Food

Intro to Subsistence

Written by
Kathy Kysar

Main Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management

I can’t remember ever not dreaming of living in Alaska. Being raised an only child in rural, northern Wisconsin, I spent many days alone in the woods or on the lake in a canoe, dreaming of a cabin in the woods, surrounded by animals, in a very Snow White sort of setting. When I turned 40, as a single mom and a school teacher, I decided to stop dreaming and start living. My two daughters were very familiar with my desire to live in the backcountry of Alaska. Long story short, we moved to Homer, they graduated from high school there and then returned to the lower 48 while I moved to the bush. Moving to Unalakleet, on the edge of the Bering Sea, three years ago, I came as the high school English teacher. It didn’t take long to meet the mountain man of my dreams, a Minnesota native who built a cabin on the Unalakleet River almost 30 years ago. To be honest, my dreams never included anyone else; I always thought I’d be alone in that cabin in the woods. My Snow White fantasy pales in comparison to the life I have now, married to Gregg and living in an offgrid, 400 square-foot cabin with our dogs curled up in front of the fire while we watch bears scavenge on the shore of the river.

As the only people living on the Unalakleet River year round, we maintain a subsistence lifestyle through hunting, trapping, fishing, foraging, and gardening. Our water comes from the river and the sky. Our modes of transportation include 4-wheelers, snowmachines, and a small boat—that’s it. With a small, portable generator, I am able to run my sewing machine or vacuum, but can’t run both at the same time. Our big luxury is the 4-foot satellite dish that provides internet to the cabin, only when the generator is on, all of the gas for which has to be hauled, 3 gallons at a time, up 40-some steps from the river, after being driven up via boat in the summer or snowmachine in the winter.

Our lives revolve around seasons, not calendar months. I can’t really tell when the years begin and end, they just continually flow from one season to the next, each with its own unique challenges and rewards. As I write this it is mid-July, fishing season. Because there are just two of us in our household, we don’t subsistence fish like most folks do with big nets or fish wheels. Also, since we live on the river, fresh fish are available to us year round. However, we do love smoked salmon, so we will be fishing with rod and reel to catch a couple dozen throughout the summer. We have an electric Little Chief smoker that we plug into the generator, but are looking to upgrade to a gas smoker sometime in the near future. The smoker can hold six fish at a time and I give it a good 10-hour smoke after soaking strips and filets overnight in a homemade teriyaki brine. Then they will be canned in pint-size jars, the perfect size for salmon patties all winter. I will freeze a half dozen, unsmoked, double-filet packs for us to enjoy baked or seared during the frozen months after all the salmon have either left the river or died on its banks. The muluksuks, dead and dying humpies, will litter the banks by September, having completed their life cycle literally in our front yard, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Fishing season piggybacks gardening and foraging, beginning mid-June and lasting until after the first hard freeze sometime in late September. Foraging begins with fiddleheads, which appear soon after the snow disappears and are the first fresh, green vegetable we’ve had in months. Then, the dandelions appear with the spruce tips and rhubarb. Dandelion jelly tastes just like honey and it also makes a good salve for sore muscles and a soothing oil for dry skin.

This year, I made a spruce tip-rhubarb jam that we fell in love with; it has the citrus taste of spruce (not piney at all) with the tartness of rhubarb and the aroma of Christmas (fresh pine). The rhubarb came from our garden, even though it does grow wild on the tundra. The tundra rhubarb tends to be very small and sparse in our area.

While waiting for the fireweed to come into full bloom, weeding the garden, and watering it and the greenhouse, keeps me busy. Fireweed blossoms will be made into jelly by the end of July, when the tundra berries - salmon, blues, and blacks - will be ready for picking. There are hundreds of acres of berries just at the top of the hill behind our cabin. Some of these will end up frozen in quart bags in the freezer, ready to be made into pancakes, pies, and muffins throughout the winter months, while others will end up as jams and jellies to be traded or sold at the local Saturday Market in the village of Unalakleet.

