Blood and Guts at 35 Below

Downriver hunting for caribou. We were two weeks into our winter trip, and the Korths were low on meat. Only one caribou foreleg hung from the meat rack. And Edna, in particular, was worried. Not only was she cooking for Heimo, who like a caribou seems to have four stomachs, but for my dad and me, too. She announced that unless we wanted to eat beaver tail and porcupine for the next week, we were gonna have to kill a caribou.

At first light, Heimo, Edna, and I headed downriver to hunt. Dad had hurt his back when the snowmachine rolled on him and he was still in pain, so his job was to stay at the cabin and tend the bannock bread and the goose roasting in the slow cooker. Besides, Heimo could only take along two people, one behind him in the snowmachine and one in the sled.

Dad was worried about me. A freak warm-up, which had sent the mercury climbing to minus 5 just days before, had opened large leads in the river ice. If the sled tipped and I fell in the river, the current would suck me under the ice, and I’d be a goner.

But today it was 35 below, so he bundled me up like a child. By the time he was finished, I was buried fiver layers deep. All that was left were eye slits.

“You take good care of her,” Dad said to Heimo.

Edna caught the edge in his voice. “Oh gosh,” she laughed. “Jim’s like a mama grizzly. Don’t wanna mess with his cub.”

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting in the sled, skidding through the black spruce trees and nimble willow branches that slapped at me like whips. Heimo stopped the snowmachine, after one long section.

“You alright?” he yelled back.

I gritted my teeth and gave him the thumbs up.

After weaving between gravel bars, we headed straight south along the river. It was so cold and the wind was so strong that my eyelids froze shut. I couldn’t see, but I could still hear, and when I heard the sound of open water, I clung to the sled and listened for cracking ice, praying that I wouldn’t fall out.

Finally, after two hours, Heimo and Edna spotted a caribou crossing, the tracks still fresh. Heimo slowed and studied them. My eyelids thawed, and I noticed wolf tracks weaving back and forth across the trail, predators following their prey.

“You guys post here,” he said, stopping the snowmachine. “And I’ll go down river.”

Edna and I sat with our backs to a willow thicket that helped to cut the wind and in the gray light we scanned the woods and the river for caribou.

Thirty minutes later, we heard a gunshot. We waited and then we saw the snowmachine. Heimo had a dead caribou in the sled. He pulled it out of the sled, yelled something to us, turned around, and hit the accelerator. Then he headed downriver, hoping to get another, leaving this one for Edna and me to butcher.    

I’d help field dress and butcher deer before, but butchering a caribou at 35 below is cold, hard work. My job was to hold the caribou, moving it into different positions so Edna could make her cuts. She began with the hind legs and made her way up to the forelegs. Then she moved to the intestinal cavity.

I watched her make a shallow, cautious cut, taking care not to puncture the intestine or one of the four stomachs and taint the meat. After opening up the gut, from the caribou’s anus to its diaphragm, she handed me the knife and plunged her hands into the steaming carcass and held them there for half a minute.

When she pulled them out, they were wet with blood, and the snow around us was stained red.

“Now you try,” she instructed.

I drew a deep breath and stuck my numb hands into the opening and kept them there until I could feel my fingers again.

“Okay,” she said, as I pulled my bloody hands from the caribou, “Now for the organs. Just wait till you eat the heart and the liver. They’re so good.” 

Once we finished with the butchering, we piled the meat and the heart and liver on the caribou skin. Then Edna pulled a needle and thread from her pocket and sewed it up. She made her last stitch just as Heimo arrived.

Edna and I lugged the 40-pound legs into the sled and Heimo slung the skin, bulging with meat, over his shoulder. When we were done, he looked at me. I was spattered with caribou blood and shivering.

“You gotta be tough up here, don’t yah,” Heimo said.

Edna put her arm around me. “Don’t tease her. This girl did good today.”

Later, back in the cabin, we sat back after a supper of bannock bread and speckle belly goose. Edna sipped the last of her tea.

“If there’s ever a caribou butchering competition,” she announced, “I want Aidan as my partner.”

I smiled. “It’s a deal!”

grittygal at 35 below

 

 

 

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.”

Alaska Bound

Gritty Gal and her backpack outside her home in Lodi, Wisconsin
After weeks of preparation and packing, I’m finally ready for summer in the Arctic.

I find myself at the beginning of a journey, bound for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the world’s last great wildernesses.  My father will be my travel companion and together with my dad’s cousin, Heimo Korth, a veteran of the Alaskan bush, we will learn how to survive life in the wilderness.

In Alaska, my home will be my tent, my bed will be a mat, my bathroom will be a hole in the ground, my water will come from the river or from a spring, and my food will be whatever we manage to kill, catch or gather. Over the course of the next year, I will be making four trips to the Alaskan Arctic, staying for one month each season. For my first trip, we will help Heimo Korth build a new cabin from scratch and then head for the high country in search of caribou.

And, so, unlike most kids my age, I will not be spending my summer vacationing at a summer-house, tanning at the pool, shopping with friends on State Street, or binge-watching Pretty Little Liars for hours (as I may have under normal circumstances). Instead I will be 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, 3 hours by bush plane from Fairbanks, in one of the most remote and isolated places in the world, swatting clouds of mosquitoes, and praying I won’t encounter an angry mother grizzly (a sow) protecting her cubs or a territorial moose. In other words, I will be in the middle of nowhere.  There is a better chance of reaching Santa at the North Pole than reaching Aidan Campbell in the Arctic.