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Bull down

September 27, 2012

I got the call from Dan when I was at the library, reading blogs, working. “Bull down in XXXX gulch,” he said. And then I shot out to the  patio so I could “omygod” as loud as I needed to and not bother anyone with my galloping heartbeat. And it’s funny, I neither expect nor not expect Dan to kill an elk with his homemade bow. It’s both in the realm of possibilities and a somewhat supernatural feat.

The meat packers, Cody, Colin and Robbie, who like fairygodpackers, arrived at camp 5 hours after I first talked to Dan, packed out a full load, stayed to eat elk tenderloin and wild mushrooms, and then drove back to town in the darkness of night. Thankgoodness for the unencumbered, childless, semi-employed. Note: elk hoof. Oy. Dan is the kinda guy who packs out most everything: lower legs, ribs, hide, brains, heart, liver…

And then everything proceeded as it always does, which is to say we go into high celebration mode, toting all of our  mixed tapes down to the sunroom, allowing the coffee hour to easily blur into the beer hour, while getting a pleasing little bit of butchering carpal-tunnel.

Dan (telling his hunting story to his mom, or brother, or maybe Jojo), possibly more muscular and sinewy from his days in the mountains, while I’m slowly ripening like one of my own butternut squashes.

The jackpot: telling the unabridged hunting story to Chris Chambers, someone who’s been all over that country. Dan doesn’t hold back. “So, then I doubled up on my elk pee,” (elk pee: DIY scent camo) he tells Chris, who impeccably keeps track of the details, including the particulars of wind. “So, the wind’s still coming down the mountain?”

Truthfully, I do most of the butchering (as in: 2 hind and 2 front legs, 2 backstraps. Check). Dan is the great butcher table orchestrator: organizing which meat scraps are for the chickens (who’ve been, saying, as Rose reports: “this is the best day of my life!” as we toss a pile of hind leg-fat in the coop); which scraps are for returning to the woods; packaging and labeling the roasts that I Ginzu off the bone; all the while making sure my beer is filled. And, I get the luxury of focusing on one, singular task, rather than my typical September day which is: whiz a gallon of eggplant dip through the food processor, sniff at burning-tomato smell coming from oven, and wonder if I can attribute “mold-growing espeerments” and “DIY hair-cutting” to homeschool work.

This is a front leg (what we call a shoulder). Not pictured: the Rolling Stones crooning Emotional Rescue on “Rachel’s Driving Mix, 1990” and me trying to get Dan to dance.

It’s possible that I get a little proprietary about cutting the meat off those four legs. While my usual work is herding cats and squeezing words out of my recalcitrant mind, butchering is blissfully straightforward and I love it. When you get down to the smooth, white expanse of a scapula, you’ve finished a shoulder. Anything that isn’t pure ruby meat gets returned to the woods. Backstraps become steaks, hind legs are roasts and the piece-work of sinewy shoulders goes to the pile that we’ll grind into burger and sausage. When you shut the freezer door on a deep well of white packages, you are done. Crack a beer! (Okay, true. We’re not too finicky about delayed beer gratification).

Sausage spices, featuring my new favorite: smoked paprika.

Tendons pulled out of the elk lower legs, to be dried, pounded, and adhered to the backs of Dan’s bows to impart more tension (I don’t know what that means either). 

 Father and son antler voodoo. Dan says this is a 2 1/2 year old bull.

Col and Rose were certifiably helpful this year, by actually helping, or by playing independently. It was a pleasure to have them around, to feel like this was a family effort.

Rose graduated to “packaging and labeling” this year.

We got out knives professionally sharpened this year (Columbine Knife Sharpening, who are at the farmers market, and work out of their home, which happens to be 3 blocks away from our house), and the knives were so fabulously sharp that I can’t believe we sharpened them—shoddily—ourselves for the past 13 years.

There was also much practicing of the competitive swing routine.

And naturally, some dancing.

It’s A-okay to wear your pink prom dress to the butchering table.

There was a little celebration to honor the animal, the hunt, all the helpers, and the bounty of the fall harvest.

