immediately or freeze it, then grate and render it later. If you freeze it, freeze smallish chunks on trays and bag them afterward.
  9. Sausage (scraps and odd bits) should be ground cold. We ground it straight off the carcass, by which point it was approaching room temperature. Grinding it at room temperature causes the fat to separate and escape during cooking, making a less-tasty, denser sausage.
  10. Don’t freak out. Everything is washable.

No matter what, in the end, you will have some of the best meat you’ve ever eaten. The process is forgiving, and even those funny-shaped raggedy cuts with a little dirt on one side are delicious. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on some chops as soon as the last bit of the last pig is in the freezer and grill them up right away. It’ll put a smile on your face.