As fall approaches, the cranberries will ripen and be at their peak just after the first frost. Canning and freezing of garden produce will ensure that we’ll have the vitamins and minerals we need when the days are dark and the nights are long and cold. We only hunt moose in the fall if the caribou in our freezer runs short, because we like the taste of caribou much more than the taste of moose. However, it is not unusual for someone to gift us with a moose quarter in the fall when the hunt is on, because Gregg is considered an elder, being over 60 years old. One quarter is all we need to supplement our diet for an entire year. Our community has a great tradition of sharing their catch with elders. We cut the meat off of the quarter to eat and the bones and scrap are perfect bait to begin trapping season.

After the river freezes by November, trapping begins in earnest. The skins from the animals will help us buy gasoline, which is the backbone of our existence. The meat from the animals will provide more trapping bait. Gregg traps mostly marten, wolverine, lynx, and fox, but an occasional wolf is more than welcome. Going along with him on the trapline is always an adventure! Freeze-up also gives us a chance to bring in firewood from frozen beaver ponds and other places that are inaccessible during the summer, even shooting the occasional spruce grouse for a little dinner variety.

Gregg and a trapped wolverine

Winter brings its own abundance in the form of rose hips and ice fishing, even if water collection becomes more difficult. We get our water from the river, no filtration system necessary. Winter means chopping a hole in the ice or snowmachining downriver a mile or so to an open spring to fill up four 5-gallon buckets at a time which last us about 10 days. The difficulty of winter water collection means fewer showers and less laundry. Collecting snow to melt is an endless task since it takes about six full buckets of snow to equal one full bucket of water, not taking into consideration all of the straining it takes to make snow melt clean.

Spring comes slowly, bringing with it the season of caribou hunting. While the rivers are still frozen, it is possible to travel north by snowmachine, across the eastern edge of the Norton Sound, in order to get to the fertile caribou grounds between the Ungalik and Inglutalik Rivers. It is there that we find enough red meat, four or five caribou for a family of two, to sustain us for a year, with enough to share with the occasional guest. The trip requires a party of two to travel at least 180 miles roundtrip (four hours one way) on snowmachines, towing sleds behind, each person wearing a rifle around their shoulder. It also involves an overnight camp in a thin tent in subzero temperatures, and meals of barely thawed sandwiches. It’s a taxing trip, both physically and mentally, but the reward of fresh caribou is hard to beat. After field dressing, the animals are towed home in the sled, quarters hung frozen in an old conex container that serves as a storage building, while the organs, ribs, and loose meat, back straps and tenderloins, are processed immediately on cardboard covered folding tables in Gregg’s workshop in town. The frozen quarters are thawed out six at a time, and we cut them up into roasts and stew meat with a scrap box that will be turned into sausage and burger. The bones are saved for the trapline. Very little is wasted, as is the nature of subsistence living.

Kathy and Caribou

Close behind the caribou hunt comes the spring thaw. Seeds get planted in trays and set on the kitchen table to which the middle, extender board has been added, and they are lined up in the other south-facing window where Gregg has built a 12-inch-deep shelf just for this purpose. While the growing sunlight works its magic, I begin to prepare the greenhouse, working in short sleeves while snowmachines are still driving past on the frozen river. Dead plants need to be pulled and fresh fertilizer, egg shells, coffee grounds, and compost added to soil in pots with plenty of water to get them ready to serve as a fast growing medium.

Break up, as spring is aptly named, brings bird season on its back: geese, ducks, and swans. Again, we are usually gifted fresh game birds because of Gregg being an elder and me having a connection with former students in the village. I must admit that swan is the tastiest poultry I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Its red breast meat most closely resembles good, grass fed beef - no kidding! The last of the river ice floats out to sea just as time for spring planting begins, sometime around the middle of May, signaling the time to start foraging for fiddleheads once again.

And so the circle of our seasons goes round and round, each bringing abundance and challenges.

No items found.

