Alimentary, My Dear
Lean Times, Hard Rations
By Tamia Nelson
February 20, 2007
This is a lean season for all wildlife. Winter levies a
terrible toll, and gnawing hunger is their constant companion. Until spring arrives
and new growth appears, hard times will be the rule. And wild creatures aren't the
only ones who struggle through the cold months. Nature is indiscriminate. As snow
hisses through the pines, borne on the back of a cutting wind, it's all too easy to
imagine the hardships endured by early European travelers, the men and women who
explored the hinterland of North America by canoe and snowshoe. Many
followed rivers to their source, crossed watersheds, and pushed deep into unknown
country unknown to them, at any rate. Some, like R.M. Patterson,
came to the North more or less on a whim, hoping to escape the tedium of office work
and make new lives for themselves in a new and distant land. For others
map-makers, boatmen, trappers, and traders among them exploration was a job in
itself. Of course, the land that was terra incognita to European adventurers was
already home to many others. Yet even the indigenous peoples of North America faced
hard times in winter, despite being heirs to generations of local knowledge. Hunger
stalked newcomer and native alike, threatening anyone who strayed far from the track
of the game during the great migrations, or who lost precious food stores to
mischance, theft, or natural calamity.
We experience little of this uncertainty today, and while most modern paddlers
realize that they're sometimes only one capsize away from
losing their food and gear, we still imagine ourselves immune from the dire
consequences that haunted our predecessors. Still, it wasn't so very long ago that
starvation was a real and present danger. Looking back on his winter in Deadmen's
Valley on the South Nahanni in the 1920s, Patterson remembered when his only food was
the smelly carcass of a wolverine. And two decades earlier, Leonidas Hubbard
died alone in a riverbank camp in Labrador, after a last meal of boiled rawhide cut
from a caribou moccasin. His companions narrowly escaped the same fate. "No fish
no ducks," Hubbard wrote in his journal just a week before his death. "Off day
for grub." It could have been his epitaph.
Few backcountry travelers starved, of course. Most who ventured into the wild lone
lands of North America in the early 20th century survived to tell their tales. They
may have missed a meal or two at some point, but that was all. How did they manage?
Well, romantic fiction notwithstanding, it wasn't solely by living off the land.
Hunting, fishing, and foraging simply couldn't be counted on to feed a party that was
on the move from one day to the next. The fate of Leonidas Hubbard was proof of that,
if any proof were required. Experienced woodsmen always packed enough to carry them
over the lean days. And what were
The Things They Carried?
Flour, dried peas, oatmeal, sugar, and salt. It's not a list that would find much
favor with modern nutritionists, perhaps, but it did the job. Good keeping qualities
and ease of preparation were valued more highly than "balance" or variety. In any
case, the Food Pyramid was still a long way off, and a paddler could travel far and
fast after breakfasting on a pot of pease porridge and a slab of bannock. There were
convenience foods to be had, too, even in the 19th century. Hardtack, or ship's
made from flour, salt, and water fueled the world's navies throughout the
age of sail, and it soon found its way into explorers' packs. The weevils that
inevitably set up housekeeping in the biscuit bags just added to the protein content.
To be sure, hardtack was (and still is) hard, but sailors and woodsmen with
rotten teeth had a simple remedy. They soaked their biscuit ration in milk, water, or
broth until it turned to mush. Moreover, the broth they used might well have had its
origin in another gift from the senior service: bouillon. So the next time you drop a
cube into a cup and pour boiling water over it to make a salty hot drink, thank the
18th-century British Royal Navy, whose "portable soup" was bouillon's
direct ancestor. The idea certainly traveled well. Lewis and Clark took portable soup
with them on their celebrated trek across the continent.
There's more to food than calories, of course. Tea and coffee have long
been backcountry staples. But though they warm both body and soul, they provide no
real fuel to fire the muscles. The same can also be said of brandy and rum. In any
case, early explorers craved meat to go with their drink. It was the food in
the 19th century. (There were few vegetarians back then, in the bush or out of it.)
Bannock and pease porridge filled a hungry canoeman's belly, but only meat could truly
satisfy. Fresh fish and game were always welcome, therefore, whenever and wherever
they could be had, and no matter how unsporting the contest. But hunting and fishing
took time, and luck often deserted the hunter just when he had most need of it.
Fortunately, there was an alternative: preserved meat, notably salt pork and slab
bacon. The first of these became an icon of the fur trade. The voyageurs who shuttled
their big canoes between Montreal and Fort William were labelled mangeurs de
lard ("pork eaters") by their western counterparts. It wasn't a compliment.
And what sustained the haughty Nor'westers? Pemmican, that's what. A mixture of
dried, pounded meat (usually buffalo meat, though it could also be caribou or moose)
and melted fat, it was sometimes improved with a seasoning of berries. Notwithstanding
the generous quantities of hair and gravel that also found their way into the mix,
pemmican was the fuel that drove the human engines of the western fur trade, and for
good reason. Few foods provide a more concentrated source of calories. Minus the hair
and gravel, pemmican survived until quite recently, imperfectly disguised as "meat
bars," though it's been years since I saw any offered for sale. That certainly can't
be said of jerky, however. These leathery strips of dried and highly seasoned meat can
now be found in HyperMarts, bars, and convenience-store check-outs everywhere. While
lacking pemmican's fat indeed, pounded jerky was one of the ingredients that
went into pemmican jerked meat was still meat, and jerking was one of
the few ways travelers could preserve the flesh of freshly killed game. It saw a lot
of use in the years when canoeists in the North lived off the land.
Pease porridge and hardtack and pemmican. I had plenty of time a few weeks ago to
reflect on the inescapable hardships of backcountry travel in the early days, as I
snowshoed through a blizzard on a narrow trail along a steep-sided ravine, high above
the rushing black water of The River. I was cold and I was hungry, but the possibility
of starvation seemed infinitely remote. And so it was. There was a cell phone in my
pocket, after all, and my getaway pack
contained both a thermos flask of hot
tea and several oatmeal bars.
Moreover, a major state highway lay just beyond the ridge. How different it was for
earlier travelers, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement and with no way to
call for help when things went wrong, for whom a single missed meal might be the
appetizer preceding a banquet of want. Only the chickadees who
flitted about my head as I rummaged in my pack for a bite to eat knew this sort of
hunger at first hand. And yet
. Are we really so far removed from the age of
uncertainty? Perhaps not.
I reached into my pocket and discovered a small handful of sunflower seeds.
Brushing away the snowy cap from a nearby stump, I piled the seeds on the bare wood,
allowing a few to fall to the ground, just where the tracks of a deer mouse
disappeared beneath the snow. Then I finished my oatmeal bar, downed the last dregs of
my tea, and turned into the wind to begin my homeward trek.
Behind me as I walked away I heard the soft flutter of wings.
This is the hard season in more ways than one. And for as long as winter keeps many
of us off the water, we'll fill our free hours drawing up lists
and planning future
trips. Yet while we enjoy a range of choices undreamt of by earlier travelers, we
shouldn't imagine that we're immune from uncertainty and misadventure. Even modern
paddlers know lean times occasionally, and we can all benefit from the example of the
hard men (and women) who went before us.
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