If It’s Offered to You, Eat It

September 28, 2015 § 10 Comments

My first picnic in the north taught me a lesson I never forgot.

“Want to go downriver to fish camp?” One summer Saturday in Aklavik, NT in 1965, we were invited to go on a picnic with schoolteacher Art Wiebe, his wife Anne and their family and Tommy Ross and his wife Phyllis and assorted children. Eighteen of us arranged ourselves in a large freighter canoe (no life jackets) powered by a “kicker” outboard. Forty-five minutes down the labyrinth of channels of the muddy Peel to Fish Point through a watery maze ringed by spruce, alder and willow bushes, brought us past old fish camps in various stages of disrepair and one smokehouse with the fire still smoking.

Finally, Tommy slid the canoe up on a sandy bank among scrub white spruce typical of the sub-Arctic. We had arrived at Archie Headpoint’s fish camp. A once-white wall tent was perched near a smoky campfire and fish racks held drying strips of salmon. I stepped out of the canoe as mosquitoes churned the air in gray clouds, seemingly particularly interested in getting to know me.

Archie’s wife, a Loucheaux woman of indeterminable age, greeted us. Her black and red flowered scarf hid most graying dark hair and framed a weathered brown face that broke into wide smiles. As we settled ourselves on driftwood logs around a low, smoky fire, she urged, “Have tea … have tea,” in low tones punctuated by frequent phlegmy coughs and productive spitting off to the side.

My eyes went to the chipped and dirty enamel cups that had been piled in a washbasin next to the fire. A black, greasy rag lay nestled in one of the cups. Our hostess industriously sloshed leftover tea out of the used cups, grabbed the grimy rag and proceeded to wipe out the cups in preparation for pouring tea in them.

Lord, help me! I can’t drink that! What if she has TB? About that time she hawked another phlegmy blob behind her.

And then I looked at her smile. Happy for visitors to break the monotony of long days at fish camp, she looked as if she were just as pleased to serve us as any well-to-do matron presiding over a silver tea service.

I had been one of those children with a highly developed gag reflex who was bothered by texture in my food. Any little bit of fat on a piece of beef would engage my gag reflex. Rice got stuck going down. Egg whites were suspicious. I stuffed my peas on the underside of my plate to hide them from my father’s disapproving eye. And my finicky eating habits hadn’t gotten much better.

Mrs. Headpoint picked up a knife and began to slice away on something sitting next to the fire in a cast iron frying pan that looked like a large brown baseball. No fancy cookies for this tea party, we were being served slices of cold caribou heart to go with the tea. Dried caribou meat was piled off to the side in thin strips.

I stopped thinking about myself long enough to realize this was my first big test in the North. Could I eat and drink what was offered? I swatted mosquitoes and accepted the dirty cup of black and potent tea, and the caribou heart slice. As I ate and drank I tasted the smoky fire I was surprised to find the dry meat was flavorful and as delicious as any meat jerky, and the caribou heart had a wonderful smoky flavor and the tea was strong and bracing.

The diffused sunshine of an arctic midnight made long shadows as our motorized canoe ploughed the dark water on the way back upstream the channel to Aklavik. We sang and our songs echoed across the water. Our long excursion ended with a second picnic down past Archie Headpoint’s winter place. This time the picnic fare was more familiar: roasted hot dogs, and tarts and pies.

That day I had my first lesson of “if it’s handed to you with love, eat it.” I would learn and relearn that lessons in our years in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

The next morning I woke itching furiously from one hundred and fifty-eight mosquito bites on my legs and arms, although I had worn long pants and long sleeves. One eye was nearly swollen shut from bites. Above and below the eye the skin was red and puffy and looked like I had been socked in the eye. I felt sluggish and tired, as if I had gotten a shot of Novacaine in my face. Welcome to the Mackenzie Delta before the days of bug spray! Worth it? Yes. It’s always worth it.

copyright 2015 Inger Logelin

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