Elk Harvest

This week at Moose Willow Academy was one for the books. A timeless tale of the hunt and harvest season in the wild west, a family of pioneers on the frontier in the age of WiFi.

Saturday was splendid. First thing in the morning, we dug up some beets from the garden and juiced them. then we dyed Crit’s hair with them. or something like that. we at least learned what we’d do differently next time. we took Homesteading Haircuts to a whole new level. we laughed ourselves silly several times over. it was fun.

In the afternoon, we harvested the rest of the beets and all of the kale. morning frost is commonplace now. it was our best garden year yet…although it was still feeble. Hardscrabble will get it figured out. someday. we chomped up kale crisps before dinner – every last one of them.

before dinner was wrapped up, the sun was losing ground on the mountains. it was Bow Season Eve, and DW was eager to take one last peek, and one last listen. we all wanted in on that. so, with dirty plates left on the dinner table, we loaded up in the side by side and went for a loop. We stood together quietly at Cartwheel Court and listened to the elk bugle for the hillside in front of us. we saw a bull walking in patches between the timber. We drove down a bit further for another glance and another listen. the hillside was super duper steep. a mashup between canyon wall and steep slope. we talked about the best approach to getting to it. no options would be particularly easy, but at least there was a way to start from the canyon floor. we sit four across most times in the side-by-side. we squished together and held hands and snuggled while the sky began to reveal all the lucky stars we are constantly counting.

i was up with DW as he went through his morning bow-hunting season routine and rituals. i sat down with my coffee, read a book, and watched the stars give the stage back to the sun. homies were in a love lump on the couch with me by the time its first rays made us squinty.

we eased into the morning, and had just transitioned to the Cowpoke Counter for breakfast, when the phone rang at 8am. He was right where we saw him the night before. DW said it was a steep hike, but that the homies could make it if they were up for it. boy, were they ever. they had their clothes on and their packs ready before the water for the oatmeal began to boil. they packed water and rubber gloves. and first aid kits. Tinker.com (he’s really going by this – he loves it) chose his big backpack because he intended to pack out a backstop. Crit selected her small one since she only wanted to carry out the tongue.

we spend two hours pacing around until we got the call again. DW had the elk quartered and was heading down to the side-by-side with a back leg. we hopped in the truck, and met him there. after some rigamarole (Crit calls is arithmetic), we were ready for adventure. it began with a creek crossing over a log. trekking poles were handed back and forth and everyone was patting themselves on the back for the first success. then we began to climb. up and up. it was just short of a mile to the elk, and our great fortune had us following a game trail for much of the ascent. as challenging as the hike was, there was no whining, complaining, nor negative vibes at all. Tink squealed with delight when he found himself inside a patch of wild raspberries. jackpot.

the final resting spot of the elk was incredibly beautiful. and again, that great fortune working for us, had us working in a flat spot with ample room in all directions. i have been part of several of these retrieval missions, most of which are on steep slopes where only a tree holds it up from rolling 100 yards down. and usually a dead tree at that. this was as lovely as it could get. a high marshy meadow loaded with fireweed dressed for fall. every direction you turned to look was equally spectacular. i know because i was in constant scan of the perimeter.

the three remaining quarters were bagged and resting on a log, there was also a bag full of backstrap and tenderloin meat. the carcus lied on its side with the bag of caul fat exposed. the homies had never seen such a thing. last fall they were part of a deer hunt, but the whole deer got tossed into the truck. this was a whole different experience. they put their gloves on immediately and began to explore. DW still had the head to remove. i held onto the antlers and pulled while DW cut through the neck. homies were wide-eyed looking over our shoulders.

Crit smelled it first. i had already cut her off from using the words “ewww” and “gross”, she had to come up with better adjectives than those. so when she got her first whiff, she looked at me apologetically and said it anyway. “Ewwww, gross, what is that?” it hit the rest of us at once. the esophagus. when DW cut through the esophagus, the gas from the stomach came up and out. it was nasty. ewww, gross was actually appropriate. we talked about the esophagus and the trachea right there and then. DW cut out the tongue for Crit. She held it and observed it closely, and then decided she did not want to carry it in her pack, after all. She did not bring a bag for inside her back being the reason. same for Tink. he was dead set on carrying out a backstrap, but once he learned it would get the inside of his new backpack dirty, he withdrew his eagerness. They both took parts of DW’s gear, Tink got the arrows. he was pleased, nevertheless.

Tink was mostly shadowing DW and watching his every move. Crit took her blue rubber-gloved hand and dipped it in a pool of blood (that she was referring to as Au Jus). she smeared it up and down the ribcage. she asked questions about it all. if we weren’t a mountain mile from our vehicle in a place i am certain grizzly bears live, we would have opened him up and investigated all the organs. but i know better.

once the work was done, the fours of us sat together and cheer’sed our Pop Tarts and we looked across from the spot we stood just the night before. A tree from the hill across from us broke and came a tumbling down. we talked about if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound?

we readied up our packs for the descent. DW took the other back leg. and i took the two front ones. as we began the hike, i was unsure if i was going to be able to pull it off. i was taking baby steps through the marshy earth questioning myself with each passing foot.

my brain swirled my thoughts for me like a bingo tumbler. every couple of whiles, one would come out of the tumbler and into my conscience.

it’s just a mile. are you really this weak? considering quitting? i’ve done this plenty of times. why is it so difficult this time? is this life after 40? its just a mile. one step at a time. i got this. holy shit this is hard.

my first goal was to make it to the downed tree. i knew i would have to take the pack off there. DW was waiting for me to help get the pack across the tree. He offered to switch packs. i declined. i’d give it another go. mostly trail from that point, but still a ways down.

i was able to re-adjust the pack enough once i put it back on, that it was instantly more bearable. none of the negative thoughts came out of the Bingo tumbler. it was all: booya! i still got it. today’s not the day i stop carrying both front legs at the same time. we are so lucky. my family just hiked up a mountain to harvest our meat for the next year. and just yesterday we dug up our crops. i am living my best life. i love every single thing. i love homeschooling. i love living in the wilderness. i love the courage and curiosity and commitment of my wee peeps. i love my husband. this is our 10th anniversary week. that side-porch beer is going to be delicious. how could i have doubted myself a half mile ago? Hardscrabble. La Madre. Ultra Violet. Captain Mad Beets. Miss Fershizzle. all my alter egos were in a mosh pit of celebration.

the next morning we reflected on the experience. Crit wrote a letter and Tinker.com made a video. throughout the week, we butchered and ground and packaged the two front legs (80+ ponds it turns out) and the backstrap. we ate the tenderloin. DW spent several days making jerky from what remained of last year’s bounty. It was a nightly fine week at Moose Willow Academy.

DW and i celebrated our 10th anniversary last night. We drove the Dolphin (with its new laminate floor) up to Lorax Lookout while the homies had a sleepover with Tray and Anni. it was easy to celebrate and be grateful for the past 10 years. We have remained committed to our vows of living a simple life full of grand adventure.

this is my dream life.

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