As part of the Dawson Youth Fiddlers entourage, I have just returned from Vadzaih Choo Drin, Caribou Days, in Old Crow, Yukon – four days of celebrating the Spring migration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd en route to their Northern calving grounds and feasting on food from the land!
Caribou Days is a wonderful four day celebration of feasts, games and music, with jigging and dancing that continue to the wee hours of the morning. Everyone takes part, young and old, men and women. One of the Dawson contingent coined a new slogan for Old Crow: “Old Crow – where men dance!”
Much of the feasting celebrates food from the land. The caribou, vadzaih, features front and centre, but also rabbit, muskrat, whitefish, salmon, duck and beaver. For me, it was my first taste of muskrat! (Although I took my tub of Dawson local food with me, I also treated myself to some tastes of local Old Crow food while I was in Old Crow!)
There is a wonderful synergism to the games and feasting at Caribou Days. The log sawing competition and the kindling competition help keep the outdoor fire going for the huge grill that cooks the food from the land. The rabbit skinning contest and the muskrat skinning contest are perfectly timed before the meat hits the grill!
Muskrat meat ready for the grill, and fur ready for use. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Muskrat tails on the grill. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Beaver was also on the menu. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Prepared caribou heads ready to go in the pot. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Whitefish being cleaned for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Vuntut Gwitchin citizen, Stan Njootli Sr. demonstrates how to skin a muskrat. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Crow River ice after break-up. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The outdoor grill being prepared for the Caribou Days feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Almost ready. Checking on the caribou. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Food from the land ready for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The caribou are vitally important to the Vuntut Gwitchin who have relied on the caribou for tens of thousands of years for food and for clothing. All parts of the harvested caribou continue to be used from the head to the hoof to the hide. The Vuntut Gwitchin and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, with the support of many Canadians and Americans, continue to fight for the protection of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving grounds, wintering grounds and migration routes from oil and gas exploration.
Massi Cho Old Crow for welcoming the Dawson Youth Fiddlers so warmly to Caribou Days with amazing Old Crow hospitality. We had a fantastic time!
Setting rabbit snares was a common adolescent pursuit when I grew up in rural Newfoundland. We often set our “slips” as a side interest when fishing for trout. It was the era of self-created recreation.
And my mother was totally supportive. She would regularly buy rabbits from whomever came to the door with them for sale. “Two dollars a brace.” I still have memories from my pre-school years, holding rabbits up by their hind legs while mom skinned and gutted them. It was an intimate time, each of us tugging against the other, laughing at the foulness of the smell. And at supper time, mom would relish in the repulsion of others as she picked at the cooked heads on her plate of stew.
I thought it would be an easy and natural transition to set snares here in the Yukon during this winter of eating local. It was, after all, a skill I had not totally let lapse. When I worked in Northern Saskatchewan as a young doctor I often set slips. I would check them before work in the early mornings with a flashlight, as headlamps were yet to become the normal northern winter adornment that they have now become. It was an opportunity to endear myself with the older generation who were familiar with subsistence eating. It gave us common ground, an opportunity to lighten the conversation before launching into the drama of their personal illnesses.
Back then, as if living in a remote northern community wasn’t rustic enough, I liked to “get away from it all” by going on short bush stints. I developed a proficiency in building quincys and “bow-whiffets.” I would go with whomever I could convince, on a weekend excursion of cold, physical exhaustion, disrupted sleep, meager food intake and uncertainty. Of course, success with the rabbit snares was part of the calibrated need. My buddy Bob, some thirty years later, still laments the time that we were on one such trip. It was -43 and we were hungry and cold, sleeping in a tiny quincy that was too shallow to even allow us to turn on our sides. Checkers, the dog that was with us, later succumbed to pneumonia. We set a number of snares and had only one rabbit. As we hungrily approached the last snare, we realized that there was a living rabbit, loosely caught. In my effort to dispatch the critter, I accidently cut the wire, giving us the dubious satisfaction of watching the happy rabbit lope away. So impacted by the event, Bob reminds me of these details on each of our reunions.
