SEWARD, Alaska - Heading north on the only road out of this city in the warming days of spring, I glanced at a familiar sign: "Give moose a brake."
This one noted why: "Killed this winter: 84." That was the number of moose killed by vehicles just around Seward, 125 miles south of Anchorage, on the south end of the thinly populated Kenai Peninsula.
That's a lot of roadkill. But it is easy to imagine such an accident happening on a dark winter night, on an icy road narrowed by high banks of cleared snow.
The result would be a huge mess to clean up in the dark, with temperatures 20 to 30 degrees below zero, perhaps far from the nearest village. The wreckage would block what in many vicinities is the only road, perhaps along an "avalanche danger - do not stop" section where mountains rear up alongside.
I wondered how resourceful Alaskans handle roadkill. I found out at the Discovery Cafe in the picturesque old gold-mining town of Hope.
Munching a very substantial burger and chili, I struck up a conversation with cook-waitress Pat Hatfield.
A dead moose is meat, not to be wasted, she said, in a land of subsistence incomes where butchering is taught in schools as a survival skill.
Hope is a typically remote town located 16 miles downhill from the midpoint on the Seward-Anchorage highway. The road winds down between mountain ridges to the town in the flat mouth of a valley that spills into tide-swept Turnagain Arm. Roadkill on the highway is handled efficiently, and Hatfield has been part of the machinery.
Each September, Hatfield signs up to harvest roadkill. The list is compiled by Alaska's Division of Wildlife Protection.
She has been called twice - once for a full-grown cow, once a calf. She takes minimal gear: a big knife, a lamp, plastic bags. The animal usually is partly frozen by the time you reach it, which makes it easier to gut and cut up, she said. She buries or disposes of inedible parts out of sight and does the final cutting up at home.
The butcher gets half the animal, she said, and a low-income person who cannot butcher gets the other half.
Hatfield said moose has "nice flavor" and doesn't give her indigestion, as does beef.
She grinds up some of the meat with beef fat to make mooseburger. The meat more than filled her freezer, she said. So she pressure-canned chunks. Later she served up moose spaghetti; moose burritos (Mexican fare being hot in Alaska); and moose stew.
Karen Reetz could fill me in on details, Hatfield said.
For years, Reetz, a clerk with the Wildlife Protection agency, made the roadkill calls to northern Kenai citizens such as Hatfield.
Roadkill represents a lot of meat in the Alaskan pantry, she said. A cow moose can weigh 800 pounds and a bull 1,000; perhaps half of each animal is edible.
In the winter of 1991, more than 300 moose were hit and killed on the peninsula, said Reetz, because heavy snows forced them to walk on highways. During the milder '92 winter, 160 were killed. A few caribou and an occasional bear also get hit.
Since the Kenai Peninsula is sparsely populated, individuals as well as charities are allowed to sign up for roadkill, Reetz said.
Individuals on the list are categorized as: very poor and able to butcher; merely needy and able to butcher; needy and unable to butcher due to age or health; and not needy but hungry for moose. The last category is rarely called, she said.
When police are notified of a roadkill, a dispatcher calls the neediest next person on the list who is anywhere near the kill. If that person can't go, the next name is called.
The butcher is awarded the "best half" of the animal. The non-butcher must be content with the "damaged half." The meat must be used or given away; it cannot be sold.
More than 200,000 people live in Anchorage, the state's largest city, and only half as many animals are killed in that area compared with the Kenai Peninsula. So there only charities can retrieve roadkill. Each charity gets the whole animal and most are well-equipped for the job.
Rod Perry of Anchorage serves on his church's roadkill crew, often called out at about 2 a.m. It's a messy job, he said. There usually is blood everywhere, but the butcher is expected to leave the scene pristine.
Otherwise, concerned residents who spot a discarded moose head, hooves or hide will call in state troopers to investigate a possible poaching.