Au Naturel

What I’ve found about my adventures in the Arctic is that they make the most amusing party stories. People are endlessly interested in Alaska, full of questions and curiosity. But, there is one subject, despite their interest, I refuse to talk about: the bathroom ritual.

It just so happened that on one particular occasion, it came up, at the dinner table, of all places. An effusive woman in her 60s said that she would gladly give up material comforts and live in the wilderness if it weren’t for the “bathroom situation”. Then, she leaned across the table, and asked, “Now tell me, what was the bathroom situation like? Did your little tushy simply freeze? Was there indoor plumbing or an outhouse? Or did you go au naturel?”

I almost choked on my pasta, struggling not to laugh. I tried to imagine this woman with her diamonds and pearl necklace and bright red lipstick, squatting in the snow to do her business.

Then I remembered what it was really like: crouching to pee in the woods behind the cabin at 2:00 A.M. while the wolves howled in the distance; baring my butt at 35 below and trying to balance it between two spruce poles, shaped like an inverted triangle, hanging over a 4-foot hole of human excrement. “Au naturel…” the woman called it. What I wanted to say was, “Does a bear sh*t in the woods!?”

But, that is not how a young woman at a dinner party responds. So, instead I laughed and put on my most ladylike smile. “The bathroom situation,” I say.  “It’s what you could call…” I thought for a second. “Rustic. Yes, very rustic.”

Arctic Eats

The Korths' Meat RackIMG_2049People always ask me what I ate in Alaska. In summer, it was Arctic grayling and berries. This winter, it was meat, meat, and more meat.

I came face to face with this fact on our first day in the bush. My dad and I had brought in provisions, and Heimo and I were transporting them back to the cabin. Heimo was driving the snowmachine (in Alaska, it’s called a snowmachine or a snow-go) and pulling me in a sled. As we were hurtled down the path, I turned to catch a glimpse of the cabin, and almost collided with the giant foreleg of a moose. Next to the foreleg was a frozen slab of mountain goat hanging from the meat rack, two shoulders, a mid-section and foreleg of something I couldn’t quite identify, and a caribou head sitting on top of the woodpile. I didn’t know it yet, but that meat represented the Korths’ winter food supply and our supper for the next three weeks.

We’d brought in fresh fruit and veggies, but they lasted no longer than it took to burn an armful of logs in the woodstove. Heimo went through the lettuce like a binging brontosaurus.

At home I, too, love my salads, but during the course of our 3 weeks in the bush, I became a carnivore. And not just a flesh eater, but a fat fanatic, a blubber lover. Back in Wisconsin, any sign of fat and I’d wrinkle my nose and pass it to my dad, dangling it from the tips of my fingers. But in Alaska, in the extreme cold, I craved it. “You gotta love that fat, eh?” Heimo would say as I grabbed the greasiest piece of snowshoe hare I could find. “There ain’t no room for skin and bones at 40 below. The only place you find that is in a pile of shit.”

Acquiring enough meat to last the winter is a major preoccupation for the Korths. They are always on the lookout for a wandering caribou or moose. But with enough meat hanging from the meat rack to last them until February, Heimo could afford to be picky.

We were hunting west of Mummuck Mountain when Heimo spotted moose tracks, a big bull. But, Heimo didn’t want a gamy, rutted-out old male. He wanted a young one, fat and tender. “We gotta get a caribou or a moose before you leave,” he said. “You’ll love the brains and tongue.”

I was happy to eat almost anything. But brains and tongue? That’s where I drew the line. So I was grateful, when we headed back to the cabin empty handed.

We’d been out for nine hours, and I hadn’t had a bite to eat since breakfast. As we rounded the final bend to the cabin, Heimo sniffed the air, and whooped. “Edna’s making speckle-belly,” he said. “Wait ‘til you taste it. There ain’t nothin’ better, especially compared to those Canada geese you got down in Wisconsin.”

I, too, caught the scent. It made my mouth water.

Edna was waiting for us outside with a big smile. “Speckle-belly,” she announced. “It’s almost ready.”

“I told you,” Heimo shouted. “I could smell it way up on the ridge.”

Thirty minutes later, Edna flopped a drumstick down on my plate. I went at it like a wolf to a caribou carcass, eating rib style, with a napkin bib, and a whole lotta smackin’ and finger lickin’. It was as delicious as Heimo said.

Over the course of next few weeks, I ate things I never thought I’d touch — seal, fish eyes, mountain goat, caribou organs (kidney, liver, and heart, my favorite), fat, gristle, and marrow. And, only once did my taste buds rebel.