So, I had full expectations of providing the family with wild rabbit this winter. But all I have to show for my efforts is the loss of my good ox-head axe. Not a single rabbit. Not even a slip that was brushed aside. Seems that these rabbits were not interested in using runs predictably; they kept slipping the slips. It became laborious and tedious to do the daily checks without reward, so I accepted defeat, haunted by the scorn of my friend, Bob.
But, “what goes around, comes around.” We were rewarded for catching no rabbits. After expecting nothing from the Easter Bunny during this year of sugar deprivation, I was pleasantly surprised to see that he made an exceptional effort for our household. I was awaken on Easter Day by the sounds of glee from my youngest. There were hidden treats throughout the house: birch syrup toffee, dehydrated berry packages, and carrots galore! And, I appreciate the carrots the most, since I know that they represent the greatest personal sacrifice from the perspective of The Bunny. All things happen for a reason…
All manner of foods were celebrated at the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in biannual Myth and Medium conference during the week of February 19, 2018, from whole grains to healing herbal concoctions to wild game. Not surprisingly, animal guts played a significant role, not just in cooking, but also in presentations and demonstrations, and in conversations among Elders and cooks from several Indigenous nations.
Vuntut Gwitchin hunter Stanley Njootli Senior told the audience on Wednesday night that the bag carried by The Boy in the Moon in the traditional story shared by many northern Indigenous peoples was filled with–caribou guts. Elizabeth Kyikavichik remembers that the first thing her family ate after a successful caribou hunt was the guts. Elizabeth, who is Teetl’it Gwich’in, grew up on the land near Fort MacPherson and was an avid student of her parents’ traditional hunting and cooking methods.
In traditional Indigenous cooking the whole animal is consumed, from antler to hoof, and guts are a highly valued source of nutrition. In fact, the same is true of pretty much every culture worldwide — traditionally, guts have been eaten with pleasure and gusto. Think of blood pudding, or liver paté, or steak and kidney pie, or the Greek kokoresti, or the Costa Rican sopa de mondongo.
In North America it’s only since the Second World War that we’ve turned our backs on guts, or offal — we’ve grown accustomed to the relatively inexpensive, choice cuts made available through the large-scale industrial raising and harvesting of animals, and by the supermarket retail model of selling food. The smaller butcher shops that typically carried offal have become harder to find. Now we tend to be squeamish about what we perceive as the stronger flavours of animal guts, and their different look and texture.
In recent years Indigenous hunters in the Porcupine Caribou range have noticed that some hunters were leaving gut piles and heads behind in the field when they harvested caribou. The Van Tat Gwich’in Government and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board collaborated on the publication of Vadzaih, Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof in part to encourage a return to traditional hunting practices. The book is both a field guide and cookbook, designed to appeal to hunters and cooks of all ages, pairing old and new ways of preparing caribou heads, shins and offal, as well as other parts of the animal.
When I worked on developing the contemporary recipes for Vadzaih with the community cooks of Old Crow, I grew accustomed to eating, and enjoying, kidney, heart, liver, tongue and brain. But I shied away from the intestines and the stomach. I don’t know why, since one of my favourite dishes as a teenager dining out with my parents was sweetbreads (pancreas) in Madeira sauce. Why was pancreas okay and not stomach? I don’t have an answer.
At Myth and Medium, those who attended the “Our Camp is Our Kitchen” cooking fire during the Shì Lëkąy Food Tastes Good Knowledge Fair were lucky enough to sample two different kinds of caribou stomach, prepared by Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Mary Jane Moses, Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Dorothy Alexie, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder Peggy Kormendy and visiting cook, hunter, musician and TV producer Art Napolean, of the Beaver people in Peace River country in northern BC. I screwed up my courage and tried a piece of tripe. It was mild, sweet and chewy, and I would try it again without hesitation.
I’m not alone. Among the Canadian settler population, due to the resurgence of interest in eating local food and the growing concern about food waste, guts are making it back onto the menu. International celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall are serving tripe in their restaurants. Canadian chef and author Jennifer McLagan has published Odd Bits, How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, a cookbook devoted to cooking the head, feet and guts of domestic animals. (We relied heavily on Odd Bits when putting together Vadzaih.) And small butcher shops are making a comeback not only in big urban centres, but, luckily for us, in Whitehorse and Dawson City.
