As my favorite blog-stalker has so inelegantly reminded me, I am way overdue for a new post. Since there is little of blog-worthy material in the day-to-day minutiae of our lives in Hanahan, SC, I will take the craven approach of retelling old fireside stories. The following is the 53 year old tale of, "How cold was it?"
Thanksgiving weekend of 1964 found me on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska for the last couple of days of the cow moose hunting season. A bull moose was a better trophy, but a thousand pound cow made a lot of good eating. I was in the Air Force as a radar maintenance officer stationed in Anchorage. My hunting partner, Phil Catalfamo, was my office mate. While I had grown up hunting and fishing, my Brooklyn born buddy had only fired a rifle at ROTC summer camp. While the hunt was successful, the hardships encountered insured that the tale would be often retold.
We drove down from Anchorage and set up camp in my bare bones, Apache pop-up tent trailer pulled by his Rambler station wagon. Fortunately we were using our Air Force issued arctic gear including clothes and sleeping bags. The stove was the iconic Coleman, and we had a not-so-iconic catalytic heater. The ice chest was used in the hope that it would keep things from freezing!
On the second day in the waning hours (they wane early in Alaska in the winter) of the cow season I spotted two sets of track heading off into an old forest fire area. It was a thousand acres of burned pine spars known as the Kenai Burn. We agreed to head in opposite directions around a hill. It was tough going with knee-deep snow, fallen pines like jack straws, and it was cold! I spotted a fairly large cow accompanied by a yearling which was still with its mother in the second year. I had a 7 mm Magnum with a scope much more suited for sheep hunting. I used head shots so as to preserve as much meat as possible. It took several. That light round was underpowered for a moose’s skull. 7mm would be about .27 caliber.
As is always the case with a moose hunt, this was where the work began. After some judicious preliminary knife work on the two moose, we easily built a bonfire in the snow as firewood was plentiful. It provided light and heat. Did I mention that it was cold? We had game bags and pack frames, so we proceeded to field dress and quarter the carcasses. Plastic bags were used for the hearts and livers. You can’t skin a moose while wearing arctic mittens. We managed by keeping our hands in almost constant contact with the still warm meat. It was completely dark by the time we had stacked up the parcels in the snow. It was a half mile back to the car, so we were forced to wait until the following morning to tackle the job of packing the meat out. Before leaving we built up the fire in the hope that it would keep the wolves away from our stash.
When we got back to the Apache, we were tired, cold, hungry, and cold. The first order of business was to get the stove going so that we could get some hot food. I filled the tank with Coleman fuel, pumped up the pressure and lit the burner. The fuel was so cold it would not vaporize. I started a small fire of more dead pine and tied a four foot extension to the handle of a small aluminum sauce pan. I dumped the fuel tank into the sauce pan, and warmed up the fuel over an open fire. Had it flashed, I would have simply dumped it in the snow. From time to time I would test the temperature by pulling back the pan and touching it with my fingers. When it was as warm as I dared, I poured it back into the tank. This time, albeit with much noisy and sooty sputtering, it caught. Once there was a flame, the generator tube warmed up and the stove worked fine. The contents of the ice chest were frozen solid. I hacked off some chunks of bacon and thawed them in a hot skillet. We carved off some chunks of bread and thawed them in the hot grease. The eggs, too, were frozen. We peeled them as if they were hard boiled, and added them to the pan. They rolled around for a while, developed a flat spot and eventually cooked. After replenishing sufficient calories, we cleaned up our gear. The sleeves of our sweatshirts were frozen moose blood.
Once we were cleaned up and fed, the adrenaline level dropped and it was time for the perennial post-hunt drink. I dug out the bottle of Jack Daniels, Black Label and a couple of aluminum cups. The darned stuff would not pour!!! We had to shake it out of the bottle with the consistency of a margarita. You can’t do that with your freezer. The weatherman said that the overnight low in the area was minus forty! Especially in a metal cup, that bourbon lasted longer than any before or since.
Every minute of daylight the next day was spent packing out quarters of moose through the still miserable walking. One of us still carried a rifle because the wolves were demonstrating too much interest for our tastes. The Coleman stove was set up on the tailgate of Phil’s station wagon. After each trip, we heated up a can of soup to split. Eventually we got the cargo lashed on top of the tent trailer and on top of the Rambler and headed back to Anchorage. My buddy remembers saying to his wife as he carefully lowered himself into the bathtub, “Even my hair hurts”.
There was a game processing concessionaire on Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage that would hang, age, cut, and freeze the meat for six (!!) cents per pound. The two of us had already jointly purchased a used 31 cu. ft. freezer for our fish and game. We needed it because the dressed, packaged weight of the cow alone was 606 pounds.Relatively speaking we were babes in the woods dealing with some pretty severe circumstances. Nonetheless, we kept our heads and came through unscathed. And we have an endless supply of “Can you top this?” stories whenever someone says, “How cold was it?” It was so cold that the Jack Daniels would not pour.