Intro to Subsistence

Food

Author

Kathy Kysar

Living in their 30-year-old, 400 sf, offgrid cabin on the Unalakleet River, eight miles inland from the Bering Sea in Western Alaska, Kathy and her husband, Gregg, do things the old-fashioned way, with hard work and a smile. With only a small generator to turn on as needed (for internet and machine sewing!), they rely heavily on tradition—handwashing dishes and clothes in river water warmed on the stove, growing and preserving their own vegetables from seed, fishing and hunting for all of their meat, showering under a bucket on the porch, and selling homemade goods at teh local, village market and online at www.etsy.com/shope/CrookedCabinGifts. www.livingthedream-kathy.blogspot.com

Main Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management

I can’t remember ever not dreaming of living in Alaska. Being raised an only child in rural, northern Wisconsin, I spent many days alone in the woods or on the lake in a canoe, dreaming of a cabin in the woods, surrounded by animals, in a very Snow White sort of setting. When I turned 40, as a single mom and a school teacher, I decided to stop dreaming and start living. My two daughters were very familiar with my desire to live in the backcountry of Alaska. Long story short, we moved to Homer, they graduated from high school there and then returned to the lower 48 while I moved to the bush. Moving to Unalakleet, on the edge of the Bering Sea, three years ago, I came as the high school English teacher. It didn’t take long to meet the mountain man of my dreams, a Minnesota native who built a cabin on the Unalakleet River almost 30 years ago. To be honest, my dreams never included anyone else; I always thought I’d be alone in that cabin in the woods. My Snow White fantasy pales in comparison to the life I have now, married to Gregg and living in an offgrid, 400 square-foot cabin with our dogs curled up in front of the fire while we watch bears scavenge on the shore of the river.

As the only people living on the Unalakleet River year round, we maintain a subsistence lifestyle through hunting, trapping, fishing, foraging, and gardening. Our water comes from the river and the sky. Our modes of transportation include 4-wheelers, snowmachines, and a small boat—that’s it. With a small, portable generator, I am able to run my sewing machine or vacuum, but can’t run both at the same time. Our big luxury is the 4-foot satellite dish that provides internet to the cabin, only when the generator is on, all of the gas for which has to be hauled, 3 gallons at a time, up 40-some steps from the river, after being driven up via boat in the summer or snowmachine in the winter.

Our lives revolve around seasons, not calendar months. I can’t really tell when the years begin and end, they just continually flow from one season to the next, each with its own unique challenges and rewards. As I write this it is mid-July, fishing season. Because there are just two of us in our household, we don’t subsistence fish like most folks do with big nets or fish wheels. Also, since we live on the river, fresh fish are available to us year round. However, we do love smoked salmon, so we will be fishing with rod and reel to catch a couple dozen throughout the summer. We have an electric Little Chief smoker that we plug into the generator, but are looking to upgrade to a gas smoker sometime in the near future. The smoker can hold six fish at a time and I give it a good 10-hour smoke after soaking strips and filets overnight in a homemade teriyaki brine. Then they will be canned in pint-size jars, the perfect size for salmon patties all winter. I will freeze a half dozen, unsmoked, double-filet packs for us to enjoy baked or seared during the frozen months after all the salmon have either left the river or died on its banks. The muluksuks, dead and dying humpies, will litter the banks by September, having completed their life cycle literally in our front yard, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Fishing season piggybacks gardening and foraging, beginning mid-June and lasting until after the first hard freeze sometime in late September. Foraging begins with fiddleheads, which appear soon after the snow disappears and are the first fresh, green vegetable we’ve had in months. Then, the dandelions appear with the spruce tips and rhubarb. Dandelion jelly tastes just like honey and it also makes a good salve for sore muscles and a soothing oil for dry skin.

This year, I made a spruce tip-rhubarb jam that we fell in love with; it has the citrus taste of spruce (not piney at all) with the tartness of rhubarb and the aroma of Christmas (fresh pine). The rhubarb came from our garden, even though it does grow wild on the tundra. The tundra rhubarb tends to be very small and sparse in our area.

While waiting for the fireweed to come into full bloom, weeding the garden, and watering it and the greenhouse, keeps me busy. Fireweed blossoms will be made into jelly by the end of July, when the tundra berries - salmon, blues, and blacks - will be ready for picking. There are hundreds of acres of berries just at the top of the hill behind our cabin. Some of these will end up frozen in quart bags in the freezer, ready to be made into pancakes, pies, and muffins throughout the winter months, while others will end up as jams and jellies to be traded or sold at the local Saturday Market in the village of Unalakleet.