At Myth and Medium we learned that Suzanne had taken to eating burbot liver in order to replenish her internal stock of Vitamin D. Suzanne offered samples of the liver during her workshop on Wednesday afternoon. We also ate caribou tripe and caribou head cheese and several different kinds of pemmican cooked by several different Indigenous people. And the Moosemeat Men served moose nose at Thursday evening’s feast.
I went home to Whitehorse with a few pounds of charcuterie made by Shelby Jordan of BonTon Butcherie and Charcuterie, and a surprise bonus. This was haggis, also made by Shelby, from pork liver, pork and wild boar tongues, boar head, boar kidneys and beef suet, all from locally raised animals, mixed with the requisite toasted stone-ground oatmeal and a flavourful blend of warm spices, the whole thing stuffed into beef bung, or appendix, which is in modern times the typical haggis casing.
Haggis, as we know, is the classic Scottish way of eating the whole animal, a traditional dish cooked right after the hunt and now most often served on poet Robert Burns’s birthday. I brought my BonTon haggis to a potluck dinner party on Sunday after the conference, where it was enjoyed by 14 people, some of whom had never eaten haggis or offal before. My husband, who is a Scot, said it was the best haggis he’s ever had.
Converting the masses to offal one caribou stomach, one haggis, at a time.
Inuk chef and cooking show host Ooleepeeka (Rebecca) Veevee, The Laughing Chef, is a familiar and beloved face in Nunavut. Armed with her ulu, her infectious smile and her sense of humour, Ooleepeeka is the driving force behind the Inuit Broadcasting Company’s popular TV show “Niqitsiat” (which means “Good Food Ideas”) – a cooking show that profiles Northern dishes made with traditional Inuit food from the land or “country food”.
Caribou pizza, goose soup, char casserole, seal pie, beluga muktuk stir-fry are just some of the dishes that Ooleepeeka Veevee cooks up on her show. Ooleepeeka often brings guests on her show including NHL hockey star Jordin Tootoo (first Inuk to play in the NHL). No one is too famous to learn from Ooleepeeka!
In 2015 Ooleepeeka Veevee received the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Award for her work promoting traditional Inuit foods. In awarding her the honour, the government cited how her TV program has been recognized for combating a growing epidemic of diseases related to poor nutrition in northern communities.
Ooleepeeka has shared her variation of a Traditional Seal Meat Recipe (link) with First We Eat.
“Niqitsiat” has been broadcast in Inuktitut on the Inuit Broadcasting Company since 2009 and can be viewed on APTN . Check out an episode of Niqitsiat, Ooleepeeka Veevee teaching how to cook BBQ arctic char and caribou head.
Using all parts of the moose or caribou is important when you are harvesting food from the land. This is one of the many lessons I have been learning during my year of eating local. For Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elders, the delicacies are not the moose steaks or the moose roasts, but the often-overlooked parts of the moose: moose nose, moose tongue, moose head soup, moose heart, moose liver, kidneys, and bum guts. Yup, I said bum guts. Part of the large intestine (cleaned well!) and cooked. I am venturing into the world of moose delicacies. Stay tuned… Victor and his Moosemeat Men will be cooking up a feast for the upcoming Myth and Medium conference, organized by the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin Heritage Department, and taking place in Dawson City, Yukon from February 19 to 22, 2018.
Happy Solstice everyone – the shortest day of the year a.k.a. the longest night. It only gets brighter from here!
I cooked a steak! This may not seem like such a big deal, but it is the first time I have ever successfully cooked a steak. For many years, I was a vegetarian. Actually this only changed when I hitched up with a moose hunter who liked to cook. I am probably the only person on the planet who has difficulty roasting a chicken. Steak, has also been a mystery to me. How to cook it so that it is tender and not over done. Not my forté. Moose steak is particularly daunting, as it is not the tenderest of meats, requiring long, slow cooking or marinating. So I have always opted to leave the moose steak cooking to Gerard. He manages to cook it, thanks to marinades and the BBQ (a cooking device that I have also never mastered).
