Reflections of a carnivore
BY NICK JANS
I BENT OVER MY PLATE—big hunks of fat caribou meat with a few lonely potato and onion pieces around the edges. I shoveled it down, trying to remember to chew; but that meat, from a prime fall bull, perfectly aged, was so damn good I could hardly restrain myself. On the stove sprawled an enormous roast, 10 more pounds at least. Two helpings later, it was down to eight. I tried to save the few veggies for another time. At least I knew what I’d be eating over the next few days, and for much of the next few months. In the chest freezer, snugly bagged, lay another hundred pounds of that same bull, one of a blur of wild creatures, or parts of them, that have nourished me over the course of four decades. Take away the tons of caribou, salmon, bear, and so on that have fed me, and there wouldn’t be a whole lot left.
In bush Alaska, most folks’ diets have been deep-rooted in that paleo thing, way before it went trendy. Simply put, the land offers way more protein than anything else, so that’s what you eat. Down in Southeast, deer and seafood are the stars; people over much of the Interior lean heavily on moose; wherever they roam, caribou are the main deal. Marine mammals are vital in Native coastal communities, and pretty much everyone eats loads of fish, and at least a few geese, ducks, or ptarmigan. Dozens of other species, from marmots to musk ox, decorate tables across the state. Wild berries, certain roots, and greens are of course important; but gathering seasons are short. Some folks tend summer vegetable gardens, but most remote villagers and off-gridders don’t. The focus on hunting, fishing, and gathering is a matter of tradition and common sense, and for many, a font of cultural identity. The balance of the bush diet comes from shipped-in “store food.” Heck, you can eat fresh tomatoes, tofu, or pork chops if you can afford them; think at least a buck a pound, just for freight. Those crazy prices lend an incentive to shop the country as much as possible.
A good part of what drew me north way back when was a hankering to embrace that lifestyle, and all that went with it. Never mind that my upbringing as a career diplomat’s son had led me to such distinctly un-wild places as Bangkok, Thailand, and the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Fresh out of college, I showed up in northwest Arctic Alaska in 1979 with a lever-action carbine I’d cadged from my older brother and a couple of fishing rods. I was a hell of a lot better angler than hunter (I’d shot exactly once at a deer in Maine), but I plunged straight into the mix. I couldn’t have picked a better—which is to say, more carnivorous—place, an Inupiaq village on the upper Kobuk River, a community of Inupiaq hunter-gatherers whose traditions had shifted from full paleolithic just several generations ago. I started off as a packer for a European hunting guide, a gig that wasn’t for me but that offered a crash course in necessary skills. I also pestered my new neighbors into letting me tag along, and ventured out on my own, feeling my way ever farther out into the land, and into the business of hunting for what I ate.
As a bush bum, I scraped by—rice, noodles, spices, and canned vegetables bought on the cheap by the mail-order case; a can of generic peaches or a candy bar counted as luxuries. But I usually got more wild food than I could possibly eat: not just moose, fish, and caribou in season, but sometimes more exotic fare—beaver, seal oil, and grizzly heart, for example. Neighbors passed around food when they had extra, and I followed their example. When I became a teacher with a steady paycheck, I indulged in more mail-order food; but also invested in better equipment—outboard jet skis, snowmobiles, sleds, rifles, and so on—that extended my range, and made me a more effective hunter. To be honest, my choice of going out so much was more a matter of choice than necessity. I wasn’t a great shot, nor could I summon the mystical tracking ability of my old friend Clarence Wood; but I had good eyes, a strong back, persistence, and often, it seemed to me, incredible luck. There was something deeply satisfying about traveling a hundred miles or more in search of caribou, or perhaps Dall sheep, or bear, and coming home with fine, well-cared-for meat. Of course, it beat the hell out of driving to a supermarket and selecting anonymous, nearly bloodless packages from a store. I knew exactly what I had and where it had come from, and the meat was, of course, the definition of natural, free-ranging organic, and had been wandering free up to the second it died. I sometimes felt a cartoonish sense of testosterone-addled triumph as I traveled homeward with a full sled, akin to Tom Hanks in Castaway as he pranced around thatfirst fire he’d made. That part of the paleo deal was fine.
But something deeper and more complex was going on Whenever I took aim, shot, and watched an animal fall, then skinned and dismembered it, I couldn’t help but own its death. And with time, dozens became hundreds. Trouble was, I’d always had an incredible affinity for wild creatures, and knowing them more and more intimately only heightened that bond. Here I was, killing and eating what I loved: one hell of a paradox. My Inupiaq friends embraced it through small rituals and acts of propitiation, like nigiluk—slitting the trachea to let the soul escape and be reborn—and murmuring taiku (thank you) as they worked on a carcass. Clarence would sometime pause in his always-meticulous skinning, and gesture in quiet benediction.
As the years went by, I pointed a riffle less and less. These days, I ask friends to do the shooting, and help with the rest. Yeah, I’m still a carnivore, but not like I once was. I binge a bit in autumn, when I’m back home in Ambler, and relive the old days. There’s always a pan of fry meat, a pot of stew, or a roast hanging around, either at my place, or wherever I visit. It’s part of being here, and probably always will be. And though it doesn’t seem enough, each time I sit down to a meal from the land, I breathe taiku, and remember.
Nick Jans is a longtime contributing editor to Alaska and author of the award-winning collection of essays The Giant’s Hand: A Life in Arctic Alaska, available from nickjans.com.