May 23, 2011
Why I’ll Never Butcher Another Bear. Ever.
By David Draper
Saturday night I butchered a bear for the first, and last, time. If I kill a bear in the future, I’ll leave the butchering to a professional. (After every bear, I tell myself it will be the last I kill, a vow I’ve made five times now. We’ll see how steadfast I am on the butchering promise.) Processing a deer or even an elk presents few problems, outside of a sore back and cramped hands, and I’m happy, even a little proud, when I do it myself. But, as I’ve said about all things ursine related, bears are different.
This most recent bear was skinned and boned on a rocking boat off the coast of Alaska. We had good seas that day, so the 50-foot Sundy at anchor made a fine and stable platform for the job. For the most part the primal pieces weren’t unlike that of the deer species. The quarters held familiar looking cuts such as the top sirloin, knuckle, and round, among others. The backstraps came off like the dozens of others I’ve fileted from countless deer, elk, and antelope.
The big cuts went into a black, plastic trash bag and stored in the freezer onboard until we docked back in Homer several days later. The frozen meat was then boxed and over-nighted via FedEx, nearly beating me to my home back in Nebraska. It was here, in my kitchen on a long, tiring Saturday night, that I decided bears are best left to the butcher.
The first obstacle was the fat. I peeled most of it off on the boat, much to the delight of the ever-growing flock of seagulls and one swooping bald eagle. My hands, a Remington knife set, and anything else nearby ended up with a thin coating of the slick stuff. What didn’t get cut off on the boat made its way on to various surfaces in my kitchen, where it will probably remain until I hire a maid.
Stuck to the fat and meat were long, black hairs. Apparently, bears are flame retardant because the fur resisted my butane torch, which usually does wonders eliminating hair from meat. Instead, I rinsed and re-rinsed the meat and still picked hairs as I butchered. I fully expect to find plenty more when I cook it and, most likely, eat it. Consider this fair warning if you come over for dinner.
But the worst part was the sinew and silver skin. No animal meat I’ve encountered, outside of maybe an antelope’s foreleg, has as much sinew as a bear. As I lifted each primal cut, weighing my options on how best to prepare it, my fingers would find a seam. Several of my roasts, originally intended for a pastrami or corned-beef style prep, were ultimately diced for stew or destined for the grinder and sausage. A few cuts I left whole in the hopes a long, slow simmer will break down the connective tissues.
Despite my struggles and frustration, I ended up with a couple of tubs full of bear meat, pre-brined and smelling like seawater from a little dip the bear, and I, took in a tidal pool while loading the carcass into the boat. But that’s a story for another time, a day down the road after the devil’s club thorns are gone from hands, my back and knees don’t ache, and I can grab something from the kitchen without it sliding out of my grip.