Ah, the marinade. Let’s see – no soy sauce, no vinegar, no wine. So how to marinade? Gerard tried marinating in rhubarb juice, but it wasn’t very successful. Perhaps it just needed more time. Dawn Dyce of Dawson City to the rescue! Dawn marinades her moose (and any wild game) in milk. I had heard tales of Dawn’s most tender moose roasts, so I decided to give it a try. In my case I had just made some chevre, so I had whey on hand and decided to marinade the moose steaks in whey. At Dawn’s suggestion, I put the thawed steaks in a ziplock bag, added some whey, removed the air and set the bag in the fridge for 24 hours, turning it over now and again when I noticed it.
Hoping that the whey would impart tenderness to the moose steak, I still had the dilemma of flavour and how to actually cook the darn thing. Enter Whitehorse chef Miche Genest! One of the many lessons I had from Miche’s week long visit in my kitchen, was how to cook a moose steak with only the local ingredients I had on hand. Miche taught me about rubs. So, remembering her moose rub lesson, I removed the moose steaks from their whey marinade and patted them dry. In the re-purposed coffee grinder (no coffee in this house) I blended together dried juniper berries, nasturtium pods, and spruce tips, and then rubbed the spice mix onto both sides of each dried steak. Then I wrapped the steaks in plastic wrap and set them into the fridge for a couple of hours. Miche also taught me about cooking – hot and fast. Miche likes her steak rare so she sears it for 1 ½ minutes per side. I decided to go a little longer – but I did watch the clock.
The result? Yummm! Tender and tasty. Drizzled with a moose demi-glaze (made from moose bones – recipe to come later). Perhaps my ears deceived me, but I think I heard 15-year-old Kate say, “You could open a restaurant after this year, Mom.” Fine praise indeed for the mother who didn’t like cooking!
At First Hunt Culture Camp students learn about all aspects of caribou hunting under the guidance of experienced Elders and hunters. Photos by Ashley Bower-Bramadat.
I don’t think many high schools in Canada offer caribou hunting as a high school credit. But Robert Service School in Dawson City, Yukon does.
Since 1995, every October, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation have introduced youth in the community to caribou hunting under the guidance of experienced Elders and hunters at First Hunt Culture Camp. It is open to all high school students, both First Nations students and non-First-Nation students, and counts as one high school credit.
This year 18 youth participated. They spent four days up the Dempster Highway (the northernmost highway in Canada) on traditional land that has always been an important source of food for Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in ancestors. The youth chop wood for the woodstoves that heat the cabins (this year the temperature dropped to -22°C during First Hunt), they learn gun safety and rifle target practice, they practice archery, they learn how to snare rabbits, and they go caribou hunting. After a successful hunt, they also participate in skinning, hanging and butchering the caribou. The meat is then distributed to local elders and used for community feasts.
I had the privilege to be part of this year’s First Hunt Culture Camp, which was held Oct. 19-22. What struck me most, apart from all the adults who volunteer time to be part of First Hunt, is how all the students totally thrived in this element, regardless if they came to First Hunt already with skill sets or were learning new skills for the first time.
Mähsi Cho for inviting me to be part of First Hunt!
For the Inuit communities of Nunavut, seal meat has been a staple in their local diets for millennia. The meat is a vital source of fat, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and iron. Seal pelts are also prized for their warmth, and since first contact with Europeans, trade in seal products has played an important role in the regional economy. This revenue is especially crucial in remote areas where many foodstuffs need to be imported, and transportation costs are high.
A commercial seal hunt in Southern Canada, most notably the annual spring hunt in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, has generated controversy in recent decades, led by high-profile animal-rights activists, and resulting in a 2006 call by the European Union for a ban on all harp seal and hooded seal products. The traditional Inuit seal hunt has been swept up in an animal rights activism fervor, adversely affecting an age-old way of life.
But now indigenous groups are standing up for their heritage and defending their traditional lifestyles. Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril has released Angry Inuk, a feature-length documentary that defends the Inuit seal hunt. In Toronto, Indigenous chef Joseph Shawana is keeping seal meat on the menu at his Ku-Kum Kitchen restaurant, despite a petition calling for its removal, and is galvanizing a groundswell of public support of his own.
