I woke up in a large yellow tent, it was early, but it didn’t take long. Upon seeing my breath as I awoke, I knew I was actually here. I was in the Arctic Frontier, Canada’s third coast. Unknown to many, home to few, where mysterious wildlife roams and the landscape beckons. The sharpness of the icy air drove home the point as I climbed out of my toasty sleeping bag and ripped on my layers of near frozen clothes to keep my warmth. Like ripping off a bandage, quick and relatively painless. I stepped outside and fumbled for my sun glasses. Nearly blinded with my half open sleep eyes from the sheer intensity of the sun reflecting in all directions straight through my eyeball, it took a second to regain focus. I looked around through the tinted lens saving my retinas taking it all in again. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at and this was only the beginning.
Clueing in that I was here to work and cook for people, coffee and hot water for tea was the hottest commodity and always first on the list. Especially after waking up from long days and scurrying through the chill of the morning air to the lounge tent. People wanted their cup of joe. The camp sprung up faster than I could have imagined, while we went through and organized the food and coolers, readying ourselves for the first wave of guests. Arctic char bought from a local fisherman was the opening meal. A taste of the northern bounty. Marinated in honey and soy, roasted and served with quinoa and sautéed julienne vegetables. I took the opportunity from our Inuit guides to learn with the remaining char how to make pitsik, a traditional Inuit food and preservation method. Gutted, deboned and cleaned, both fillets still attached to the tail, you then slice the flesh down to the skin into small cubes. It is then hung outside in the sun and salty wind for a handful of days. The result is a sweet, mildly intensified fish flavoured jujube, absolutely delicious. Fishy things and I get along well though.
May 30, 2015… the first week of guests arrive. I spent the day preparing the arrival platters (charcuterie, cheese, crudité) a sweet potato strata for the morning and a huge pot of bone warming chili for the following day. After the near mandatory photoshoot of camp and the surroundings upon arrival, that I partook in as well, it was time for briefing and introduction. A quick talk about where we were, the potential dangers of living in such an area, polar bears and such. But most importantly, where the pee holes were drilled and how to use the pacto toilets. Now I’ve had my fair share of bathroom breaks/emergencies in less than ideal sketchy places, so this poo-holding contraption was high class for me when I think about where I am. It’s an actual toilet (enough said, I’m content) with a compartment underneath holding a highly industrial (I assume) garbage bag. Instead of the normal flush handle, it was a pedal that upon pressing said pedal pulled whatever may be in there down below. Load the little tent with air freshener and I never knew the difference except the always freezing seats.
Overall on a day to day basis between the chef and myself our job was to keep a full coffee/tea station at all times, prepare breakfast, floe edge lunch, snacks and hot dinner upon return. The menu changed daily for the guests consisting of heavier comfort food to keep the body warm. Now in theory this sounds pretty simple, but efficiency is not exactly on our side. A short task in the comforts of an industrial kitchen, here can take hours longer to perform. Roasting root vegetables for 40 for example can usually be done in larger batches with multiple sheet trays. Not here. The oven is old, propane run and fits two cookie sheets until jerry-rigging a third rack of sorts. The floor below us slowly but constantly melting sending the plywood sheets underneath off kilter also required some adjusting. The largest organic disposal system, a hole drilled to feed the fish would clog or freeze over. Water was in short supply so the near constant melting of fresh snow or iceberg ice was necessary to keep things moving. These things and more made it interesting at every turn. Always something to bypass, adjust, learn, grow and take away from each loop jumped through.
Just as there is problems presented when cooking in such an environment, there is definite luxuries as well. The Arctic with its lower level of bacteria helped prevent spoilage on all the product. The whole world around you is your fridge. Very rarely did the temperature jump above 4 degrees. I set my soups and stews outside in the pot groove I’d made, stirring occasionally to chill it as fast as possible. Fresh water melt pools can become the largest wash basin for produce. Hunters and fishermen become suppliers to some degree. The Arctic Char always purchased through them, while I also got some seal meat from one of our guides hunt. This simply supplied my own desires wanting to try anything new and local that I could. Eating like the locals do, raw of course, I slurped back a piece of the seal liver sashimi. The texture leaves something to be desired, but it has an almost sweet richness with an essence of fish from its diet. Mix this with a sliver of the raw blubber and something completely different starts happening. The fattiness plays well with the liver. I then chomped down on a rib chop. Such dark meat, rich in flavour and only slightly gamey. Seal meat is extremely high in hemoglobin and the Inuit eat this to keep warm while exposed to the elements for long periods of time. I was quickly informed as I started going to town on the seal rib that my diet not being used to this, I could overheat resulting in mad dashes to the pacto toilet. I didn’t want to test this so I slowed it down a touch. Muktuk the raw skin and blubber of the narwhal, beluga or bowhead would have to wait until next time, the hunting season slightly delayed this year.
Amongst all these perks most importantly, is the trips to the floe edge with the guests. The highlight of the expeditions are coming in Part 3…
To Be Continued…