On my Dad’s birthday, Edna prepared fried beaver tail. As I watched Heimo work on a marten fur, I could hear the beaver tail sizzling and popping in the frying pan. My dad had warned me that it would be the richest, fattiest food I had ever eaten. Twenty minutes later, I learned that he wasn’t kidding. It tasted like congealed bacon grease; it was the quadruple Big Mac of the bush. After just a few bites, my stomach felt as if I’d swallowed a can of Crisco, and I was feeling woozy.

Heimo and Edna had been watching me and laughing. When I passed the beaver tail to my dad, they laughed louder. “What’s the matter?” Heimo asked. “Don’t like it? Don’t worry, you still got moose brains and tongue to look forward to.”

The Arctic Icebox

38 belowGrittygal in front of the Arctic IceboxThey say that winter in the Arctic is a revelation. To that I would add the adjectives shocking, unkind and brutal. This winter, while my Dad and I spent 3 weeks in far northern Alaska, our home away from home was a 10 X 10, double-walled tent, called the Arctic Oven, surely a misnomer.  It didn’t take my dad and me long to re-name it the Arctic Icebox.

On our 3rd night in the bush, I woke to a chilled tent and a leaky wood stove sputtering smoke and creosote. It was 2:00 am, and I was cold, cranky, and coughing. For the third time that night, the fire had gone out, and unfortunately for me, it was my turn to rebuild it. On the other side of the tent my Dad was burrowed in his 20-below Arctic sleeping bag, snoring. Whining like a wolf pup, I rolled out of my sleeping bag, and grabbed a log, some paper, and thin-cut kindling. My hands were so cold they barely worked. I opened the door to the stove, and put in the log. Then, taking the kindling, I built a lean-to against the log, and stuffed paper underneath. I struck a match and held it to the paper, and then prayed for the kindling to catch. A minute later, I heard the sound of success, the reassuring pop and crackle of a freshly started fire. I opened the vents to give the fire air and waited until it was blazing. Then I added another log, triumphantly shut the vents until I could see only a sliver of light inside the stove, and nestled back into the depths of my sleeping bag.

Two hours later, the cold crept back in. But this time, it was my father’s turn to do the dirty work. I curled up like a cat and snuggled down deeper into my bag while my dad muttered something about the “damn fire” and the “crappy sheet metal piece of **&%$@! that needed stove cement.”  Then I heard him shut the stove door and felt the icy tent slowly warm.

When I woke that morning, I was shivering. I could see my breath rise out of my sleeping bag in a cold cloud. The log that my dad had added before leaving the tent and letting me sleep was now smoldering in the stove, giving off little heat. My body was stiff and slow to respond, but I wrestled myself out of my bag, and dressed hurriedly by the light of my headlamp. Then I poked my head outside. The air was frigid, but Heimo and Edna’s cabin chimney was puffing smoke. I jumped out of the tent, closed the flap behind me, and made a mad dash. I darted in, almost banging my head on the low-cut door that Heimo had built small to contain the cabin’s heat on the coldest winter days.  “Good morning,” I mumbled, crouching as close to the big stove as I could without burning myself.

“Good morning, Ms. Aidan,” Heimo said.  “Thermometer says 38 below. How’d you sleep?”

“Long night,” I replied. My dad nodded his head in agreement.

“Bet you’re wishing it was summer,” Heimo laughed.

Could it be? In summer, while peeling cabin poles for hours on end, I had cursed the hot, sweaty sun and the hungry clouds of mosquitoes. But, given the choice, I would gladly choose mosquitoes and 24 hours of light over minus 38 degrees. In fact, I wanted nothing more than to den up like a hibernating grizzly and wait until the sun and warmth returned. Or, better yet, to call the trip off, fly home, forget the extreme cold, and say good-bye to the Arctic Icebox forever. But that wasn’t going to happen. I had 18 more days left.

Too much Winter

Rundown Mountain

Waning light. The sun officially sets on December 3rd.

There they were, two large duffels and one backpack, all packed to the point of bursting, a month’s worth of extreme cold weather gear that included snowshoes and pants, parkas, expedition suits, bunny boots (cold weather boots), gaiters, sleeping bags, gloves, mittens, bomber caps, hand warmers, foot warmers, fleece jackets, scarves, socks, long underwear, face masks, skis, and ski boots.  For the past two weeks my dad and I have packed, unpacked, whittled down, and repacked, ever mindful of Heimo’s story about poor ‘ol frozen Roy (Blog August 22nd: The Cold Here Can Kill Yah) and of Jack London’s warning. The Arctic, London said, could kill a man a thousand different ways.