Partially shot in the filmmaker’s home community of Iqaluit, as well as Kimmirut and Pangnirtung, where seal hunting is seen as essential for survival, Angry Inuk also follows an Inuit delegation to Europe in an effort to have the EU Ban on Seal Products overturned. The film criticizes NGOs such as Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare for championing animal rights while ignoring the needs of vulnerable northern communities who depend on the hunt for their livelihoods.
Chef Shawana, whose restaurant specializes in indigenous-themed dishes, says he researched the Northern hunt before opting to serve seal meat. He points out the Inuit seal harvest is very sustainable and humane, and contrasts it with the roughly two million cows, 20 million pigs, and 550 million chickens killed each year in Canada alone during large-scale food production. But at the root of the issue, says Shawana, is the need to acknowledge and support Canada’s aboriginal cultures.
Originally written on Oct. 5th in the bush during Gerard’s Hunt
Perseverance has brought me home. Success on the hunt finally came after a grand finale of a day, with multiple sightings interspersed amongst the erratic transitions of nature from rain to wind to sun.
It was providential that I got this young bull. Circumstances beyond my understanding brought him to me, giving room for ethereal musings, even awe.
It had started as another day of frustration: cow after cow. The only visible reminder of this earth’s existence of bulls, were their telltale tracks. And those tracks are seductively dangerous, for they lure one further and further into the land of impracticality, the places where one man alone should not shoot a moose.
This was just not working, so I blasted off to another region altogether, a little archipelago of islands, a little oasis off the big river. Instantly, I saw a huge bull…much larger than I wanted or thought I could handle. But, despite that, after him I went, exhibiting all the logic of manhood. I tried sabotaging him from the back of the island. I tried calling him out. I tried motoring upstream, then quietly and unsuspectingly drifting back. I gave it a rest and went elsewhere, saw another cow.
Then the weather turned nasty. Rain and wind and a black sky were the harbingers of what was most certainly snow. As it was getting on in the day, this was incentive enough to seek shelter, set up camp, and brace myself for the storm. Quite fortuitously, my search for ideal shelter steered me back in the neighborhood of the large bull sighting.
I called a little, while setting up camp. I was surprised to hear the bull rustling and grunting in response, something new to this year’s experience. So I sat in the moored boat, gave a grunt and watched the bull come running towards me. But, it was not the large guy at all. Rather, this bull was young, of manageable size and intent on walking close to the water’s edge. He was clearly offering himself and I thanked him when he fell.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon that the work was done and I left for home with the dressed moose in the boat. During the whole process, I couldn’t stop thinking about how fortunate I was that this guy showed up. If I had shot that monster moose, there is a good chance that I’d still be there…
I’m writing this using a carpenter’s pencil I found in my jacket; a subtle reminder of my unfinished shed project. The paper is the unused margins of the 2017 Yukon Hunting Regulations booklet. Don’t say I’m unprepared.
It’s a glorious afternoon to drift on the river. For the moment, this is my new stealth tactic, after failing at motoring, tracking, climbing, spotting, calling and calling and calling. I feel that this will work. Why wouldn’t it? Everything else has only improved the lot of local moose, as they inch their way to the end of the hunting season.
It’s cold and a bit windy. I do calisthetics to keep the monotony and chill at bay, something my father passed down from the generations of sailing and fishing in Newfoundland.
I saw two more cows this morning. No sign of the bull after tracking for a couple of hours. These are evasive creatures, capable of silently disappearing in the smallest droke of trees. Amazing.
There was no trampolining mouse last night, nor were there owls. In fact, other than the hopeful raven and eagle, the river is practically devoid of birds. The rare Merganzer, no geese, two paired swans. It’s late in the season, I’m guessing. Maybe late for moose, even… But, the land is big, capable of harboring a wide variety of hidden life. I saw a small brown bear that seemed to be this year’s cub, yesterday. No mother in sight. This morning, I saw a large grizzly.
There is a wisp of orange on the tops of the cottonwood, and some willows are hanging on to their foliage, in stubborn denial of the season. It’s a game of patience, this. One swings from despondency to hope, simply by the sighting of a moose, or even a burst of sunshine through the grey overcast. My mood is fickle. Food might help. I think I’ll try that thing called Tomme, which looks like a dairy derivative. Maybe it’ll make my spirit soar.
