Earlier this month 4H members went to Ed Gray's local tannery at the Sawmill Industrial Park. We were instantly immersed in his world of preserving hides, the process between skinning an animal and the hide that sits nicely on your couch or lines your mittens. Ed Gray took us through this process step by step. What I write below is an over-simplification but will give you an idea of what it takes to preserve an animal hide.
First the hide needs to be scraped to remove any remaining flesh that could rot, this process is appropriately called "fleshing." Ed has his own unique method, but I won't share his secret here! It is then salted, which acts as a preservative and pulls out excess liquid. Once the skin is dry and the hair is set, the skin is rehydrated and placed in a pickling solution of water, salt and acid (Ed uses a plant-acid). This swells the skin so it can be shaved, creating a softer pelt. Ed said it took him over 300 hours to master this fine technique. The hide is then placed in another solution with an adjusted pH allowing it to react with the tanning solution where it sits for 15 hours. Then the skin is removed and allowed to dry overnight before it is oiled and dried almost completely, about 90%. The skin is then tumbled in a hardwood powder to finish the drying process by removing any remaining oils. The process is complete once it is tumbled in a wire cage to remove the wood flour and then buffed creating a soft and shiny hide for the proud hunter.
Students got to touch a number of hides in different stages of the process and got to test (under supervision of course) the acidity level of the solutions using pH strips. Ed showed us how a number of his pieces of equipment worked (some ingenious yet simple and others more complicated needing very refined motor skills). Ed works with all animal hides ranging from sea otter to marten to bear and will be working individually with one of our 4H members on his very own deer hide.
This skill continues to be cherished in the local community, with two operating tanneries in Sitka. Traditionally tanning hides (often with the natural acids found in the brain) was a source of warmth in the cold winters. Today it serves as a connection to the past, to keep the tradition alive. It is a skill that we find valuable to share with 4Hers as a reminder of how we used to survive using only local resources native to the area. Although we had an introduction on how to tan on a commercial scale, we may continue to explore this topic if there is interest and learn how to tan hides as a survival skill.
THANK YOU to Ed Gray for sharing his local knowledge of tanning animal hides.
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Nov 2011. On an autumn Saturday afternoon, a group of kids gathered around a deer hanging in the Sitka Sound Science Center barn. At first they stood a few feet back, taking the deer in slowly with curious gazes. They got more comfortable as Jack Lorrigan, the father of one of the children, began to explain how to skin the deer and butcher it into choice cuts of meat. Over the next two hours, Jack, the Subsistence Biologist with the Forest Service, demonstrated the various cuts and allowed kids and parents alike to wield the knife. Jack also shared stories of how he learned to hunt from his mother, carrying on indigenous traditions, and he offered important ecological considerations from his work as a subsistence biologist. Andrew Thoms, executive director at the Sitka Conservation Society, helped Jack teach the lesson. Andrew shot the deer along with Joel Martin and Paulie Davis on Kruzof Island about 10 miles from Sitka.
For the people of Sitka, Alaska, subsistence hunting and gathering is an important part of life. The Tongass National Forest that surrounds Sitka provides many of these resources. SCS works to protect the resources of the Tongass as well as helping pass along the conservation skills and values that will allow us to live as part of this landscape forever. The Alaska-way-of-life 4H club is part of the ways that Sitka youth are learning about their environment and being part of the community.
We will follow the deer from forest to plate in the month of February. Members will learn how to tan hides from Ed Gray at his local tannery and will can deer stew for future enjoyment of this local food source.
Note: In following with time-honored subsistence traditions passed down from peoples who have occupied this landscape for millennia, at least half of the deer meat from this activity was shared with neighbors, friends and elders.
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For the month of January, the Alaska way-of-life 4H club focused on tracking and trapping in the Tongass National Forest. These important skills further connect us to the natural environment as we notice the habits of the animals and birds in our shared ecosystem. Tracking as a skill gives us more capacity to understand the workings of the forest and thus the compassion to protect it. Traditionally this activity was fundamentally crucial, and continues to be, as a source of food and animal pelts (for clothing, warmth, and trade).
