A Heart-to-Heart with Mythical Alaska

By | November 4, 2011

At the Alaska Bioneers conference in October, I attended Jaime Van Lanen’s workshop on regional wild food procurement. Jaime, an anthropologist studying Alaskan subsistence patterns, has a passion for indigenous ways of procuring food. Last year, he successfully hunted a Moose with a primitive bow.

Jaime started the workshop with some myth busting: rather than the land of abundance that many of us envision, Alaska is a biological desert. Typical of northern climes, Alaska has a low biomass and not much diversity of plant and animal species. “But what about all the Moose, and the Caribou herds?” I can hear some of you asking, “and the rivers teeming with Salmon?” Moose hunters have only a 19% success rate, stated Jaime, and it is even lower for Caribou. Unless you are a subsistence hunter, you must enter a lottery in hopes of getting a tag, and for an open hunt you need to go all the way up to the North Slope. The total Caribou population is 950,000, while Michigan, a state only 15% the size of Alaska, has a Whitetail Deer herd numbering twice that of Alaska’s Caribou.

After Jaime and the other participants stated that many residents can take advantage of seasonal protein concentrations such as running Salmon and migrating Caribou, Jaime recounted an interview he did several years ago with an over 90-year-old Athabascan elder who lived his whole life on the Black River. “Tell me more about [life in] the 1800s,” Jaime asked. The elder replied, “Straight meat, you gotta like it.”

In order to live off of such a thinly-spread biomass, Jaime said that all subsistence hunters today, including Natives, rely on four wheelers, motorboats, and snow sleds. Gas is already $10 a gallon in some communities, and when it and the subsidies to purchase it are no longer available, Jaime believes there is going to be a mass population exodus. He says that without fuel and ammo, even the state’s best hunters will go hungry.

What did all of this mean to the workshop participants? Most of them felt strengthened in their commitments to climate-adapted gardening, supplemented by subsistence hunting and fishing. Jaime, on the other hand, said he’ll continue collecting as much as he can of the little-remaining knowledge of regional foraging and preservation methods. He added that that sedentary living and reliance on carbon fuels have erased irreplaceable knowledge in just two generations.

For me, the workshop was further confirmation that if it doesn’t come from your bioregion, it doesn’t contribute to sustainability. In fact, it accelerates the downward spiral to unsustainability. I don’t know of anything better at destroying while creating the illusion of helping than fossil fuels and firearms. As the Elders have told me, Earth Mother provides all that we need within our regional Hoop of Life.


Susan Cable on November 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm.

Now that I know you were there, I wish I’d attended Alaska Bioneers, though I hate to fly for environmental reasons.

In Fairbanks a few summers ago local Larry Landry (host of Glenn Helkenn) told me Alaska’s entire interior traditionally supported only 35,000 people. To me this suggests the upper human population limit that region can sustain without introduction of outside energy (petroleum). Sadly, probably any habitable place on earth has already exceeded carrying capacity, as has the planet. This certainly includes SE Alaska, but I’m thankful that here in Juneau fish can be caught with little or no petroleum input.

It was good to see you discuss the Alaska myth. Thanks!


Tamarack on November 19, 2011 at 4:19 pm.

Hi Susan,

It would have been good to see you. And easy—all you had to do was hop in your umiak and paddle over.

It’s hard for me to imagine the vast Alaskan interior with only one person per 100 km². Even in the state’s richest habitat, the 1300 mile long Aleutian-Southeast coastal region, there were less than 30,000 people. Yet it’s good to remember that statistics are notorious for giving false impressions. People cluster in communities, where I’m sure the feeling is quite different from the one the data conjures up of people spreading out evenly over a landscape.

You and I are fortunate to be living in fish-rich areas where, even without petroleum, we can catch enough in a day or two to last the entire year. Last night we netted 500 Cisco, and what a thanks-giving feast we had!

Please stop in the next time you paddle by,



Leave Your Comment

Your email will not be published or shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>