HAINES -- The moose is down on all fours, kneeling, with his big head and ungainly antlers resting on a green, moss-covered pillow of a stump.
My husband was alone when he shot it late Sunday afternoon and came home (a short hike and six-mile drive) to get my oldest daughter and me to help turn it over and gut, or field-dress, it. He couldn't do it by himself. Few people can.
This moose is a beautiful animal with a surprisingly long, thick coat of browns, blacks and grays. My daughter and I admire him. You can't touch a bull moose lying in a sun-dappled September forest and not feel, as we say in church, a reverence for the earth and all of God's creation. But there is no time to ponder life and death and what it all means. There is too much work to do.
We three roll the moose over, using ropes tied to its legs and a come-along wrapped around a tree, and then logs to prop him up and keep him that way. My daughter and I pull apart the sternum after my husband breaks it with an ax, opening up the whole belly. He reaches in and cuts the contents loose with his knife, and a whole sack of slippery goop slides onto the ground. This takes longer than it sounds. There's a lot inside a moose, and we are all sweating when it is done.
We tip the moose to drain the buckets of blood out, and then, since darkness is falling, cover the cavity with branches to keep it clean until our return at daylight with more packers and meat cutters. We don't worry much about bears in these woods; they have moved down to the river to eat salmon, but we'd still prefer to see one coming. We bring the heart home for supper.
The next morning, I watch my son-in-law hoist a pack with an entire front quarter in it, and am very glad he's here. I'm also pleased to have all this good meat for the winter. My husband is working on freeing the corresponding hindquarter, and our friend Liam and I are skinning the other side of the moose.
Soon we will have the hide free of the flesh and spread like a blanket under the meat to keep it clean while we cut. A neighbor follows our flagged trail from the old logging road and says congratulations when he sees what we've got. He looks closer at a hind hoof to see it if it was the same moose he's been tracking. It's hard to tell. Maybe there is another one in the area.
He has a rifle and is dressed for a hunt but is not in a hurry to leave. Soon he is helping too, sawing the rib cage off, lifting one side of a leg with my husband as I pull the game bag up around it, and steadying loaded packs for my son-in-law and Liam.
I couldn't always do this. I used to look away and hold my breath before plunging my hands into warm flesh to remove meat from bone. I used to be afraid to grip the skin, and hold it back as I scraped the papery fat and membrane between the hide and the flesh. I used to think that I couldn't even watch the jiggling insides of an animal slide onto the ground, much less help push and pull the whole mass of intestines out. But you can learn these things, and all of them bind me closer to this place and all that lives here.
It's a little cool but clear, and there's a breeze. My neighbor says he is sorry this is not his moose, but he is still glad to be out on such a perfect day. We are all lucky, he says, and means it, the way those of us who have a few gray hairs and a few losses in our hearts, do. We know that someday sooner than we think, we will be more like the moose than the hunter. You can't cut flesh and bone so much like yours and not think, at least a little bit, about your own morality and the way you are leading your life. It is humbling.
Our neighbor sighs and takes a deep breath of forest, moose and meat and says it smells good, like fall and hunting season. Then he smiles broadly, his eyes shine, and he says congratulations to my husband again, who smiles just as broadly back.
As I load my pack for the last time, I look over at the nearly empty place where the moose had been and think, if I could only use two words about what it feels like to kill and clean a moose, it would be these: sighs and smiles. How those are balanced has more to do with the hunter than the hunted.
Heather Lende lives in Haines and is the author of "If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.