Moose hunting class teaches students about food

NIKISKI, Alaska – Before the sun rose on November 11, 10 students from Nikiski Middle & High School had gathered with their teacher, Jesse Bjorkman, in the parking lot of a gas station here in this small community in the Kenai Peninsula – to prepare for a moose hunt.

Scattered among five vehicles, the group traveled about 10 miles to Nikiski Escape Route, a gravel road connecting Nikiski with the town of Kenai. Slowly descending the snow-covered road, the students scanned each side of the cars, scanning the edge of spruce forests for moose.

Within five minutes, they had spotted one, but moved on after seeing a calf nearby. Ten minutes later, the students spotted another moose, but left after realizing it was on tribal land. Mr Bjorkman reminded the group that “even in a hunt if we don’t get an animal it is always a success”. But within 45 minutes, around 8:50 a.m., the group found a third moose, basking in a pile of snow under a spruce tree.

When his college students gave him the green light, Mr. Bjorkman set up his rifle and fired a shot. It was a fatal blow to the cow moose of about 950 pounds. The students gasped at the sound of the gunshot, then laughed in excitement. The moose jumped and sprinted a few hundred feet deeper into the woods before falling into a clearing.

It was the first time Rex Wittmer, 12, had hunted moose.

“To be a precious part of society is to learn to do what people have done before you – to keep the tradition alive,” he said. “Hunting should not go away. It has been part of our culture for many, many years. I feel like coming here was a good opportunity to keep this tradition alive.

Rex and the rest of Nikiski’s students are part of their school’s Outdoor Exploration class, a course dedicated to teaching an expanded version of the Hunter Education Program of the Department of Fish and Game of Alaska. They study basic hunting techniques and protocols, wildlife ecology and habitat, and outdoor survival and safety, including Alaska-specific risks like drowning and avalanches. Mr Bjorkman said students in the program, who choose whether or not to participate in moose hunting, learn firsthand where their food comes from.

After the moose fell, the students stayed put as Mr. Bjorkman slowly walked towards the animal. As soon as he determined the moose was dead, the teacher guided the students to the slaughter, asking them what to look for when stalking an animal.

The students – initially shy around the carcass – began to move closer, stroking the elk and examining its ears, long gray tongue and horse face. At first the students watched Mr. Bjorkman pick up his knife and narrate his every move, but eventually put on latex gloves and helped skin the animal.

As the students helped remove the skin, steam escaped from the surface of the internal flesh as the fascia was exposed to freezing temperatures. In some years Mr. Bjorkman teaches his students how to tan the skin; this year it was left in the forest for other animals to use in their nests.

Once the skin was removed, the students helped cut the limbs, which were placed in canvas bags and carried out of the woods on sleds to a truck by the side of the road. Five adult volunteers had offered their vans, garage and strength to help the children take the animal apart and eventually slaughter it.

Some students were more comfortable around the carcass than others, who shouted “Eww! “Or” Aww! During the most horrific parts of the dissection. But when Mr Bjorkman dug his arm deep into the body cavity to remove the still warm heart – considered exceptional meat – the students gently passed the bloodied muscle to each other to feel it before it was bagged.

Given Alaska’s vast distances and rugged topography, Bjorkman said it may be easier as a hunter to “leave the kids at home and not teach them.” But he created classroom moose hunting “to be as much about the kids as possible” and to give them the opportunity to be a part of the process, he said.

Showing students how to be good stewards of the land and responsible users of wildlife is “one of the most valuable lessons we can teach young children today,” he said.

“If we can get children to enjoy nature and the world around them in a meaningful way, we hope they will choose to do these outdoor activities rather than get into trouble,” Bjorkman said.

The Outdoor Exploration Class began in 2013, when a school-wide schedule change gave teachers the ability to create more electives for students. Mr. Bjorkman saw an opportunity to design a course incorporating what he had learned a year earlier at an outdoor Safari Club International leadership school near Jackson Hole, Wyo.

At this school, educators from across the country learn how to incorporate outdoor skills into the curriculum. While there, Mr. Bjorkman heard of schools in Colorado, Florida and other parts of the country where students hunted, camped, practiced archery and learned other skills in outdoors – but “maybe not to the extent that we do things here in Alaska, with educational moose hunting, where people pick up an animal and turn it into food from the field to the freezer,” he said. -he declares.

Dalana Barnett said it was important for her son, Zachary Barnett, to have this experience. “He was really excited – that’s all I’ve heard of in the last month,” Ms Barnett said on the morning of the hunt. “If they’re old enough to go to college, then they’re old enough to go hunting.”

Rex’s mother Koleen Wittmer said moose hunting was an “incredible opportunity”, especially for families who don’t have the resources to try and hunt on their own.

“You would be surprised how many children who have never been to hunting or fishing live here,” she said. “I think the show is so cool, because there are kids here who have never been able to do that in their lives. It’s so cool because they go there with someone reliable teaching them.

Mr Bjorkman, 37, said the class was a positive experience for the students, especially for those who have not done well in other academic or extracurricular programs.

“This is the happiest I have ever seen this student, butchering a moose and preparing food for her family,” he said. “It’s not for everyone, but it sure is for a lot of people who may or may not be related to anything else.”

About two-thirds of the class went hunting; the rest had other commitments, and no student or parent raised any objections, Bjorkman said. Everyone who went had eaten moose before, and as they warmed up by the fire, many munched on moose meat sticks their parents had prepared for them.

Emma Hornung, 12, said she wanted to join the hunt because she loves moose meat. Her father is hunting and has asked her to bring home the back cut of choice.

“I think if you ate moose and had never eaten it before, it would be very difficult for most people to tell the difference between moose and beef,” Bjorkman told About lean and sweet game meat.

While most people don’t think of moose as food, for many Alaskans and Canadians it is a crucial nutritional source “because of all its richness,” he said. Moose are an important traditional food for many Alaska Native people, Native Americans, and First Nations people.

About 7,000 of the 175,000 moose estimated in Alaska are harvested each year, producing about three million pounds of meat, according to the Department of Fisheries and Game. Moose are particularly abundant along the rivers of south central and interior Alaska. Like many big game species in Alaska, moose are protected and regulated, but there are enough of them that the state allows hunting – and moose hunts in the fall are an annual ritual for thousands of Alaskans. .

But moose were not always common on the Kenai Peninsula. When miners settled in the area in the 1870s, they altered the landscape with a series of forest fires that destroyed the habitat of the area’s abundant caribou population, but resulted in a rapid increase in the moose population. By 1910, the area had become famous for its thousands of huge moose.

After a few hours of butchering, slicing and bagging the moose, students and volunteers brought the severed limbs to the home of Dylan Hooper – a teacher at Nikiski Middle & High School who teaches the education class in the open. air with Mr. Bjorkman – to be hung for two days, to tenderize the meat.

When it came time to butcher, the students explained everything they needed to know: how to sharpen a knife, how to hold it and slide it safely over the flesh, where to cut, and how to cut fat and sinews. meat.

Some of the leftover meat has been made into dog food, and the paw bones have been donated to a woman who will use them to stock moose for Alaskan Native elders at the nearby senior center.

The students divided about 500 pounds of roasts, steaks, sausages, bratwurst and hamburger sausages. While processing the meat, the students talked about all the ways their families would cook their meat-filled freezers this winter.

Kameron Bird, 13, looked forward to the months spent eating meat. As he said, “Moose steak, if you’ve never tried it, you have to. “