One of the most delicious breakfasts I ever ate consisted of a foot-long length of the boiled intestines of a large fur seal, split open length-wise like a hot dog bun, with slivers of baby seal blubber wrapped inside—kind of like a foot-long, with blubber relish.
We were spending several days on the sea ice off Northern Greenland with tradtional Inuit subsistence hunters, traveling by dogsled and sometimes foot. In this pure-white, frozen landscape of sea ice, glacier headlands, and frigid wind, accompanied by a great deal of physical exertion, the notion of a bowl of granola and skim milk for breakfast lay beyond laughable. First, you couldn’t grow grain here anyway. Second, you didn’t want it. No, what the body craved was fat—pure, unadulterated calories in their most compact and high-energy form.
I’ve always advised weight-conscious friends that if you want to shed pounds REALLY QUICKLY go winter camping and cover some serious mileage on foot. I’ve staggered home from five days of winter camping and backcountry skiing, and, after the first hot shower, see a very noticeably leaner self standing in the bathroom mirror. Scientific studies done on adventurers moving on foot in the polar regions show that the male body consumes around 6,000 calories daily (compared to about 2,200 normally) under these extreme and arduous conditions, or about nine square meals per day.
If you don’t get those nine square meals or their equivalent (I’ve known winter mountaineers to carry bottles of olive oil inside their parkas, to drink as fuel) and you keep moving hard under these cold conditions, first you lose a whole lot of weight. Then you start to deteriorate.
These hungry memories came to mind during the research and writing of my book, Astoria, about the enormous scheme launched by John Jacob Astor to found the first American colony on the West Coast, and a trans-Pacific, trans-global trade empire. If you read my last posting (or the book excerpt), you’ll remember that the huge Overland Party that Astor sent from New York was to cross the wilderness of the western continent on the route that Lewis and Clark had blazed five years earlier. But, hearing stories about the ferocity of the Blackfeet Indians at the Missouri headwaters, the Overland Party diverted south into a thousand miles or more of unexplored terrain.
Carrying somewhere between 10-15 tons of gear on 115 horses and traveling partly on foot, the huge party of 60 crossed today’s Dakotas and Wyoming, and over the Big Horn Range, and the Wind Rivers. They stopped to hunt buffalo, laying in two tons of dried bison jerky and trading with Shoshone Indians for another ton—or roughly 25,000 packets in today’s convenience-store terms. Immediately after crossing the Tetons, they reached a small river that they believed was a headwaters stream of the Columbia. The forty French-Canadian voyageurs, happy to be off horses and foot, crafted fifteen giant canoes out of cottonwood logs, the Hunt party climbed aboard, shoved off, whisking toward what they believed was the Pacific not far beyond.
By now it was late in the season, the end of October, due to Hunt’s earlier dallying. The first day, with voyageurs singing, they flew along on swift but calm water making good mileage. The second day they hit a few riffles. The third day, two canoes swamped. Each day the river grew worse. On the ninth day, they struck major rapids and waterfalls. The first voyageur drowned. They were now stuck in a canyon, winter coming on, and surrounded by a desolate lava plain. But the worst of it was, with so large a party to feed, and despite the 25,000 packets worth of jerky they had laid in several weeks earlier, they were almost out of food.
Their calaroic expenditure was enormous. To sustain a party this large—now fifty people, now in cold weather, and now on foot—would mean killing and consuming a bison or large elk every three of four days. This is partly because most game is so lean, each pound offering only about 500-600 calories. The U.S. Army recommends for winter hiking a bare minimum of 4,500 calories daily—what would be the equivalent six to eight pounds lean game meat.
For Native Americans and early explorers, “fat meat”—the fatty meat and scraps we discard—was understandably the meat most prized by hunters. It was the meat that sustained you, like the seal blubber consumed by Inuit hunters.
But there was no fat meat to be found for Hunt’s party. No meat at all. The barren lava plain had no water. They split into smaller groups and staggered along, parched, drinking their own urine at times. Finally it happened, totally out of food, they were forced to eat the only edible item left: their extra moccasins.
They probably soaked them in water overnight to soften, boiled them, and cut them into pieces, as do peoples in Nigeria when they eat cow-hide called “pomo,” which they make into a soup with okra and cassava-paste as a substitute for expensive beef. Even then, however, the explorers’ moccasins didn’t offer much in the way of caloric value. With an ounce of hide providing only about 26 calories (this based on the nutritional content of “pomo”), and a pair of moccasins out of deerskin or elk weighing roughly 16 ounces, an explorer’s footwear would only provide him a mere 416 calories, or barely one of his nine square meals a day.
Peter Stark is a full-time freelance writer of non-fiction books and articles specializing in adventure and exploration history. His most recent book, Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire; a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival, tells the harrowing tale of the quest to settle a Jamestown-like colony on the Pacific Coast and will be published in March 2014 by Ecco/HarperCollins.