We began the unit earlier this month by gathering around a table overflowing with animal pelts. We identified the animals native to the island and began matching each animal to its print. Ashley Bolwerk from the Science Center taught us the steps involved in tracking animals: 1) know your location and the animals native to it, 2) note the size, pattern, and type of track, 3) check for distinguishing details like number of toes, nails, etc., 4) note other animal signs like scat, fur, feathers, eating patterns, etc.
In addition to learning the basics of tracking, Kevin Johnson and Tyler Orbison, both local trappers, met with the older 4H group to show them the fundamentals of tracking mink and martens. They got to practice setting up the different traps (more difficult than one may think) and directed question after question to our guests.
On Saturday, we got to put study into action. We had a blast roaming the coastline and snowy forest searching for tracks and signs of animals nearby. We successfully saw the tracks of deer, mink, marten, squirrel, raven, and swan including scat and signs of grazing. The older kids were joined once again by trapper, Kevin Johnson, who demonstrated where and how to place traps in the forest. He also, to our delight, showed 4H members how to skin a marten in the field. Everyone was awe-eyed and attentive as he quickly removed the hide from body, an excellent lesson in anatomy.
Check out the pictures—they tell a better story than words ever will. These activities would not have been possible without the help of: Kevin Johnson, Tyler Orbison, Jon Martin, Kent Bovee, Ashley Bolwerk, Andrew Thoms, and the Science Center. THANK YOU!
**Although a bit out of order, 4Hers have learned how to identify deer tracks, skin and butcher a deer, and in February will learn how to tan hides and can deer stew. A forest to plate series!
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The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H Club seeks to connect youth to their natural environment through a number of hands-on, outdoor activities. Through parent and volunteer-led activities, youth are taught the skills to feel equipped while out in the Tongass National Forest. They are taught skills that relate to safety, like building survival kits and shelters, to wild-food harvest and preservation, to outdoor hobbies like bird identification. As with all 4H Clubs, our group seeks to incorporate elements of the 4H's: Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. We also strive to develop a healthy community through family and youth participation.
For the 2012-2012 school year, we will focus on a variety of topics: mushroom hunting, berry picking, cooking, shelter building, tracking, plant ID, survival kits, and food preservation.
We meet the first and third Tuesday of the month and every last Saturday. There are two groups: Cloverbuds, ages 5-8 and 4H, ages 9+. The cost to join is $20.00, which is divided between registration to National 4H, insurance, and the Activity Fund. If cost is an issue, please ask us about scholarships.
Check out our briefing sheets for more information:4H Briefing sheet
Please contact Tracy Gagnon at email@example.com or call 747.7509 if you are interested in joining!
Earlier this fall we set out on a hunt, a mushroom hunt. With our paper bags in hand we searched for different mushrooms with Sitka Conservation Society Board Treasurer, UAS Professor, and mycologist Kitty LaBounty. Families worked together looking for different fungus: some large, some small, some edible, some gilled and others with spongy pores. This was the first time many of the members of the Alaska Way-of-Life 4H Club have ever looked for mushrooms. This outing helped them to experience their natural environment in a new way, with different eyes. Their vision became focused and directed at finding these special fungi that are intimately connected to the forest through their extensive mycelium network. After collecting mushrooms we gathered together to group the mushrooms in to different categories: edible and non-edible, size, color, and cap structure. On this evening parents and children alike learned safe harvesting practices, edible mushroom types, and mushroom identification. It was a wonderful opportunity to tap into the underground mysteries of the forest with fresh, young eyes. And—what a fun way to forage for food!
**Knowing how the different forms of life in an ecosystem interact helps us all to better understand the natural world. And the more we understand the natural world, the better stewards we can be to ensure that future generations can experience the magnificence of the local environment. The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H Club teaches students about the natural world through hands-on activities so they too can be a part of their natural environment of the Tongass.