If we put our minds to it, we could learn a lot from the Native Americans who preceded the white man as masters of North America. In reading about the Plains Indians who followed the bison herds it seems that the Indians utilized almost every part of the buffalo upon which they depended for their livelihood. They ate fresh meat and then also preserved meat by drying it in the sun and by smoking it over fires. They prepared a high energy food they called pemmican by mixing buffalo fat with herbs and dried berries. Of course the Plains Indians also made buffalo rugs that were soft and warm to protect them from winter cold. They tanned some of the hides into leather with which they made their clothes and their tepees. They even used the buffalo sinew as tough durable sewing thread.
Following in the footsteps of our Native American brother, many of we modern gringos also hunt wild game each year. Most of us also emulate our Indian predecessors in how we try to utilize almost every part of the game we harvest. We eat healthy organic meat that has no hormones or antibiotics. For many years I have been a hunter, and put deer or bear or wild pig meat in my freezer. In addition to the meat, I also have used as much of the animal as possible. I have made beautiful bearskin rugs and use bear fur, deer fur and beaver fur for fly tying materials. Once cleaned on an anthill, I have often donated the skulls to local schools for use in their biology classes. But one of the most useful critter by-products of all is bear grease.
Long ago, I learned from an old PG&E troubleshooter that there is nothing better than bear grease to preserve and protect your leather goods. Whenever I shot a bear, I’d scrape a copious amount of fat off the hide before sending it along to the tannery. I’d fry the bear fat in a cast iron frying pan and pour the rendered fat off into a tin can. Of course our family dog thought the fried bear fat was a delightful treat, but despite the dog’s joy, the real prize was the bear grease. I store it in an old Planters peanut can with a plastic lid and keep it in a cabinet in the garage. I have no idea why, but for some reason bear grease stored in a cool dry place never spoils. I guess it’s one of those weird anomalies like honey, which has an incredibly long shelf life.
I use bear grease primarily as a natural waterproofing material for my boots, knife sheaths, and holsters. It is also great for baseball gloves, and lineman’s climbing gaffs. Recently I ordered a moccasin kit from Tandy Leather Company and made my daughter a pair of handmade moccasins as a Christmas gift. I gave her the option of having me waterproof her new moccasins with a liberal application of bear grease. Surprising me just a little she decided that waterproofed moccasins were a great idea. I apply the bear grease with an old toothbrush and liberally brush it into the leather. After applying several coats of bear grease the moccasins turn out a beautiful dark brown hue. Even when it’s raining you can wear them out to pick up the paper or get the mail without soaking your feet.
Bear grease not only makes your leather products waterproof, it also makes the leather soft and supple and prevents the leather from drying out and cracking. I’m not alone in learning from our Native American brethren, hunters all over North America make coats from elk hide, remarkably soft driving gloves from deer skin, and tough moose hide moccasins. I read recently that this past fall; there were 650,000 hunters who went afield in Wisconsin alone. There were 750,000 in Pennsylvania, 700,000 in Michigan and over 250,000 hunters in little West Virginia. That’s over two million hunters in those four states alone. Interestingly, there was not one single fatality from over two million hunters going afield last fall. I’m sure that like me, most of them emulate our Indian predecessors and utilize almost every bit of the game animals they harvest. The bear grease is simply the icing on the cake.
Until next time, Tight Lines.
Don Moyer is a longtime Central Valley resident and avid outdoorsman. He contributes occasional columns.