Tonight I’m camped in a most unlikely location. From that you might surmise that I’m hunting again. On the river again. It’s my third night, this stretch, and I’m not sure how long I’ll be out.
This is the first year that Suzanne was really interested (invested) in my success with getting a moose, so she essentially sent me packing. Said, “there’s not much point in you coming back till you get a moose.”
So, out on this beautiful river I sit, drift and explore, suffering through a man’s duty or living the dream, depending on perspective. And Suzanne was kind enough to throw a few things in the cooler. Good thing, since grouse is off the menu after I realized I forgot the .22 bullets. I’ve got a couple of packs of moose sausage, three dozen eggs, two packs of moose burger, something called Tomme, and a whole bunch of carrots and potatoes. I’ve just finished my third consecutive supper of burger/ potato soup, and perhaps because of the paucity of options, each supper tasted better than the last.
I was thinking luck would be on my side, and I’d be eating fresh tenderloin and roasted rack of ribs all month, till I felt like ending the holiday, proclaiming that, “I just got him last night.” But, the way things are going, I might just be here for the winter and suffer a lingering slow death as I run out of food.
Sure, I’ve seen moose. But no shots fired. They’re skittish, grouping up, uninterested in my calls, running on sight so quickly that I haven’t even seen an antler. No inquisitiveness in me at all, despite having a red boat. I guess “seeing red” doesn’t mean the same to Yukon bulls as it does their Spanish relatives.
And what’s worse, is that moose seem to be fully versed in the general regulations about hours of operation. This morning, a cow and (possible?) bull presented themselves in the early dawn, too soon for certain identification. Tonight, two cows and another possible bull, provided me with a tantalizing glimpse just at dusk.
Which is why I am camped here. Right across the slough from that last sighting, on a steep bank, back-dropped by a grassy viewing slope, and just enough “flat” ground for my small tent’s footprint. I’m so close to the boat, I might as well have slept in it. An unknowing observer might think that I’ve deliberately parked the boat this way as a safety, such that if I was to roll off this precipice in the night, I would land in the boat and be saved from a chilly, wet drowning. They would not know that this sight was not so much chosen as provided. Tomorrow there will be action.
I have been suffering from moose anxiety. I suspect this might be a diagnosis particular to northern Canadians, with variations such as caribou anxiety and seal anxiety depending in which part of the North you call home.
Every October when the first snow falls, I look out at a woodshed full of wood and a freezer full of moose meat and feel the tremendous comfort of knowing that, come what may, we will have heat and food through the winter. “It’s like money in the bank”.
This year is different. This, the year we are eating only food local to Dawson City. The name ‘Murphy’ comes to mind.
Gerard has been hunting for almost 2 weeks and had yet to even see a bull moose. Very unusual. Lots of tracks, but no moose. Unfortunately, you can’t eat tracks.
It has been a surprisingly warm Fall this year in the Yukon. Perhaps the bull moose are waiting for colder weather before going into full rut. Whatever the reason, they have not been interested in the call of a pseudo-cow (i.e. Gerard). Perhaps he should have shaved.
On Oct 1st, after re-stocking his food (3 dozen local eggs, 2 pounds of local cheese, 20 pounds of local carrots, 10 pounds of local potatoes and the remnants of last year’s moose — 3 pounds of moose burger and 15 moose sausages), Gerard headed out on the river again for one last hunt. I’m sure I had given him the strong impression that he was not to come home again until he had a moose. But as the days passed this week, I began hoping that he wasn’t taking that literally. He is hunting alone.
And then, late last night, the phone rang.
It was a call from a satellite phone. And it was Gerard’s voice at the other end of the line. He was still alive. And one bull moose wasn’t. Phew! A relief on both accounts.
It has not just been the moose that have been affected by the weather this year in Dawson. A late frost in mid June seemed to have destroyed many of the wild berry blossoms resulting in an unusually poor year for wild berries. A very dry summer affected the wild mushrooms such that mushroom foragers have been scratching their heads to find any at all – worst year for wild mushrooms in 25 years!
It is another poignant reminder on our dependence on the forces of nature. And the importance of diversity (if not moose, at least we have some local chicken and local pork in our freezer). And the importance of community. Despite the slim pickings, Dawsonites have been generously sharing their precious supply of berries with us this year and I am sure that if this was to be Gerard’s first ever unsuccessful moose hunt, those who had more luck would have been sharing their moose as well.
