ANAKTUVUK PASS -- Nunamiut elder Raymond Paneak holds up the warble fly larvae, plucked off the hide of a caribou he is skinning. With it pinched between his fingers, he shows the yellowish white kumuk to the 30 or so people — students and teachers — who have gathered behind the school to watch and learn the Inupiat way to butcher a caribou.
"They was like candy. When we was little we eat them till we was full," he says, his face a giant smile. Raymond is a little man whose smile is so big, it's hard for his face to contain it. He wants everyone to be as delighted as he is.
"We eat them till we was full …"
He offers it up, and one of the teachers tries it.
"Oh, another thing too," Raymond says, using his knife to point at the severed caribou head in the snow beside him. He explains that a different type of kumuk germinates in a caribou's head. Though Raymond doesn't name it, he is talking about the throat bot fly or Cephenemyia trompe. Like the warble fly, Raymond assures us, it is edible. Unlike warble larvae or Hypoderma tarandi, the bot fly larvae enters the caribou as a larvae, not an egg. The bot fly lays these minuscule larvae (maggots) directly on the animal's face, where they work their way into mouth and nostrils and find a nesting place around the caribou's throat. They gestate over the winter and in the spring they come out to begin the cycle again. An extreme infestation can suffocate the animal.
For now, it is too early in the season for the fly larvae to be visible. They will be there in a few more weeks. Then they will be in season like berries to be picked.
"When I was growing up, we eat them raw. A lot of them. Even from the head. Till we get full. We still alive," he chuckles, which inspires laughter from some onlookers. Encouraged by the response, Raymond repeats himself and chuckles again: "We still alive."
At 74, Raymond Paneak is very active. He "catches," skins and cuts scores of caribou every year. He runs a trap line, ice fishes and chases wolves on his snowmachine. His health is a tribute to his routine, to being outdoors like he has mostly always been. Though Raymond is small and wiry, he is as tough as the country he grew up in. Much of his early childhood was spent following caribou as a nomad, the way his ancestors have done since time immemorial.
Like most of the elders from his generation, he eventually shipped out to boarding school, in this case Wrangell Institute in Southeast Alaska. He attended until eighth grade. Then he returned to the Brooks Range for good. The village of Anaktuvuk Pass was beginning to take shape by then, with several sod houses and a sod post office.
Though Raymond has only an eighth-grade education, he is a master teacher when it comes to skinning, representing Bush education at its finest. It's a lesson on being Nunamiut, on being able to subsist from the land and fitting into the world. On a higher level, it is a social system revolving around sharing what the land shares with you.
Today, Raymond is sharing. And I, for one, am trying to suck it up. Earlier, I was lucky enough to go with him to catch these caribou for the demonstration. Within an hour — my actual prep hour — we were back with three big bulls, all antlerless in spring and healthy due to the mild winter.
Now focused on the caribou head, Raymond demonstrates how to deftly remove the tongue by skinning the underside of the jaw with two quick slices. Then he demonstrates more of his skinning prowess by fisting the hide free. With each stab of his hand down between the hide and the flesh, more skin tears away.
"Old-timers, they don't need to knife it," he says. "It come away just fine. But I am going to knife it. This part here. You don't need to, but I'm going to." Raymond makes a few deft slices on parts of hide that don't peel away easily. When he is done stripping the hide, he flips the animal over and pulls the freed part of the hide under the carcass. Then he steps on the caribou and peels away the hide from the carcass by pulling up.
The lesson stretches on as Raymond demonstrates butchering to save different cuts for dry meat, sinew and other tidbits as several fifth- and sixth-grade boys call dibs on the kidney.
School is out and the crowd of chilled students and teachers begins to disperse with only one caribou processed. In an hour, a talent show is due to begin in the gym, and many of kids have to get ready. I'm supposed to take pictures of other acts and play a couple of tunes on my fiddle, but there is 1 1/2 caribou left to do and I am bloody.
As Raymond guides the one remaining student, senior Chelsea Morry, through the skinning, I start on the third caribou. I want to do it Raymond's way as much as I can, but there are so many intricacies to his method that I keep making mistakes.
I struggle with what he made look easy. Still, bent on picking up some technique, I continually ask for advice. It seems I am always standing a little off or using the knife the wrong way — bad habits developed after years following a mostly self-taught regimen.
At one point, after the caribou has been skinned and quarters removed, I ask Raymond for advice on opening the stomach cavity. He takes my question as an invitation to show me and he punctures membrane before I can step back. I take a little blast of intestinal gas with bits of mulch in the face and it's palatable.
Raymond looks at me surprised. Then that smile slowly arcs across his face and both he and Chelsea burst out laughing. It's contagious. I can't help myself as I, too, begin to chuckle. Lesson learned.
Colby Root is an Anchorage freelance writer. This story previously appeared in First Alaskans magazine.