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.”

Mumford and Sons to the Rescue

Cabin pole almost peeledCabin Wall

For the first 10 days of my Arctic adventure I peeled 25-foot log poles, using a drawknife, in a clearing 50 yards from the new cabin site and prayed that the mosquitoes that swarmed around me would keep the grizzlies in the high mountains. Dad and Heimo worked down a narrow trail at the cabin site, swinging axes, notching logs, driving in 12-inch steel spikes, and practicing their Wisconsin accents. Since we arrived, my dad and Heimo (a former Wisconsinite) had been performing their own rendition of the musical “Guys On Ice”, making jokes about ditching da wife and heading to the tavern to thrown down a few PBRs and cheer on the Pack with da boys. Though their humor was pretty feeble, they cackled like little kids, and I admit that the first few times I laughed with them. But by day two, I was completely sick of it and eager, despite my fears, to get as far away from them as possible. Though Heimo said that with all the noise, an animal wouldn’t get within half a mile of us, this was my first time in the Alaskan bush and my head was full of big bad grizzlies. I wore a bear bell around my neck that clanged as I worked and had a loaded shotgun leaning against a nearby tree. But what saved me was Mumford and Sons. I turned the volume up on my Kindle and blasted them across the Arctic landscape.

Do bears like British rockers?

bush plane drop-off
Bush Plane Drop-off
Coleen River and Brooks Range from the air
The Coleen River and Brooks Range from the Air