I’ve always suspected that waterproofing my hiking boots with moose tallow would make them an excellent bear attractant, similar to strapping a couple of rotten salmon to my feet. Not exactly something I want to be wearing out here. Then again, is the almond smell of the commercial stuff I use any less attractive?
It’s not an entirely artificial debate I’m having with myself, the boots and the jar of white tallow. This is not just a philosophical pondering of the merits of organic, free range and local waterproofing versus unpronounceable chemicals brought to me by big industry. No, I’m dealing with the serious issue of what to do with the roughly five litres of moose tallow I rendered last fall.
Its rather distinct flavour has led to the relegation of the jars to the farthest reach of our pantry. Much as I love the taste of moose fat, heating this stuff up is an odorous experience in its own right that tends to overpower the meek personal notes any meat or veggies might have brought to the frying pan. Maybe we left the chunks of fat sitting around for too many days before rendering them, maybe we’re too particular about our food. Whatever the reason, it has ruled out dinner plates as the destiny of the tallow.
Which made me consider candles, way back in December. I dimly remembered as a child making candles out of psychedelically colourful wax, warped and warty creations that I foisted
upon my grandmas for Christmas. In terms of making things from scratch, moose candles would be an even greater present, of course. But it’s precisely the untold hours of sitting and waiting for that moose on chilly fall mornings, taking his life and butchering him with half-frozen fingers, that made me resist the candle idea. Standing by the stove and stirring the melted fat, watching the cracklings rise and fall – no. It was too much work to have even parts go up in flames. And since we can’t get out in early winter, Christmas presents to friends and family have long become a thing of times past.
But now it’s almost summer. I’m still hoarding my precious, slightly smelly jars of tallow, and I’m starting to feel like Gollum with his ring. I take one out of the pantry, admire the snow-white quality of my labours, open the lid with the unreasonable yet undying hope that maybe the moose smell has somehow dissipated – no. The stuff is hard as beeswax. I shave a little bit off. Would putting it on my boots be any better than turning it into candles? It might give me the illusion that it would last longer since I’d still have the boots to look at even after the tallow has worn off, whereas a candle would only last a couple of winter days. Plus I could cut back on the toxic smelling commercial waterproofing.
There’s only the bears to consider. Luckily, our household is endowed with three expert testers as far as bearproofing goes: our dogs. Unfailingly, they sniff out the minutest attractants, right down to bread crumbs thrown out the cabin door, and devour them without hesitation. The best way to test the carnivorous attractiveness of moose tallow as leather treatment seems to be on my work boots – I only wear them around the cabin and never go camping in them.
I melt a few shavings of tallow in the frying pan and dip a rag into the clear fat. Its aura of smell follows the rag onto my work boots, but who knows? Maybe a mysterious reaction with the leather will take place and cancel it out. My boots soak up the fat greedily, turning from dusty and dull to shiny and dark. As the fat cools and the leather becomes saturated, surplus tallow shows up in white lines. I rub that off and declare the job done.
Now for the predator safety test: I put the boots back onto the shoe rack and let the dogs in. Within about 10 seconds, three muzzles are nosing through our shoe collection and honing in on my tallow-treated work boots. I call back the dogs and put my dog/bear bait footwear securely out of reach. Looks like I’ll have to stick with the commercial stuff, at least for my hiking boots. I don’t really want a bear licking my feet.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.