Local school teaches the finer points of skinning animals, tanning hides

Katie Russell (center) helps her students skin a deer Tuesday evening at the intersection of the Pony Road and Highway 287 in Harrison. Photo by Ben Coulter

One can expect to find any number of things on the side of the highway in small towns across Montana: a bar, a gas station, a post office.

But last week at the junction of the Pony Road and Highway 287 in Harrison, Katie Russell set up an unusual road-side stop: a deer skinning station.

Russell set up tripod to hang deer from as part of a survival skills class she is helping teach through Green University, LLC, a program that promotes sustainable living through wilderness survival skills. Students learn to skin and tan animal hides using the brain tanning method. Russell and her students do the work for free while hunters wait and watch the process. After taking them off the animal, the skins are fleshed out and preserved to use later on down the road.

“There are a lot of people who want to learn how to process deer and tan hides,” Russell said as she went to work skinning a fresh carcass hanging from the tripod.

Once the skin is removed it is stretched over a fleshing beam to remove fat and gristle from the hide. From there, the hide is salted to remove moisture and preserve the skin before it is put away and labeled in individual plastic bags to use at a later time. When it comes time to tan the hide, the salt is rinsed away and the hair and grit is removed. Brain matter is then applied and absorbed into the skin, a process that can take anywhere from three days to two weeks. For Russell, it’s a chance to teach her students a skill through a hands-on process.

“I do sell deer skins and I make custom clothes,” Russell said. “But I would much rather teach you how to do it.”

So far, the work has been slow for Russell and her students. But with the recent cold weather, she’s hoping they’ll see more hunters coming through. They went to a game processing facility Tuesday in Bozeman to practice skinning deer hides. Russell keeps a close eye the classes’ students as they make quick work of a deer hanging from the tripod, and she plans to stick around through the end of the regular rifle season to keep skinning carcasses and stockpiling hides.

“I think its neat and its great for me to have the help getting the hides all processed,” she said, helping two students pull the skin down over the animals’ shoulders. “Look at them go!”

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