Steam rose from the chest cavity of Debra Ethier’s freshly killed cow moose, after the first few cuts, as she, J.J. and Jack Stevenson worked in the brisk autumn air to harvest the animal.
With both hands, Ethier held back the front leg while J.J. Stevenson made sharp cuts along the moose’s rib cage, opening it up to remove the heart.
The federal subsistence moose hunt, which ended for cow moose on Oct. 31, brings together hunter families and friends to help with the harvest. The bull moose hunt closes on Dec. 31.
“It’s probably more important this year than past years, with the fish not being as prolific as we’d hoped,” Ethier said. “All of our families will be counting on the meat.”
For many, the annual moose hunt means stocking up freezers with hundreds of pounds of moose meat, a big savings over the cost of processed meat at a store. In this tight-knit community moose meat is also a bargaining and trade tool.
Talk of the hunt was ubiquitous, as was the processing of moose meat, in garages, hangars and storage units scattered around town.
“It’s a compromise, cause you don’t get the fresh fruits and vegetables at the same quality or quantity but you do have that fresh…meat and fish that you can’t afford or don’t have access to in the lower 48,” Ethier said.
Opening day signifies the start of fall and harvest season, with locals foraging for mushrooms and low-bush cranberries, and the last salmon run of the season sending people scrambling to Ibeck River and the Copper River Flats.
A change in diet
Ethier, originally from Bellingham, WA, spent four years working in Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow) before eventually making her way to Cordova.
“My 10 years of…vegetarian/vegan, kind of back and forth, stopped when I was in Barrow… I was offered whale, seal, seal oil and it’s such a gift…when people offer that to you,” she said.
“It’s such a community activity and it’s almost a spiritual experience for the people that are catching the whale and the community that prays for them for their safety and for their success. And then part of the culture is to share that…it’s an honor to be included in that.”
Ethier came to realize that it was factory farming that she was more opposed to than actually eating meat.
“I think if you can eat wild game…it’s better for you, it’s better for the animal, it’s better for everything and factory farming is really bad for global warming…” she said.
Living in Alaska’s far north changed her diet and her view of subsistence hunting.
“I didn’t understand whaling before I went to Alaska, why anybody would whale…didn’t understand why anybody would wear fur, but when you’re in Barrow for four winters, you understand why people wear fur and the whale meat is really sustaining and warming,” she said.
Ethier began eating game meat again after her time in Utqiaġvik. Then, persuaded by a co-worker, she entered her name into this year’s subsistence moose hunt.
“(Meghan Schinella) said, ‘You’re not gonna get drawn anyway. It’s just something everyone does.’,” Ethier recalled. “I was shocked when I won.”
Ethier was one of just 95 drawn for a moose permit this year for unit 6C, which encompasses the city of Cordova to 27 mile of the Copper River Highway, east of Flag Point.
Nine hundred and eighty-five people applied for the moose hunt permit. The entire cow quota, 35, goes to federally qualified hunters and is administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Three-fourths, or 45, of the 60 bulls also go to federally qualified hunters. The remaining 15 bulls go to the state system, where any resident of Alaska can enter and be drawn, explained Charlotte Westing, Prince William Sound area wildlife biologist with the Cordova office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“Just embracing the Alaska experience,” Ethier said of the hunt. “I want to do everything I can when I’m in Cordova. Fishing hunting, knitting; all the things Cordovans do.”
To prepare, Ethier attended the National Rifle Association’s Women on Target, hosted by the Cordova Trap & Gun Club in late July, which focused on rifles. She and her husband, Chip, spent time at the Cordova Public Shooting Range.
“I felt this great pressure,” Ethier said. “I didn’t think I’d get drawn and then once I was drawn, it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve never shot anything in my life and I start with a moose.’”
September was dry and warm in Cordova, so she waited for rain and cooler temperatures, allowing for use of an airboat and better conditions to handle the meat while in the field.
Then J.J. Stevenson’s dad, Jack Stevenson called on short notice to say they were going on a moose hunt. She ran home to grab her gear, with no time to be worried or anxious.
Gary Graham lent her his Interarms Mark X 30-06 caliber rifle, which she gripped tightly as she and the Stevensons took off in the airboat on Sept. 25.
They scanned the land for any signs of movement or antlers and eventually cut the engine; the elder Stevenson hopped off the boat and quickly disappeared in the thick and swampy brush.
Soon, he reappeared a few feet up, in a tree, where he made distinct moose calls. It was silent in between calls as Ethier and the younger Stevenson stood in the boat scanning the area.
They decided to go further by boat and, within minutes, spotted a herd of moose.
Ethier scanned the land.
“I wasn’t ready to shoot when we first saw the herd,” she said, noting that there was a large bull and calf too close by to get a safe shot of a cow.
So, they got back in the boat and headed north, hoping to catch the front of the herd. Rain now drenched the boat and Ethier’s spotting scope.
“And then we went around, and it was a much clearer shot, but I did feel a little pressure…the guys were yelling, ‘Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!’,” she said.
Then the loud boom of the rifle echoed off the mountains.
They moved the boat closer after the cow fell to the ground.
Ethier seemed solemn as she lifted the rifle up again to deliver the final shot to the cow’s head. The rain let up as Ethier looked at the dead cow.
“There’s this melancholy feeling when you’ve shot something,” she said. “I didn’t know how I’d react. I didn’t know if I would break down and cry, and I didn’t, which was good, but I was sad. It was also exciting.”
After obligatory photos of Ethier and her moose were taken, the Stevensons went to work, gutting the cow, saving the heart and liver.
In less than 20 minutes, the moose was loaded into the airboat and taken to be processed and quartered with help from co-workers and friends.
“For a first time experience it could not have been easier or more satisfying,” she said.
From field to plate
Chip, who was warned by his wife to avoid overcooking, continued to check the moose steaks on the back porch as smoke from the grill floated away. Inside, on the dining table were homemade cranberry sauce, homemade sourdough bread and vegetables.
“I probably am most excited about actually having a freezer full of meat that I can eat and share,” she said. “There’s such a thankfulness…when the earth provides for you in that way.”