Saturday, October 5, 2013

Spruce Hen - It's What's for Dinner!

September 27, 2013 

We headed out on an afternoon ATV adventure and timed it so we would be home in time to meet Maya and the school bus.  In search of spruce hens and adventure, we came prepared: a gun, a bag for birds, and our adventurous spirits.  

A short ride from our front door, over a stream and through the woods I spotted a spruce hen strutting his stuff just to the right of the trail.  We put the dogs in a sit/stay, and I hung out with George while Parke went off in search of dinner.
George was excited to be along on his first hunting adventure and narrated the whole scene.  He says “Did you hear that click, Mama?”, I had not heard it, so I wasn’t sure it happened.  Then he says (with a twinkle in his eye) “Daddy is going to kill that spruce grouse, and we are going to eat him for lunch!”. 

Sure enough, moments later Parke returns with The Bird. 
It was the first time George has ever been within ear shot of a gun being fired, the click and bang that went with the first shot was all he needed to hear, to anticipate what would follow the next click.  It surprised me and caught me off guard.  While we support hunting and the right to bear arms, we also support the idea that guns are not toys and should be treated with respect, and handled (by adults) as though they are always loaded.  We don't have toy guns, swords, or knives.  One hunting trip, where George didn't even see the gun fired, and he already knows the whole process. 

A good section of the trail looked like this:
A view from the back of the ATV, shows a steady stream behind us.  
George had plenty of fun and could not wait to get back home and eat our first wild bird.  It was Parke’s first spruce hen to shoot and kill, and my first spruce hen to clean and cook.  George’s first time hunting anything, then eating it.  Prior to this journey we had only been fishing with the kids, though we regularly ate moose, deer, and caribou that a kind and generous hunter friend and his non-red-meat eating wife (aka: my best friend) have shared with us.  

In addition to The Bird, the trail yielded other unexpected gifts.  Scenes like this, fall aspens  with a peek-a-boo view of the mountains across the river valley. 
And an assortment of fall leaves scattered across the tundra.
Then we came across a patch of wild blueberries right off the trail, 
next to the creek.  They've been thrice kissed by fall frosts, and were 
incredibly sweet and delicious.  They tasted almost like grapes, except 
without the pesticides, chemicals, and enormous carbon foot print.  
It was easy pickings for all of us.  Both of our dogs are skilled at the art of
 blueberry picking and eating, they found a patch away from us and 
happily snacked away, enjoying the creekside break.  
The waterway trail quenched Honey Bearskins Rug's thirst for adventure.  On any trail ride, she always picks the most difficult part of the trail and sets about navigating through it with the end goal being to "beat the four-wheeler". She usually wins.  
In all, the dogs ran just over 10 miles.  They came home and 
I gave them some treats to hold them off until dinner.  

My first call was to my parents, to announce our hunting success.  Then an inquiry.  How do I clean this bird?  Its been years since I have paid attention to this process, and now needed to figure it out right now.  Thankfully, it’s a pretty easy process to explain and execute.  Even for the beginner.  

With my dad on speaker phone I listened to his step by step instructions, happy that we could share this moment together, even if it was on the phone.  Breast up, grip the wings - tight, and pull, HARD.  Magic.  A couple tiny cuts with a sharp knife to free the wings and liberate the feet which I have a long-standing habit of saving, and naturally continued the tradition with this bird (see below).  I wish I had pictures of this part - tearing apart a bird with my bare hands, to prepare it for cooking made me feel connected to my ancestors and gave me a happy feeling in my heart.  While I was working on the spruce hen, Parke took the kids to "Family Fun Night" at the school, where they Maya learned to roller skate, kind of learned to anyhow.

 When I was a kid my parents would go out spruce hen hunting with me at The Cabin in Denali, and my job was to carry the dead birds.  It was THE BEST job I could think of and I was proud to do it.  When my dad would clean the birds, he often cut the feet off and my mom would tie a piece of cotton yarn around each of the feet and I would swing them around, wildly, and feel primal in some small way.  Looking back at that memory now, I think it is kind of funny and weird, but for some reason I just couldn't bear to pitch The Bird's feet.  
So far, I haven't tied yarn around the bird feet and given them to the kids as a toy, but we'll see.  There is a lot to be said about tradition and carrying on memorable moments from childhood.  I am quite sure my parents ever thought I would cherish that, of all things, as one of my favorite childhood memories.  Though they never quite saw me living out here at The Moose Lodge, playing out my childhood fantasy of being Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

I brought The Bird inside for a freshwater bath and peeled the breast meat off the 
carcass with my favorite boning knife.  It was no different than cleaning and cutting up a chicken, after all a bird is a bird.
I followed my mom’s careful instructions and cut the breast meat into strips and dredged it in seasoned flour, browned it in my cast iron dutch oven, added broth and let it slowly simmer away.  A couple hours later, dinner was served to my hungry roller-girl,
and her bird hunting little brother.
Two satisfied customers at The Moose Lodge.  We all wanted more, but there was none to be had.  We decided a half-dozen of these birds would do just fine.  We've been out a few times since this trip, without luck, but we are also not trying too hard at much of anything, except getting ready for winter. 

All seven of us enjoyed the meal.  I simmered the carcass down for the dogs and we served their dinner with extra gravy left over from our feed.  They earned a hearty meal after all that trail running and ATV racing.

Happy Hunting!