This month, members of our Alaska Way of Life 4-H project have learned about deer and the critical role they play in the ecosystem and lives of so many people in the Tongass. For the last few weeks, we gained a greater appreciation and respect for food, felt more connected to this land, and learned values that sustain the deer that we so depend on. We extend great appreciation to all of our partners who shared knowledge, passion and resources. Thank you to Klaudia Lecesse for teaching us how to find a use for everything and leading us in our processing class; to Woody Cyr for providing us with a deer to process and helping the 4-Hers gain confidence in their skills; to Kylee Jones for graciously sharing a space and her skills with the 4-Hers; to Garland Kennedy for sharing his harvest; to Gregg Dunn for sharing ecological knowledge; and to Gheistéen Chuck Miller for sharing traditional Lingít stories and knowledge reminding us of our connection to this place.
The following is a piece originally published by the Daily Sitka Sentinel written by Garland Kennedy.
Local kids learned about deer ecology, hunting, meat processing and the importance of the animals to Sitkans, and got hands-on experience in butchering deer in a 4-H Club series that wrapped up last week. Organized and run by the Sitka Conservation Society in conjunction with other groups in town, the Alaska Way of Life 4-H Club provides outdoor-themed programming for kids, in this case ones ages 5 to 12.
Sitka 4-H members process deer meat recently. Photos by Ryan Morse/SCS.
The objective of the three-part course was to introduce kids to aspects of deer hunting so one day they might be able to hunt and provide for themselves, SCS living with the land and building community coordinator Allie Prokosh said at the final deer series session Thursday.
“The main idea for this is to gain hands-on experience so that they can go out in the field with their family and learn how to respectfully and sustainably connect to this land and feel confident doing so, and I think everyone, all of the youth, can gain that confidence,” Prokosh said. “Just working on breaking down a quarter and cutting off the fascia, or silver skin, we did a lot. The whole first session was just hands-on cutting up meat, which was pretty special. I think it was the first time that some of these kids have seen a deer hanging, and that was like a lot for them.”
With nearly two whole deer provided for the class, kids cut up the meat –– with some close guidance regarding knives –– and helped prepare some of it to be made into jerky. Woody Cyr provided one deer to 4-H, and three quarters were donated by the author of this story.
In the first of three sessions, Klaudia Lecesse “taught us about respectful hunting practices and how to show respect by using every part of the deer,” Prokosh said in a followup. The group didn’t limit their learning to the meat, but also made use of hooves, dew claws and antlers for decorations.
The second session revolved around food and storytelling. “While enjoying our backstrap together, we heard engaging stories about Guwakaan (deer) from Gheisteen Chuck Miller, who taught us valuable lessons,” Prokosh said.
In the last class, Greg Dunn, a U.S. Forest Service worker, taught about deer life cycles and annual habits, from their tendency to live in the alpine in summer to their behavior in the November rut. The venison processed in the course will be shared in community potlucks in January, Prokosh noted.
Anna Schumacher, SCS youth coordinator, instructed the younger cohort of kids between ages 5 and 7, who also got to participate in butchering deer. “We didn’t do a full butcher, we did have them each get to cut their own strips of jerky,” Schumacher said. “We guide their hands, they can cut the meat pretty well, but they made their own marinade and got to try it together… (Sealaska Heritage Institute) has a bunch of books around harvesting that are really great ways to connect to the lessons.”
More than a dozen kids participated, and for some, the series offered an initial exposure to game butchering, though others come from hunting families and had seen the process before. Butchering a deer involves stripping skin from the carcass, then deboning quarters and dividing meat by muscle group.
Cameron Peters, 12, most enjoyed learning “how to process deer, that’s a big part, especially in Sitka… (and) how to harvest deer without wasting it, how to preserve it and cook it or do delicious jerky or a million other things.” He also enjoyed a game the group played, which he likened to hide-and-go-seek with a deer call.
A younger student, Louisa Sorrill, 8, enjoyed the lesson about deer ecology. “Learning about what they do with the seasons, like when they come down here and when they’re in the mountains, when they’re having their babies,” Sorrill said.
Sorrill also said she likes the 4-H Club “because I get to meet new people, and we get to learn a lot of stuff.”
Mari Fujioka, 11, liked learning about deer physiology during the butchering class. “We did most of (the butchering)... Venison makes really good dumplings,” she said.
Referring to the lesson on respecting animals, Caelix Ford, 12, said “I like the feeling that when you shoot a deer, to think that it’s giving its life for you.”
Along with hunting-specific activities, the group spent some time at the beach enjoying a sunset last Thursday, which was a favorite for Miles Hutchinson, 8. “I liked everything about (the class)... The thing that I liked the most was when we got to go on the beach,” he said.
Noah Apathy, 9, also enjoyed the beach trip, but highlighted his chance to learn about butchering deer. “I like cutting the meat of the deer,” Apathy said.
In Alaska Game Management Unit 4, the deer season opens for bucks on Aug. 1, begins for does Sept. 15 and runs through the end of January on federal lands, though hunting on non-federal land closes Dec. 31.
With the conclusion of the series on deer, Sitka Conservation Society has turned to new 4-H activities for kids, a winter adventure camp today and Tuesday, “to kick off winter break,” Schumacher said. “We’re doing some partnership with Salty Spoke Bike Co-Op. We’ll be working on getting our bikes up to shape, a little bit of trail riding, and then heading out the road on the second day to play in the snow if there is any.” The winter class also will involve knot-tying, fire-starting and shelter-making.
Schumacher summarized the program’s goal: “The general gist of Alaska Way of Life, our mission is to connect youth to the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest while helping them build the skills, competencies and understandings to inherit a changing world.”
The Alaska Way of Life 4-H Club is made possible by Sitka Conservation Society in partnership with UAF Cooperative Extension Service. Special thanks to Sitka Seafood Market for sponsoring the club as well! If your family is interested in joining 4-H, send an email to [email protected].
Story © Daily Sitka Sentinel.