And now, that entire bull elk is settled into our freezer, the mixed tapes have returned upstairs, Dan is back to work, but the feeling of celebration and luckiness remains.

51 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2012 6:12 am

    I loved reading this!!!! Congrats! Y’all are amazing!

  2. Anonymous permalink
    September 27, 2012 7:45 am

    Wonderful read! What a great feat for Dan and the family. I’m on call if Terry catches anything, so I may want to take notes from you on what to bring when we’re packing out.

  3. September 27, 2012 7:53 am

    Wow! Dan is Zen! Your h(om)e life… inspiring.

  4. September 27, 2012 8:08 am

    OK, the crayola marker in Rose’s hand tells the best story of all. And your description of whittling meat off bone as an antidote to writing and raising kids should go into some kind of depressed-mom-self-help guide.

  5. Peggy permalink
    September 27, 2012 8:20 am

    Love the purple Crayola that Rose is using – classic!

  6. Sara Parks permalink
    September 27, 2012 8:24 am

    September Harvest. I loved reading this too.

  7. September 27, 2012 8:31 am

    Congratulations! You guys are legendary.

  8. Christy permalink
    September 27, 2012 9:15 am

    WooHoo!!! Congrats Dan!
    I, who have helped with a deer many times in my life, can NOT even imagine an elk. I know at times it feels like you will never reach the end of the work. And that is a white tail deer.
    A celebration of the hunt and harvest was definitely called for.

  9. September 27, 2012 9:50 am

    Wow. I just love you guys. I got butterflies as I began reading, imagining the thrill of bringing down an elk with a bow and arrow. Bravo, Dan! BRAVO! I am standing behind my computer chair clapping. My own fearless hunter takes to the woods tomorrow, hopefully with the same luck… but he’ll be using a slightly less skilled method. I do love some wild game. Mmmmm!!! Elk burgers. Elk stew. Elk lasagna! Sausage… I haven’t done that yet!! I’ll have to give it a go. And as always, your family just oozes awesomeness. Sometimes I like to imagine I’ll run into you at the store, or on the street and we’d sit to chat like old friends.

    Be Well, and enjoy those brews and venison burgers!

  10. Jennifer permalink
    September 27, 2012 10:20 am

    Food preparation REQUIRES dancing. Period.

  11. September 27, 2012 11:22 am

    Great post! I have to admit I was anxiously awaiting reading this after your teaser the other day. Taking an elk with a bow is amazing! But when that bow is hand made by the hunter, well that is in a whole other category of awesome. I love the happy butcher picture. Thank you for sharing your wonderful adventures, smiles, trials, and good times.

  12. Anonymous permalink
    September 27, 2012 11:41 am

    Hi Rachel,
    Thanks so much for taking the time to send me a comment about my essay. It really thrills me to hear that someone enjoyed it! I’ve also discovered a very interesting blog that I wouldn’t have, otherwise. I’m originally from Colorado, and my husband just took up archery (no kidding). The world is such a tangled place. Take care!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 27, 2012 9:21 pm

      FYI: Karen Vogel wrote “The First Year,” published in the October issue of The Sun. It is a gorgeous piece of writing from start to finish.

  13. September 27, 2012 1:14 pm

    even though i am someone who feels upset if i accidentally wash a spider down the drain, i absolutely adore, and look forward to, your yearly posts about successful elk hunts and post butchering. that photo of you is blinding in it’s beauty, and says so much about the radiance of the occasion. congrats to the fam, and especially to dan, for a great hunt. and please tell rose that her new fringe is bangin’ and all the girls in the SF mission district are gonna line up so she can cut their hair. xo

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 27, 2012 10:28 pm

      Aw, Mary. So glad you enjoy the meat stories. Rose is so ready to whip up some fashion in SF. Huge xo.

  14. September 27, 2012 1:41 pm

    I loved this post! The men in my family just brought home a massive elk a few days ago. I can’t wait to get started on that yummy elk stew.

  15. September 27, 2012 3:03 pm

    Hooray for you guys! We will hopefully have a Montana elk in the freezer again this year. I don’t do much of the butchering, but I do almost ALL of the cooking! It must be your lucky week because you won a book at also! Jealous!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 27, 2012 10:24 pm

      Elk recipe swap?