My issue with the Arctic is the cold. Like my mom, I’m warm-blooded.  My father and two sisters can leave the house in the middle of winter in jeans and a sweater. But not me; I run cold. Opening the freezer to pull out a pint of ice cream makes me shiver. In winter, I dream of places like Costa Rica. The Arctic conjures images of pre-Perestroika Siberian penal colonies.

But, there’s hope. Thanks to the generosity of Clam Outdoors (Medina, Minnesota), and the Coleman Company, I at least have a chance of staying warm, even at 40 below. The key to survival, it seems, is to look like a human marshmallow. Fashion, my dad told me while we packed, “is not a consideration.”

During my summer trip, I had the luxury of a never-setting sun and temperatures in the 70s. My worries then were bugs, bears, and sunburn. But on this trip, my biggest fear will be frostbite. The temperatures will be 20-40 below. Instead of staying in the cabin we helped build over the summer, we will be sleeping in a double-walled tent with a little woodstove. Our days will be spent splitting wood, running the trapline with Heimo, ice fishing, and hunting moose, spruce grouse, and ptarmigan. When I’m not traipsing across the tundra, I will get a lesson in Arctic cooking from Heimo’s wife Edna who can turn porcupine, moose nose and caribou heart into mouth-watering meals. I’ll help her as best I can. If I get cold, I’ll huddle near the stove, soaking in its warmth.

Robert Frost, ever the Romantic, said that you can’t get too much winter in the winter. Obviously, Frost never set foot in the Arctic. If you ask me, minus 30 is too much winter. Then there’s the sun – or the lack of it. If the cold up here doesn’t get you, the darkness will — 24 hours of it.

Last summer, Heimo accused me of having bush eyes, of dreaming of food I couldn’t have. I wonder if there’s a winter equivalent. I bet there is. I know I’ll be dreaming of the sun on my back and 70 degrees.

Beware the Bears

Making peace.

When we arrived at the Fairbanks airport, with our backpacks and fishing rods, an airport employee took a look at us and asked where we were headed. “To the Arctic,” I said. He grimaced and then proceeded to launch into a bear story, sparing us none of the gruesome details.

“My friend and I were hiking in the mountains,” he began, “and we saw this bear in the distance, but you know, it’s Alaska, this is bear country, so we just kept walking. Anyway, I hiked up ahead a bit, and then I heard a scream in back of me. I turned around, and there was a 800-pound grizzly attacking my friend. The bear took a swipe at him and he went down. I ran back yelling as loud as I could and somehow I chased the bear off. It saved him, but his face is a mess now.”

The brutal story was one I didn’t need to hear. I already had bear on the brain. Even before we left Wisconsin I was having bad bear dreams; they were following me through the woods, stalking me. I’d wake up whimpering and clutching at my pillow.

My dad told me, we didn’t need to worry, unless we came across a grizzly guarding his kill, or a sow and her cub. Bears, he said, would be more afraid of us than we’d be of them. It was cold comfort. So on our first morning in Fairbanks, I woke early and surfed the internet, determined to learn everything I could about Ursus arctos horribilis before heading for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My goal: to have a bear-proof plan for survival.

What I learned was unnerving at best. There is little hope of out-running, out-swimming, or out-climbing a bear. An angry grizzly can out-sprint Usain Bolt and swim faster than Michael Phelps. As for climbing, there are few trees at 67 degrees latitude that a grizzly in hot pursuit couldn’t uproot as fast as a bulldozer.

Later that day, we talked with a bush pilot who laughed when he heard that I would be wearing bear bells. “That’ll help us with identification,” he said. When I gave him a puzzled look, he added, “When we find a big pile of bear shit with bells in it, we’ll know it’s you.”

On our second day in the Arctic, I learned that the wide, well-packed trail we were camped near, was neither a caribou trail nor Heimo’s snowmachine path, but a veritable bear highway. I felt like Goldilocks, but instead of three genial porridge-eating bears, I had a big, bad, potentially man-eating grizzly to worry about.  I could only hope that Papa Grizzly wouldn’t find me asleep in my tent, and wonder, “Who’s camped on my trail?”

That night, before I went to bed, I placed a can of bear spray next to my pillow. Nevertheless, I tossed and turned until finally I rolled over and whispered to my dad on the other side of the tent, “Daddy, you up?” He groaned in his sleep, and slowly opened his eyes.

And that was when I had my revelation. I felt guilty because it was so foolproof, my ace-in-the-hole. And I slept well for the rest of the night. I knew that if we encountered a charging grizzly, I needed to do only one thing to stay alive: I needed to out-run my old man.