Moose anxiety has now been lifted. Mähsi Cho Jejik. And thank you Gerard.
At 3:30 p.m. today I flung my rifle into the river. This was immediately followed by my body. This, like most of life, was more circumstance than deliberation.
I was feeling rather sprightly and adept, much like I would have felt after shooting a moose 20 or 30 years ago. But sadly, today there was a great absence of moose. And I am no longer as footsure as I was 20 or 30 years ago.
I had untied the boat, coiling up the painter as I approached it. As the current was strong, I had to quicken my pace towards the bank, taking that fateful (non-sprightly) leap onto the deck. The landing didn’t go so well, and in an effort to save myself, I inadvertently flung the rifle off my shoulder and into the river. Stupidly, my reaction was to plunge an arm in after it, thinking I suppose, that the rifle might be floating there, awaiting a rescuing hand. There was nothing for it but to jump in after it.
Thankfully, the water was only about 2 feet deep. I groped at the bottom and found no rifle. But the boat! It was adrift and even more of a priority than my trusty old 30-06. So, I floundered after the boat, grabbed the painter, tied her off, then retraced my steps upriver, in the water.
Now, over the years this family has lost a thing or two in the silty and opaque waters of the Yukon River. Once I dropped the fuel cap for my boat in 2 feet of water. I spent a good hour scouring the riverbed to no avail. One of my daughters was momentarily distracted while washing some mud off her shirt, only to turn around and find it gone. Another daughter lost a pair of pants the same way. The river gobbles things up and doesn’t spit them back.
Those were my thoughts as I rummaged around in this grey, swirling milk. I wondered how the pull of the 5-knot current might affect a rifle, whether things tend to get dragged to the deep or slide straight downstream. I worried about kicking it deeper, felt it best to start downstream and deeper, working towards the estimated point of entry. And I worried that whatever the effect the river was going to have on the rifle, it was going to compound with time.
After only a couple of minutes of frantic dredging, my hand blindly seized the precious tool! Not this time, Mr. River, not this time!
This past weekend the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation held their Fall Harvest Culture Camp at Forty Mile. This is an annual event where traditional knowledge is shared with youth and adults.
Forty Mile is 77 km down the Yukon river from Dawson City at the confluence of the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers. It is known as the oldest town in the Yukon, but was largely abandoned during the Klondike Gold Rush. The location is currently a historic site co-owned and co-managed by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and the Government of Yukon.
Forty Mile has a much longer history, however, as a harvest area used by First Nations for generations. This location was one of the major fall river-crossing points of the Fortymile caribou herd. Hunters would intercept the herd here as it crossed the Yukon River. In spring and summer, it was the site of an important Arctic grayling and salmon fishery.
The Fall Harvest Culture Camp saw harvesting of moose, chum salmon, and grouse, as well as wild plants and berries from the forest. It was a successful harvest, taking place in a beautiful and peaceful location, and overall a wonderful weekend.
Here in the Yukon, and throughout much of the North, it’s moose hunting season.
Moose is a staple for many Yukoners. One moose can feed two families for a year. Plus, since the animal haslived a good life feeding in the wild, moose meat is a lean and healthy source of protein.
Many Northerners rely on a freezer full of wild meat, such as moose, fish, seal and caribou to feed their families rather than relying on grocery store meat that travels a great distance to reach us.
In the Yukon, there are approximately 70,000 moose — that’s twice the human population of the territory. Hunts are carefully managed, with limits set on each region. Unless a limited number of special tags are issued by the government for hunting cows, only the bulls are harvested in the Yukon.
As Northerners we are acutely aware of where our wild meat comes from and we value the land and the animals that provide it. Mähsi Cho Jejik. (Thank you moose in the Hän language).
Maybe I’m not cut out to live off the land. I’m certainly not taking full advantage of the opportunities which are being presented to me. This morning I swerved the truck to avoid a few young grouse, filling their gizzards with pebbles from the road. And a couple of weeks ago I nearly sunk the boat in my effort to avoid a gaggle of darling ducklings that darted in every direction I steered.