  16. September 27, 2012 6:29 pm

    Awesome! You and Dan are my heroes. I love you guys. :) Thanks for the party. It was great being back at the 465 homestead again!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 27, 2012 10:21 pm

      So good to see (and hear) you. And apparently you got Naima inspired to create a 465 historical occupant list.

  17. September 27, 2012 7:40 pm

    that was a super exciting post to read! congrats to you all and happy eating!! there is talk in these parts of rick and hunting and fresh venison…but i need to try some first and make sure this chick can eat it…happy harvesting!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 27, 2012 10:20 pm

      Whitetail (is that what you have up in your Northern lands?) is dreamy-good. (Think about a good, long marinade for steaks and long, low heat for roasts, and some nice beef/pork fat added for grind).

      I bet your assemblage of boys would love that whole process.

      xo Rachel

  18. September 27, 2012 8:01 pm

    Most Precious Rachel,
    your clan goes Beyond Superherodom – at least within our humble clan!
    awes(om)e writing, inventive use of internet (sign) language, and…
    it was my honor to low-five you and Rose during this morning’s Durango Connect!
    keep crankin’ the prana through your words!

    infinitesimal ilg

  19. Dan permalink
    September 27, 2012 9:23 pm

    Yea! WoooooHoooo!
    Thanks for the celebratory post; I am honored by all the pictures and prose…and to have such a generous and gracious family and community to “bring it home to”.
    Thank you for all the good words and praise from your community online!. Good luck to all those going out! Strive hard! Dan

  20. September 28, 2012 1:23 am

    Congrats to Dan (not sure if that’s proper in this situation?)! I love reading your posts about how you form entire little communities to do things like pack and butcher an elk.

  21. kristen permalink
    September 28, 2012 6:14 am

    Hooray for you all!!

  22. ellen884 permalink
    September 28, 2012 9:13 am

    If there is a 21% chance of getting an elk by all methods, including rifles, (which is apparently the case according to the Durango Herald) how much more amazing is it to succeed with a HOMEMADE bow! Good for Dan and you all. How wonderful for the kids to know where all their food comes from (including your homemade ketchup and ginger ale).

  23. mwieser permalink
    September 28, 2012 12:54 pm

    I was the meat grinder handle turner at my family’s (cow and pig) butchering table, and later on, one of the chicken pluckers. My dad’s closest friends were the neighbors we shared those experiences with. My girl turns the handle on the apple coring/peeling machine in my vegetarian household, and wonders if our apple picking friends who are almost family will become family later, if they are almost family? Same idea. Bless our luck. Bravo, Dan.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 30, 2012 5:38 pm

      Yes, yes. Bless our luck!

  24. September 28, 2012 1:12 pm

    fairy godpackers….lol…do they KNOW that’s what you dubbed them?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 30, 2012 5:40 pm


      These boys are all up in their feminine sides, so it’s all good.

      xo Rachel

  25. September 28, 2012 2:14 pm

    Hooray for Dan!! And for the rest of you with yummy meat this year. Lucy (10) is deer hunting for the first time this year. It will be interesting to watch her and how her relationship with her daddy develops. Congrats on a full freezer!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 30, 2012 11:14 am

      Wait, wasn’t Lucy *just* 2 years old, badgering the bride and groom at Chris and Amy’s wedding to serve the cake ALREADY! What happened?!? Good luck on her first deer hunt! I love the tiny home photos on your blog.

      xo Rachel

  26. Melanie permalink
    September 28, 2012 4:58 pm

    Hello, I am gluten free…I wonder if your sausage mix (seems to look like all organic spices) would be ok for me? Would you be able to tell me what you put in your sausage mix? We harvest our own animals as well, but can’t find a good mix yet! Thank you!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 30, 2012 11:12 am


      We don’t stuff the meat into casings, but do a sort of a “breakfast sausage” mix, which includes the ground elk (or deer) plus about 15% beef/pork fat and then a general mix of these spices: garlic powder, fennel, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, coriander, rosemary. But honestly, I don’t measure or even keep track of what spices I use year to year. The ones I mentioned are the must-haves, and then a few others occasionally sneak their way in: dill, rosemary, dill, cayenne….Definitely no gluten in there.

