When you have access to a “Grandpa Frank” who’s got the “old woods” knowledge that is slipping out of our collective consciousness at an alarming rate, well it falls squarely on your shoulders to facilitate the animal skinning post. Frank said, “Heck, you don’t have to bother killing anything to skin it, just grab some road kill and toss it in the freezer”. Turns out this is easier done than said. I kept an eye out during my runs around Los Altos hills, and low and behold I was practically tripping over crushed squirrels. I examined several possible subjects before I pulled the car over one Sunday morning to harvest a recently deceased black squirrel with a fresh head wound and minimal damage to his beautiful coat. I triple bagged him for his deep freeze, then removed him to thaw the morning of the date with Grandpa Frank, it was a breeze.
When we arrived Grandpa Frank was already to go. He had made a table in the garage out of two stacked coolers with a plywood top. Seth thought this was ingenious and praised Frank for his use of the materials at hand. You actually only need a few fundamental implements and materials for your skinning project.
1. A Starter Knife (optional) – The bottom one in this photo was custom made by Frank for making the first cut.
2. A Skinning Knife – For scraping the extra meat off the skin (commercially available).
3. An Old Boning Knife – Good for severing pesky bones and sinew.
4. Pliers – For gripping bones.
5. Pickleing Salt – For preserving the hide.
6. Plastic Grocery Bags – For viscera disposal and hide storage.
You start by pinching the skin of the squirrel so it forms a vertical ridge up the abdomen. This way when you make the first cut you don’t disturb the viscera and avoid a mess.
It was fascinating to watch Seth as Frank cut the skin up the belly. I wondered if this was the first time that Seth had seen the inside of an animal. I wanted to tell him, “Hey look you have a lower intestine just like that! Isn’t that the coolest thing ever!” But I didn’t. I let him have his own experience, because they tell us at preschool that it’s good to let the children discover for themselves. In turn they learn to think for them selves and learn to ask their own questions.
Seth had to take a few minutes out to lecture us on how really sad it was that the Squirrel was hit by a car. He seemed to understand the tragedy of it all, yet embraced the idea of keeping the skin in honor of the Squirrel. Frank’s older grandchildren are all comfortable with hunting and know how to skin animals. Although it may not be part of their daily survival, it is part of their life lexicon. Seth seemed fairly at home with the fact that we were skinning a squirrel at Grandpa Frank’s house. Seth thought it was “normal”. I found this heartening. I like the idea that we can be in tune with the ways of the wild, even when we live in suburbs.
Frank showed us how to separate the skin from the membrane. You want to be careful not to poke a hole in the hide. At this point Seth lost interest and wandered in to find Grandma and play with the other hides around the house. Most notably the Bear Hide. At his age (3) playing and doing are the same thing. It’s all learning.
Frank adeptly cut a little ways into the skin on the upper leg, then simply pulled the leg out of the skin. Right around where the toes meet the metatarsals he cut the joint to free the foot and skin from the leg. I found myself getting hungry. The legs looked so edible. Much fresher than meat I see in the grocery store.
Once all four legs were extracted the head had to sort of be carved out. This appeared to involve a little more muscle work. Plus there were complications because of the crushed skull. However once that was free Frank basically peeled the entire hide right off the spine in one graceful motion.
The tail proved to be a bit more complicated. Frank sort of pulled the tail off while holding the bone with pliers. Unfortunately part of the squirrel’s tail broke off.
Once the squirrel was free of his body we could really get to the good part – the actual skinning. Frank took the curved Skinning Knife and carefully scraped the extra meat from the skin. At this point I felt myself getting antsy, like I wanted to get in there and do it myself. I conveyed this to Frank and he told me that this is what the Native American women did. They were responsible for processing the hides. This resonated with me. Perhaps I have access to this primal task stored somewhere in my cellular knowledge.
Well the squirrel was skinned and it was on to preparing the hide. Frank doused all the insides of the hide with pickeling salt and rubbed it around. You want to be careful and not miss any exposed interior skin. This dries out the hide so it is ready for tanning (a future post).
Finally Frank rolled the skin up with the salt on the inside. He put the skin in a plastic grocery bag and popped it on a shelf in the garage where it will sit for two weeks till it’s ready for tanning. The visceral remains of the squirrel where also put in a plastic grocery bag and dumped in the trash can outside. Frank said that in the old days he and his brother were responsible for hunting and skinning squirrels, rabbits and anything they could shoot. They then brought the meat to their mother who would put it in a brine solution (water mixed with salt) that she kept in the icebox. When she removed the meat for cooking a few days or weeks later it was soft and tenderized. Frank said she would stew squirrel and mushrooms, “And man ‘o man was it good!”