Why is it that I am not searching out these circumstances as opportunities, as gifts to me, the purported self-provider? Is it innately instinctual to exhibit this aversion to dietary road-kill? How can it be that we are almost willing to die in avoiding a collision with an animal, only to go home and load the gun for a fruitful hunt? How interestingly peculiar (note that I did not say, “hypocritical”?) that we might spend weeks nursing an injured rabbit back to life, only to spend another portion of our recreational time in the pursuit of snaring rabbits.
As a minimum, we might wave away this peculiarity with the suggestion that it is powerfully compelling, and certainly endearing, to nurture and love; on the other hand, for the omnivores and carnivores amongst us, there is apt justification for the phrase, “food for thought.”
Miche here. When you go up to visit Old Crow you never know what that unique and generous community will send back with you — a haunch of caribou traded for some Taku River sockeye, or several pounds of King salmon roe. This year a friend and colleague presented me with a whole, wild, specklebelly goose.
I had never tasted a wild goose before. Bringing it home to Whitehorse, I plunked it in the freezer while I decided how to cook it.
The specklebelly, or greater white-fronted goose, migrates through Old Crow every fall and spring on the way to and from their nesting grounds in the Arctic. These geese are an important part of the traditional diet in Old Crow.
In early May the hunters were out on the Porcupine River, bringing home the birds for the family pot.
Every year, the hunter who got my goose gives all the women in his family a bird for Mother’s Day. He tells their men, who cook the goose, to follow the magic formula: 2-2-2. That is, slow-roast the specklebelly with two cups of water for two hours in a 200°F oven.
According to Ducks Unlimited, the specklebelly “provides the makings for one of the most delectable wild game meals you’ve ever eaten.”
This cook concurs. I followed a modified 2-2-2 formula, and that specklebelly was the best wild fowl I’ve ever tasted. Thank you Old Crow.
This “Traditional Raspberry Pemmican” recipe comes from the show and blog “Wild Kitchen”. Wild Kitchen is a project based in the Canadian sub-arctic about people who harvest wild food. 100% of the cast and crew are from the Northwest Territories and they work with what is available on the land to prepare nutritious recipes with a distinct wild flavor.
You can watch Wild Kitchen episodes here and on their website you can find their awesome recipes.
Suzanne is looking for ways to keep her ever-hungry 17-year-old son, Sam, full next year. Sam suggested that pemmican might be a reasonable locally-sourced snack food that will help him get through the year, especially since he spends lots of time doing physical activity. After all, Canada was practically built on pemmican. Trading posts would seek this high-protein and high-energy food from the natives, and it was used to sustain the voyageurs, especially in winter, as they traveled long distances.
The Caribou cookbook has arrived! Learn how to use all parts of the caribou. Traditional recipes such as ch’itsuh (pemmican), head cheese, and Caribou Bone Broth combined with new recipes such as Caribou Wonton Soup and Mushroom and Caribou Brain Ravioli.
On April 21 and 22 Vuntut Gwich’in citizens, conservationists, scientists, members of the public and families got together to celebrate the Porcupine Caribou Herd with two days of presentations, films, panel discussions, kids’ activities, and caribou tastings at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse. The event was hosted by Yukon Conservation Society (YCS), Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation (VGFN) and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB), all of whom have a keen interest in the health of the herd.
There was lots to celebrate. The herd is robust and growing in size. The relationship between northern indigenous peoples and the caribou that sustains them is respectful and strong. Harvest management strategies and hunter education programs are helping to ensure the herd continues to thrive.
But there’s bad news, too. Of 15 barren ground caribou herds the Porcupine herd is one of only two that are known to be increasing. The others have decreased alarmingly in recent years. Barren ground caribou have been listed as threatened in Canada. And the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are once again under threat from oil and gas exploration. VGFN and their First Nations and Inuvialuit neighbours, conservationists, scientists and concerned citizens are working together to ensure protection of the herd, and Porcupine Caribou: Celebrate and learn about the herd was part of that effort.
Listen to the “Yu-kon Grow It” episode in which Sandi Coleman talked to authors Kelly Milner, Miche Genest, and Cathie Archbould about their new cookbook: “Vadzaih: Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof.”