      Take care, Rachel

  27. Lindsay permalink
    September 29, 2012 10:42 am

    Will you share your sausage recipe some time? Our attempts have not gone well.

  28. September 30, 2012 4:56 pm

    WOW! that is really an amazing feat, you all should feel very proud!

  29. Emily permalink
    September 30, 2012 6:44 pm

    I loved “Chris, who impeccably keeps track of the details, including the particulars of wind. “So, the wind’s still coming down the mountain?” Holy bow hunting! I thought to myself “wind? wind?!” this is serious skill stuff. Congrats on a full freezer. Have another beer.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      September 30, 2012 9:08 pm

      omg. wind. Half of Dan’s brain this time of year is consumed with wind trajectory.

      ps: Loving the moon mountain goldfish book

  30. September 30, 2012 8:02 pm

    Is it me or do the upside antlers on the table in the picture where Dan is dealing with the lower leg tendons look like Shelob from Lord of the Rings? Anybody?

    You guys rock. I’m thinking about our little conversation the other day about kids and creativity. Yeah, I’m not so worried about your kids having authentic learning experiences. Cheers to you and Dan!

  31. September 30, 2012 9:11 pm

    As always, you guys are such an inspiration. Also, I just had this moment of realization that hunting a huge animal, in the woods, results in *free food*. Like, I just figured this out, just now.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      October 2, 2012 9:58 am

      Well. Not exactly *free,* because of the time Dan takes off work, the cost of the arrows, blah blah blah…but, considering that I think this is the best meat on the planet, it’s a pretty good deal. (Also, I consider the days Dan spends roaming around the mountains eating bacon/chocolate/cheese/pb sandwiches as his annual vacation – worth the missed income)!

      • October 2, 2012 12:21 pm

        Heh, yeah…Pretty much the moment after I typed that, I did the mental economics calculations. The vacation idea works perfectly :).

  32. Melissa permalink
    October 1, 2012 11:29 pm

    just in time for sukkot! (: looks like a wonderful harvest festival; love the photos of you and the family celebrating! xo

  33. October 5, 2012 5:59 pm

    gooooooooo dan!!!!! i’m happy for you guys! i am quite impressed by your butchering prowess. i hope that when i one day drive through durango and drop by your house, it is on butchering day so i can learn. do you use any of the bones as soup bones? just curious. xoxo enjoy!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      October 5, 2012 10:13 pm

      Dan’s been pulling the marrow out of the bones, which is…interesting. I convinced him to cook it before he stirred it into pear sauce.

  34. October 6, 2012 10:47 pm

    Wow! Nice work, for the whole fam! Since I already knew Dan can take an elk with his homemade bow, I was mostly surprised to learn you do most of the butchering! I might be a hunter too, but in our house, it’s my man who does the butchering. He has this whole obsession with separating muscle groups. (I do *some* butchering out in the field, and I’ve butchered at home when I was first learning, but now that we have kids that task mostly falls to him. Plus, he’s really fast.) We have a mule deer in the freezer, but season is now over. Hazel never took a bottle, but she does take a sippy cup, so I *might* be able to sneak in an elk hunt. Maybe. Next year, definitely. So fun to see on your blog all the cool things Dan does with his animals. Love the way you honor them, the animals, your hunter, your kids.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      October 7, 2012 8:56 am

      We once invited a friend who is a physical therapist to butcher with us and she was all into separating muscle groups. I have different tactics. I am fast. Dan likes to putter around, messing with leg tendons and antler-business and hide-care and what-not. Also, he runs the grinding, which I’m not so into: loud and repetitive.

      Good luck with your elk hunt!

  35. October 9, 2012 10:24 pm

    Congrats on the elk! I don’t think I’ve ever had it, but I would love to try it someday.

    I know I’ve said it a gazillion times but I just love this glimpse into your world. So fantastical for a city girl like me, and yet so real all at once.


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