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The pleasures and travails of eating in remote Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2010 9:19 am | Updated: 1:30 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - What could be more pleasant than sourdough pancakes, with sweet spring-picked cranberries stirred in the batter and more of them mashed on top, the whole drizzled with a generous slug of chokecherry syrup?

In the old days, trappers headed out on their lines for weeks or months at a time with only basic foodstuffs: beans, flour, maybe sugar, salt and coffee. Most other food came from the land. Moose, caribou, fish; berries and local wild teas; potatoes and cabbages from the home garden: all great food, but when that’s all there is, dinner can be a little tedious. Times could be lean and hungry. Slim Carlson, our trapping predecessor here, once craved fruit so badly he dug through the snow to find frozen cranberries to eat.

Not so now! With the availability of, and financial means to buy, a variety of food as well as the physical means — snowmachine, well-fed dog team on well-packed trails, even airplane — to move goods the 15 miles out to a little trapping cabin for a seven-week stay over break-up, my sister Julie and I planned on being well fed.

Of course we still faced a few constraints. With no freezer, everything after late April had to be non-perishable, canned or dried. The frozen stuff: garden vegetables, wild raspberries and blueberries, and moose meat had to be finished by then.

Also, by mid- or late-May we wouldn’t want to be lighting a fire in the wood stove very often.

Not only would the cabin get too hot, but the very low snowfall over the winter would not add the normal spring moisture, making fires caused by escaping sparks a grave concern. Consequently our supplies fell into early- spring foods that needed considerable cooking, and late-season edibles that could be consumed without cooking or eaten after heating briefly on a little one-burner propane camp stove.

Under my bed, the coolest spot in the cabin, we stored a box of homegrown potatoes and onions and a dozen eggs.

Two or three dozen pint and quart jars of home canned food lined the wooden gas-box shelves in the cabin: rhubarb, pickled beets, moose, whitefish and four jars of hoarded salmon that friends from Eagle and Tanana had generously given us. Canned meats and tuna from the grocery added variety.

The rough-cut spruce board shelves bulged with dry goods and instant foods, catsup, syrup, tea, dried fruits and vegetables, and a three-pound bag of walnuts. Plastic tubs held refills, as well as the butter, cheese and other refrigerated foods that we kept in the chill of spring outside. Adding ice to our “ice box” when May temperatures heated up worked well until the last of the river ice melted away.

For the first month we cooked oatmeal for breakfast, boiling water before adding three large single handfuls of rolled oats from the one-gallon container that held a 10 or 12-day supply. Waiting the five minutes for the oatmeal to cook, and then awhile longer to cool, gave us a leisurely morning which we missed after we switched to cold cereal as spring progressed.

We had three large boxes of powdered skim milk.

Of course we never had fresh milk at home either, and the canned milk hadn’t made the last-minute cut from the heavy final “do not freeze” load Julie brought out with the dog team in mid-April.

Often I made bannock for lunch before letting the morning fire die out.

Mixing flour with a rather arbitrary amount of baking powder, dry milk, sugar and a little melted butter, with enough water to make thick dough, fulfilled the basic recipe. I always added dried blueberries, chopped nuts or other goodies, along with a little vanilla or almond flavoring for variety.

Cooked slowly in an inch-and-a-half thick glob in the iron frying pan and turned over once, the bannock came off the stove golden brown, ready to be eaten hot or cold with butter, jam, canned rhubarb or crushed spring cranberries.

That made the best lunch, but sometimes we had leftovers, or heated store-bought soft tortillas, folding them around melting cheese. Later, when we didn’t want to cook, we switched to pilot bread with canned moose, peanut butter and jam (or, again, crushed sweetened cranberries), or tuna and mayonnaise. A cup of cocoa with a little (sometimes a lot) of chocolate on the side always helped us kick-start back to work.

Plenty of over-wintered cranberries, juicy and sweet-sour, still clung to the low evergreen berry bushes. We picked a quart or so every couple of days, mashing some and mixing in sugar for jam and toppings, and keeping a few berries on hand for eating fresh.

We added them to Jell-O and pudding and tapioca, stirred them into sourdough pancakes, or ate them with a little creamed butter, sugar and walnuts.

Canned moose meat fails to excite, but we ate it by the pint or the quart, cold with mayonnaise and crackers or bannock or warm with fried potatoes and catsup, over rice, or stirred into noodles or beans.

Canned whitefish, with its mushy texture and bland taste, is hard to fancy up, but Julie managed to do so by deep-frying batter-covered fish balls in cooking oil heated on the wood stove. Eaten with tartar sauce made from mayonnaise and pickle relish, that fish dish was one of our most rewarding. She always cooked enough for two dinners and a lunch. Easy to re-heat, this made a good meal to come home to after a day of tramping about relocating old summer trails.

A couple times I made yeast dough for pizza, slowly cooking a thin crust in the frying pan, flipping it when the underside had turned golden-brown, and then smeared on canned tomato sauce, pepperoni and cheese, heating it until the cheese melted enough to drool down the sides. I added raisins to leftover dough and sprinkled on sugar and cinnamon, cooking it thinly in the frying pan for a delicious crusty sweet roll sort of treat.

After the spring thaw eliminated the last of the frozen vegetables, for a while we were limited to pickled beets, a half-dozen cans of store-bought vegetables and some that Julie had dried. Soaked in water and then added to beans or rice or pasta, the dried ones passed muster.

Eaten reconstituted as a stand-alone vegetable, they did not.

By late April sprouts of grass began peeking up along the top of the cutbank above the creek, and in early May our “garden” produced its first edibles: lamb’s-quarters sprouts and bluebell shoots, followed quickly by tiny dark red or brilliant green fireweed stems pushing up from the thawing depths.

Although not big fans of weeds (I mean sprouts) we dutifully ate a few almost daily to help make up for the otherwise total lack of fresh vegetables. Tapioca, pudding (instant or home-made with milk, sugar, cornstarch and flavoring) made good desserts. If we tired of them, we took advantage of our generous supply of brown sugar and peanut butter, creaming it into candy. Of course we had lots of dry beans, too, which we cooked for half a day before adding moose or canned of Vienna sausage and eating them with pilot bread crackers.

Although they sure make a satisfying meal, we never, ever ate them three times a day!

Miki Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.

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