When Life Hands You Lemons

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Click to view this article in the Fall 2016 issue of ADVENTURESS magazine.


Creating a unique item from your own harvest

By Joni Marie Kiser

In 2012, I took a Pope and Young Record Book brown bear with my bow. A brown bear hunt is on the ‘bucket list’ for many hunters, and certainly was a once in a lifetime experience for me! I hunted in a “predator control” area of Alaska. This area was only accessible by small bush plane, and I camped out there for a week to harvest my bear.

It’s called a predator control unit because in this area there is an overpopulation of bears and the State of Alaska’s Fish and Game Management is trying to bring back the moose population. Due to the excessive number of bears there, moose calves are killed before they can mature and the moose population is drastically suffering from it. They are seeking to manage the number of bears in the area to allow a good balance of moose and bear overall. I wasn’t looking for a trophy-sized bear, but was looking to participate in the predator control program of Alaska, which I strongly believe in.

After the drying period on the skull, and once it was measured and I found out it was going to make the record book, which was an amazing bonus/end to my adventure, I was also told I was only the 6th woman on record to ever take one with a bow. This was a shock to me and really made me extra proud of my accomplishment. My father is a retired big game hunting guide in Alaska, well-known for his guided bear hunts, and I never got the chance to bear hunt with him myself. He has been very ill for many years now and is no longer able to go on hunts.

It bothers me deeply I will not ever get the opportunity to share that experience with him. However, getting to take a brown bear with my bow and then coming back to tell him the story was incredibly meaningful and quite emotional for me. So it is no exaggeration when I say receiving news that the tannery had ruined my hide left me totally devastated. I was planning on doing a life-size mount of the bear and putting it in the archery shop that I owned/operated with my husband.

The hide had gotten caught up in equipment at the tannery and was ripped in several places, had burns and was completely ruined. There was nothing usable on it. My taxidermist spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how he could do anything to salvage it. I received the torn up hide and a baggie full of the claws and couldn’t even look at it. I put it away and didn’t look at it for a month.

However, I am someone who really tries to live my life by finding the positive in things, so I started to think that maybe I could turn lemons into lemonade. I found a leather artist to help me. She had to buy special needles (many of which broke while she was sewing) in order to make something of the thick hide. It was definitely a material she had not used before, but she was up for the challenge.

Using buffalo leather to supplement the torn hide, she created an incredible purse for me. Several of the bear claws hang from the front and sides of the bag. It really turned out beautiful.

I have some great photos and most importantly – I have some incredible memories of my hunt with dear friends and of sharing that story with my father. Nothing can take that experience away from me.

I’ve certainly realized that I don’t have to have the mounted bear because those memories will be close to my heart forever. But, that all being said…. I also have a pretty cool, one-of-a-kind brown bear purse from a bear that I took myself with a bow! So this is a cherished item I will always be very proud of!

Your Inspiration

Feeling inspired to do something with hides from your own harvests? If they are already tanned, you are halfway there! If not, you can have them tanned professionally or you can tan them yourself. While there are how-to videos online about doing your own tanning, there are many different ways, so if you are new to tanning, I would recommend professional tanning or having experienced guidance.

Once you have your tanned hides, you can find a local leather artist or online to start to design your item or you could do the sewing yourself! I have friends who have made everything from mittens, hats, wallets, quivers, pillows and furniture from their hides.

Whether you are sewing by hand or machine, you will need much thicker/stronger needles than normal. If your hide is very stiff (for example, if you tanned it yourself) you might consider getting some additional supplementary leather from a supply store to use on difficult areas of your project. On my purse, we used buffalo leather on the bottom and strap, anywhere that had to bend and hold a shape.

A great option that might be available in your area is to take a fur sewing or tanning class in advance so you are prepared to DIY when you harvest an animal. I suggest contacting the Becoming An Outdoors Woman Program in your home state. This is offered through your State Fish and Game office and covers a wide range of subjects throughout the year – plus an annual workshop event where you can take a wide variety of courses.

Many local craft stores that sell bulk leather also offer classes in sewing furs and leather, or possibly your local sewing store does as well. Additionally, there are lots of online tutorials from some very knowledgeable folks that you can follow along at home. Pillows and furniture from your hides are an easy and fun way to put them to use, with less-complicated patterns!

If you choose to work with an artist instead of doing the sewing yourself, here are a few suggestions of folks you could contact:

Glacier Wear specializes in making mittens, earmuffs, vests, hats, pillows and more from hunters’ tanned hides. They have a very affordable price list posted on their website. Note: In order for them to accept your hide, it must be professionally tanned first (not home tanned). www.glacierwear.com.

– Leather artist Stacy Leigh makes beautiful purses from deer, elk, moose and other tanned hides. Prices are an investment (like many other purses these days), but offers unique designs and excellent quality! www.etsy.com/shop/stacyleigh.

– If you are looking for a place to purchase additional hides or scraps to put together with your tanned hides, Moscow Hide and Fur has everything you can think of available. Additionally they also have an “ideas” page showing examples of things done with finished hides and some contacts for artists you can hire. www.hideandfur.com.

Leather Unlimited sells wholesale leather, another good online source if needing to supplement hide for your project. They sell goat, deer and more at www.leatherunltd.com.

– Skye Goode of Bearfoot Furs can make you a beautiful hat, headband or keychain from your own tanned hide or theirs! Lots of examples of their work are posted on the Bearfoot Furs Facebook page.

Taxidermy on your wall is always a wonderful reminder of the experience you had on the hunt. However, there is also something special about a custom-made piece from your harvest. While I hope you don’t have a bad tanning experience like mine, it’s also reassuring to know if something does happen like that, you can still turn lemons to lemonade and enjoy!

Joni Marie Kiser is an avid bowhunter, founder of Rockstarlette Bowhunting, National Pro Staff for Xpedition Archery, Prois and HHA Sports.