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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 biscuit — easily 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.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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