Bush Eyes

Our staple, Arctic grayling.

Our staple, Arctic grayling.

I was 2 ½ weeks into our trip, when the first sign of food-deprivation set in.  My dad, my uncle, and I had nearly finished off the last of our chocolate. We had one bite-sized Snickers bar left, which, after supper, we’d agreed to split three ways. After that, there’d be nothing sweet till Fairbanks. To make matters worse, I had to conserve my cocoa, my lone indulgence. I had just enough for the mornings. So while my dad sipped his coffee and Heimo cradled his cup of Raman broth, I sat empty-handed.

Heimo glanced at me as I sat pining away, and smirked, “Someone’s got a bad case of bush eyes!”

“Bush eyes? What’s that?” I asked.

“I’ve seen that look on your face; your head’s full of food.”

It was true. I was not homesick or lovesick; I was foodsick.

All week, I had been dreaming of frappes, chocolate malts, cheese, juicy watermelons and fresh-baked bread. I couldn’t wait to get back to Fairbanks and eat something other than fish and pancakes.

Heimo continued, “I remember my girls, Rhonda and Krin, going through the same thing. Understand, they weren’t here for just a month. We were out from August till June. And in winter, there’d be nothing but meat. All they could think of – dream of – was food.  I remember them writing long grocery lists and making up menus. Man, were they happy when they got to town.”

I thought of what my life had been like compared to Heimo’s daughters. I grew up with access to restaurants, stores, supermarkets, where anything my heart desired was just a shelf away. And now I had bush eyes – and I had ‘em bad.

I wasn’t the only one. My dad had them, too. Like a good Cheesehead, he craved dairy. Even Heimo had his cravings. He wanted salmon and moose tacos and Diet Cokes.

When we finally did get back to Fairbanks, I walked through Fred Meyer eyeing the mountains of food. I wanted it all: fruits from Chile, Alaska-grown vegetables, 20 kinds of cereals and sodas, nuts, chocolate, and cheese! I marveled at the selections and the excess that most of us never think twice about.

That evening, after doing our laundry, my dad and I made our way down to College Road and found a Thai restaurant and ordered chicken skewers with peanut sauce, spring rolls and rich, spicy curries. Then we made a bee-line for Hot Licks Homemade Ice Cream and bought the biggest chocolate malts they had.  Nothing ever tasted so good. We walked back to our hotel, sipping our malts, with full bellies and bush eyes temporarily sated.

The Bathroom Ritual

 

Keeping my sense of humor.

Keeping my sense of humor.

Before I left the bush, and returned to the world of niceties, I had a little discussion with my father. I made him promise, regarding the bathroom ritual, that what happened in the Arctic, stayed in the Arctic. I would much rather have left the memory buried away in the tundra, but, somehow, my mother convinced me that this is the kind of thing people wonder about, but are too polite to ask. So I’ve decided to put aside my dignity and bare all.

First – peeing. If were a guy, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But, as a girl, peeing involved exposing my backside to hoards of hungry mosquitoes that, by the final tinkle, left it red and spotted. There was also my secret terror. I lived in fear that a bear would come charging out of the bushes when both my guard and my pants were down.

Now (let’s be blunt here) – pooping.  At Camp Coleen River there was a special screen tent with a 5-gallon honey bucket inside that my uncle set up for Job #2. The tent was just twenty feet from the campsite, where my dad and Heimo discussed dinner plans – baked, broiled or fried grayling — and even closer to my uncle’s tent, so that when he got the urge, which he often did, he didn’t have to walk far. I would’ve preferred to have slipped discreetly into the woods, but Heimo explained that the woods was his backyard. So, when it was my turn, I’d have to surrender my pride, and announce to my dad and uncle that I had to “go” and that they would have to politely turn their heads.

Sitting on a 5-gallon pale, within spitting distance of the fire pit, was anything but comfortable. No bathroom door, no cushioned seat, and hardly an ounce of privacy. Just a mosquito screen, a roll of toilet paper, and an all-purpose bucket. My goal was to get in and get out as fast as I could.

Once I was finished, I’d pull up my pants and haul my business through the buggy brush to a hole, 50 yards away. After delicately dumping it, so as to avoid the splash, I’d make my way back to camp, the empty bucket swinging from my hand. Then, I’d buckle on my hip waders, trudge to the river and wash out the pale, downriver of Heimo’s drinking hole, for the next honey bucket sitter.

I came to dread the call of nature, but on a diet of berries and fish, I realized that there was no refusing it.  As Heimo often said, “When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.”