By Joseph Robertia
The light snow sifting from the December sky made tracking easy. In the soft powder, the pie-plate-sized cloven hooves were a telltale sign a moose had recently passed through the area. The small group followed them to the source — a cow, perhaps 3 to 4 years old, in a stretch of woods off the Marathon Road Escape Route in Nikiski. Jesse Bjorkman chambered a .338 round into his bolt-action rifle, centered the crosshairs of his scope over the vital organs, then squeezed the trigger.
“It was an ethical, clean shot, through both lungs. The moose went about 25 yards then was down,” Bjorkman said.
His harvest — part of a permitted educational hunt — was not accomplished alone, though. Bjorkman was accompanied by several seventh- and eighth-grade students from the Alaska Outdoor Explorations class he teaches at Nikiski Middle/Senior High School, operated with the help of several volunteers, including Michael Hamrick, a hunting guide; Mark Burdick, with Safari Club International; Jerry Peterson, a hunter safety trainer with the state of Alaska; parents Rob Guenther, Reuben Junkert and Matt Scalise; and Alaska Department of Fish and Game area biologist Jeff Selinger and permitting biologist Cyndi Gardner.
The hunt was a culmination of several principles they’ve gone over for weeks.
“The class is very broad but ecology is a big part of it, so the kids had already learned about what moose do in the wild, how they act, their life cycle, how to tell a bull from a cow, things like that. Then, this hunt was kind of the proactive part of the class,” he said.
But even with all the classroom knowledge the students learned, they didn’t jump right from school to field. They also had to complete a hunter education course to participate, so they would be well versed in principles such as state rules and regulations, ethical shooting and hunting practices, and firearm safety.
“Still, the kids don’t get to pull the trigger,” Bjorkman said. “But they do get to direct all aspects of the hunt, from spotting with binoculars and tracking the animal, to determining the range to it, to making the decision on if I should take the shot or not.”
As any successful hunter knows, the real work begins once the animal is down, and the kids also got to put into practice all the techniques they had learned about harvesting meat.
“They got hands-on to the whole process, and that included field-dressing a big game animal and finishing the harvest by taking care of the meat. They participated in cutting it up for roasts, steaks and stew meat, and made their own hamburger. Finally, they participated in proper wrapping techniques and materials to finish the process,” Bjorkman said.
Elizabeth Scalise said that her son, Will Herndon, gleaned a lot from the experience.
“I never hunted, so it’s been different and neat to learn something from him. I’d never eaten wild game and he brought home a ton of meat, so he tells me what part it is, and he’ll cook it, and he’s really into providing for the family,” she said.
Scalise said that Will is eager to get back in the field next season.
“He can’t wait to do it again next year and incorporate all he learned, but this time do it all himself. My daughter wants to take the class now, too,” she said.
Maria Cox, mother of Justin Cox, said her son worked hard and the whole family is benefiting from that work now, as each kid brought home nearly 70 pounds of meat.
“The processing was a lot of work, and they pecked away at it for about a week, cutting and grinding and packaging. Now he gets to feel the pride of bringing home dinner, and as a mother feeding four boys, I need all the help I can get,” she said.
Val Schwenke, mother of Zina Schwenke, said that her daughter loves the outdoors and shooting but had never hunted, so this was an eye-opening experience for her teen, as well.
“Her brother is an avid hunter, and she has helped him put away his, but she got to go and learn how to hunt one for herself. She was getting excited when they were fleshing out beavers in the class earlier in the year, so she got to see how that translated for something as big as a moose. I think it was a lot different than she expected,” Schwenke said.
She added that she was thankful her daughter had the opportunity to have the class offered as part of the curriculum.
“It’s great this program is there for her and others to participate in. It’s not something you’d find everywhere, and it’s a privilege for them to take part in something where they learn firsthand, not just from a book or video, and it’s something that will benefit them through their whole lives,” she said.
Bjorkman said that this idea is what drove him to lead the hunt for the kids. While the kids can learn a lot in the classroom, there is no way to teach them what it is like to bring down their own moose, walk up on it, and still see the steam rising and feel the warmth from its body.
“It’s an emotional experience,” he said.
In addition to harvesting all the meat, the students also skinned the animal and took the hide, which Bjorkman said will be tanned and used for craft projects in the class later in the year.