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MY LIFE OUTDOORS

On a remote island, a teen takes on his first beheading

September 23, 2003|Edward Leventer | Special to The Times

If YOU THINK MOOSE have huge heads, try cutting one off. It didn't help that we'd left the ax and serrated knife behind. I had to saw away with a blade barely sharp enough for tomatoes.

The truth is, I wasn't prepared for moose carving. I had come to Isle Royale National Park, floating off Michigan in the middle of Lake Superior, to study the interaction of wolves and moose. I expected they would be live ones. I was part of an Earthwatch Institute research trip that lets regular people help scientists with their field work. At 17, I was the youngest in a group of five people that included two teachers.

Moose and wolves are the only large animals on the island, the wolves arriving by a land bridge that vanished years ago and the moose by swimming over. Their isolation on Isle Royale gave us a chance to study a unique ecosystem unchanged by other large animals or humans. After establishing a base camp, we set out to find moose bones from a wolf kill. Wolves hunting in packs of three to 12 can take down not only young moose but healthy adults as well. Soon, scattered bones emerged from the underbrush of the heavily wooded isle, prompting a more thorough search for the skull, which we located next. We entered their coordinates into a GPS log for population charts the team was compiling and bagged the important bones -- the skull and legs -- for later examination.

On our fifth day of moose tracking, we picked up an unmistakable whiff of death. It wasn't particularly strong, or at least not strong enough to originate from an animal as large as a moose. Or so I thought. But less than 200 yards away, a large moose lay lifeless in the grass near the lakeside, fresh enough that its eyes hadn't glazed over.

Cindy, our team leader, examined the moose, then told us that we had to bring back its head and leg for identification purposes. Somehow I got volunteered for this mission, and found myself trying to force a dull knife into the carcass of a not-long-dead Bullwinkle.

The neck of a young moose is 40 or so inches around, which is quite a distance when you're on your first moose head. The easy part is the first layer of skin and fur, almost half an inch of it. Then it gets tougher, as you push into the fibroid membrane above the first layer of muscle. I didn't notice anything beyond that. All I was thinking about was the speedy completion of my assignment. I got through the skin and muscle, but the bone was more of a challenge. Separating the bone was the worst part of the job, a task that I would never care to repeat.

After the head and leg had been removed, we dropped them into a garbage bag, which began the next phase of my moose education. The remains were strapped to my backpack, and I got to lug them around for the next three days. Each day we added another garbage bag as the stench grew worse.

The moose and I parted company when we got back to base camp. By then I knew more about this species than I had ever dreamed. And I was primed for turkey carving on Thanksgiving.

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Edward Leventer is a senior at Waverly High School in Pasadena.

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