From Dec. 8th 2012
Note: my sister, who worked for several years as a sexton in an Episcopal church in Fairbanks, Alaska, recalls her ”up close and personal” with one of the state’s (large) famed animals. It was an event that gave her a new understanding of various aspects of the local culture and environment, such as “village time,” “Chinook winds,” the Alaskan version of “road kill,” and “flavor”. It was an event she knew she would, in time, remember with its humorous elements, too. In the midst of the flurry of your mid-winter, mid-holiday-season activities, we hope you take a moment to enjoy.
By Nancy Beveridge Taylor (with permission)
The State Trooper parked his truck outside the Second Avenue entrance of St. Matthew’s where I worked at the time as a sexton. As I approached and glanced at the back of his rig, I noticed large, hairy legs with hooves sticking out at decidedly odd angles from the bed of the pickup. BIG legs. Bullwinkle-style legs.
As I followed the trooper into the office I jokingly said, “Um, Sir? In case ya didn’t notice, there’s a large dead animal in the back of your truck.”
But of course, I knew he knew that. I was just hoping against hope that this was not for us, a gift from the beneficent State of Alaska: frozen moose parts, found dead on the side of the road.
THE (ALASKAN) ROAD KILL
Moose and caribou elk are not, shall we say, the Einsteins of the animal kingdom. They are more like the possums of the animal kingdom. (Think: commonly seen road kill in America.) It is the generous custom of the State of Alaska to distribute the meat from road kill moose and ‘bou, when found ‘fresh,’ or quick frozen at 40 below (as this jumbo moosicle had been), to needy folks, agencies, and churches. A nice custom in theory and great if you have a meat processing plant on site. However, imagine a 1,000 pound animal, frozen in the position it assumed immediately after being taken out by a truck. Ya, not a pretty sight. Not a small sight either. The trooper turned and smiled… a generous smile, a giving smile.
“It’s for YOU!” the trooper smiled, “for the New Year’s Potlatch at St. Matthew’s.”
Great, I am thinking, road kill moose for New Year’s Day dinner. Only in Alaska.
So, we wrestled heavy, large, hairy, hooved, frozen moose parts into the only place St. Matthew’s had enough room to accommodate them: the enclosed porch room/arctic entry to the kitchen. Now, this porch gets a little heat from the rest of the building, but at zero degrees and colder, the room still stays frozen. And it was 40 below and looking to stay that way until spring. But since the porch was rarely used, the moose could safely, and most importantly, “frozenly,” stay out there until the village guy, known as “Village Guy,” who had the saws and expertise in processing large, dead road kill could come and take it away with all of its mangled body parts.
Now, in Fairbanks and other parts north there is an interesting climatological phenomenon called a “Chinook”: the temperature can rise as much as 60 to 70 degrees or more in an hour or two if a Chinook wind blows. It is a lovely thing, this sudden warmth, refreshing everyone for a few precious days imparting a breathable and spring-like softness to the normally frigid air.
Yes, you guessed it.
It went from 40 below to 35 above that night. I awoke at 2:00 a.m. in my little apartment above the church hearing the wind and thinking only, “how lovely, a Chinook.”
Only half-awake, I had completely forgotten the 1,000 pounds of dead, frozen moose parts in the kitchen entryway.
(How long, you may be wondering just now, does it take for a large moose frozen at 40 below to thaw? Well, parts of it thaw a lot quicker than you might think. This is not just an academic observation on my part. It has a deeply personal meaning for me now.)
THE “VILLAGE TIME”
Now, there is a concept in Alaska called “village time”. It means, “whenever we get around to it.” (Although sometimes, non-locals might think it also means “I forgot.”) And when I had called Village Guy to come and dispose of the moose, I forgot just how long “village time” could actually be. Nevertheless, having made the call, I put the animal out of my mind. I went back to the demands of other aspects of my job such as shoveling heaps of slushy snow in the, now, only three hours of mid-winter daylight this far north; helping with Christmas pageant preparations; cleaning the church and so on. I had put the dead moose (melting quietly on the kitchen porch) out of my mind until the morning a few days later, when Elaine, another church employee, approached me with a very serious look on her face.
“There is a problem that is going to be a much worse problem in a very short time,” she said.
I looked at her. “What are you talking about?”
A snow storm coming in? A problem with the lighting or sound system just before the pageant?
“Remember the moose?” she asked.
“OMG!” I immediately had a vision… not a particularly religious one either if the words escaping my mouth were any indication.
“Oh, S**T… the moose!!!”
“Uh huh. It’s melting… all over the porch”.
I called; I searched. Village Guy was nowhere to be found. The moose (now a gelatinous mess) which was supposed to have been gone by now, was still there, leaking all over the porch. And a certain odor had begun wafting inwards to other parts of the building.
Somebody told me there was a couple who also dealt with large road kill. I contacted them and frantically pled with them to cart it off. Quick! Before the smell intensifies! Before the Christmas pageant! No charge! Consider it a gift from St. Matthews!
To my relief, they were happy to do so, and grateful, although they couldn’t really see the problem with a dead moose that had only been melting a “short time”.
“It should be good for days,” they assured me. “We age moose for weeks; it improves the flavor.”
Improves the flavor?
“I grew up in town,” I told them, “and if it doesn’t come packaged in plastic and Styrofoam I don’t understand it. All I know is that it is melting and soon will be smelling much worse and now the cleanup is gonna be nasty.”
They blessedly removed the thing and I proceeded to clean the horrid mess.
For several hours.
(Did I mention this was a very large moose?)
THE SEXTON AND THE VILLAGE GUY ON VILLAGE TIME WHO FINALLY SHOWED UP AND HAD A HARD TIME UNDERSTANDING WHY THE SEXTON WAS LOOKING AT HIM LIKE THAT
Just about when I finished with the clean up, Village Guy came in.
“So, where is the moose?” he asked.
I glared at him across the room full of the last traces of, now bleached, moose leavings.
“It. Has. Gone. Away,” I said. Glaring.
“Didn’t you know it was for the New Year’s Potlatch?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It melted,” I said. “I got rid of it,” I said.
“Dang!” he said. “I knew I should have picked it up yesterday But I forgot…”
He left, bereft of his road kill, maybe a little puzzled by the odd look of the sexton, but nevertheless confident there would be more, many more, road kill moose for distribution.
THE TALE END…
The sexton, seeking consolation from her siblings in the “lower 48” was assured that she would, one day, see the value of her expanded cultural awareness, see the value of another Alaskan tale to tell the family…see the humor.
Yes, she thought (while cleaning up and putting away the mop, the shovel, the buckets, and the bleach which had almost, but not yet completely, obscured the odor of heavy, large, hairy, hooved, melted moose parts), perhaps one day I will…