As fall approaches, the cranberries will ripen and be at their peak just after the first frost. Canning and freezing of garden produce will ensure that we’ll have the vitamins and minerals we need when the days are dark and the nights are long and cold. We only hunt moose in the fall if the caribou in our freezer runs short, because we like the taste of caribou much more than the taste of moose. However, it is not unusual for someone to gift us with a moose quarter in the fall when the hunt is on, because Gregg is considered an elder, being over 60 years old. One quarter is all we need to supplement our diet for an entire year. Our community has a great tradition of sharing their catch with elders. We cut the meat off of the quarter to eat and the bones and scrap are perfect bait to begin trapping season.

After the river freezes by November, trapping begins in earnest. The skins from the animals will help us buy gasoline, which is the backbone of our existence. The meat from the animals will provide more trapping bait. Gregg traps mostly marten, wolverine, lynx, and fox, but an occasional wolf is more than welcome. Going along with him on the trapline is always an adventure! Freeze-up also gives us a chance to bring in firewood from frozen beaver ponds and other places that are inaccessible during the summer, even shooting the occasional spruce grouse for a little dinner variety.

Gregg and a trapped wolverine

Winter brings its own abundance in the form of rose hips and ice fishing, even if water collection becomes more difficult. We get our water from the river, no filtration system necessary. Winter means chopping a hole in the ice or snowmachining downriver a mile or so to an open spring to fill up four 5-gallon buckets at a time which last us about 10 days. The difficulty of winter water collection means fewer showers and less laundry. Collecting snow to melt is an endless task since it takes about six full buckets of snow to equal one full bucket of water, not taking into consideration all of the straining it takes to make snow melt clean.

Spring comes slowly, bringing with it the season of caribou hunting. While the rivers are still frozen, it is possible to travel north by snowmachine, across the eastern edge of the Norton Sound, in order to get to the fertile caribou grounds between the Ungalik and Inglutalik Rivers. It is there that we find enough red meat, four or five caribou for a family of two, to sustain us for a year, with enough to share with the occasional guest. The trip requires a party of two to travel at least 180 miles roundtrip (four hours one way) on snowmachines, towing sleds behind, each person wearing a rifle around their shoulder. It also involves an overnight camp in a thin tent in subzero temperatures, and meals of barely thawed sandwiches. It’s a taxing trip, both physically and mentally, but the reward of fresh caribou is hard to beat. After field dressing, the animals are towed home in the sled, quarters hung frozen in an old conex container that serves as a storage building, while the organs, ribs, and loose meat, back straps and tenderloins, are processed immediately on cardboard covered folding tables in Gregg’s workshop in town. The frozen quarters are thawed out six at a time, and we cut them up into roasts and stew meat with a scrap box that will be turned into sausage and burger. The bones are saved for the trapline. Very little is wasted, as is the nature of subsistence living.

Kathy and Caribou

Close behind the caribou hunt comes the spring thaw. Seeds get planted in trays and set on the kitchen table to which the middle, extender board has been added, and they are lined up in the other south-facing window where Gregg has built a 12-inch-deep shelf just for this purpose. While the growing sunlight works its magic, I begin to prepare the greenhouse, working in short sleeves while snowmachines are still driving past on the frozen river. Dead plants need to be pulled and fresh fertilizer, egg shells, coffee grounds, and compost added to soil in pots with plenty of water to get them ready to serve as a fast growing medium.

Break up, as spring is aptly named, brings bird season on its back: geese, ducks, and swans. Again, we are usually gifted fresh game birds because of Gregg being an elder and me having a connection with former students in the village. I must admit that swan is the tastiest poultry I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Its red breast meat most closely resembles good, grass fed beef - no kidding! The last of the river ice floats out to sea just as time for spring planting begins, sometime around the middle of May, signaling the time to start foraging for fiddleheads once again.

And so the circle of our seasons goes round and round, each bringing abundance and challenges.

No items found.

Author

Kathy Kysar

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