This summer, photographer Fredrik Norrsell and his wife Nancy Pfeiffer set out to explore a simple question: Could they live solely off the land for three months? The pair covered 566 nautical miles in Southeast Alaska in sea kayaks, surviving off whatever they captured or found. Between fresh crab and salmon, and foraged mushrooms and other vegetation, the couple lived like kings. Here, Norrsell explains how they did it.
Photo: In early June, we paddled away from a friend’s house in Haines, Alaska. In addition to years of experience in the outdoors, we brought plenty of fishing gear, a shrimp pot, some reference books on wild edibles, and a spice kit.While this was not a typical dinner, we enjoyed celebrating—and taking pictures of—our favorite meals. This dinner included dungeness crab, sautéed goose tongue with chitons, beach green salad, candied bull kelp, and spruce tip tea.Our goal was to not just survive, but to thrive. We hoped to eat well and have time leftover to read, write, take photographs, and enjoy the landscape.
Fishing—either jigging for rockfish and halibut, or casting for salmon—was part of everyday life. Over the course of the summer we caught and ate 119 fish.
Each summer, all of Alaska rejoices at the return of the salmon. The first salmon of the season came to us on June 29. We caught two fat, pink salmon and a gorgeous silver that day.Whenever we enjoyed a bounty, we needed to preserve it for lean days ahead. The slow, contemplative process of smoking salmon on the beach was a regular part of our experience.Here, another great meal of fresh-caught spot shrimp, rockfish ceviche, with breaded rockfish on a bed of watermelon-berry leaves. And, of course, blueberries and salmonberries for dessert.Crabbing was a new endeavor for us, and actually turned out to be quite profitable. In shallow, protected waters, we experimented with various ways to catch crabs, including reaching down and grabbing them. The baited crab ring in this photo was one of the best methods.Subsistence was hard work, but we couldn’t resist taking time off from berry picking to try the rope swing in Pirate Cove.Buried under muddy shores is a tremendous amount of tasty protein in the form of cockles and clams. Unfortunately, due to a paralytic shellfish poisoning alert posted for most of Southeastern Alaska, we were able to harvest only twice, from tested beaches. The result was a yummy clam chowder.Along with fish and seafood, mounds of wild plants helped keep us fed. In early August, we were delighted to discover a whole hillside covered with chanterelle mushrooms.Our route took us out Icy Straight to the magnificent, and sometimes volatile, outside coasts of Yakobi and Chichigof Islands.By late summer we moved to the more protected waters of Peril Passage.We had the privilege of sharing our summer with a variety of wildlife. This Sitka black-tailed deer let me drift right up next to her. She appeared unafraid and curious at being approached from the water.While a large male steller sea lion can weigh over 1,500 pounds and be quite intimidating, this group of sea lions seemed primarily curious at our presence.Baranof Island’s brown bears were eating the same thing we were, and feeding from the same streams. We gave each other respect and space.This young adult chose to fish in peace away from the older, more dominant bears.One morning near the end of our trip, a giant whale was slowly circling, letting off a stream of bubbles to frighten a school of tiny fish into a convenient gulp.It took a moment for me to realize I was looking at the baleen inside of his mouth, and his tremendous lower jaw filled with fish.Coming up mere feet from my boat, the whale arched his back, and dove beneath our hulls for another bite of fish.On our last night, we were treated to the first northern lights of a new season. As we crawled back into our tent to sleep we heard a boom echoing across the water. Somewhere out there a whale was breaching under the northern lights.
In the end we paddled 566 nautical miles of convoluted coastline along Lynn Canal, Icy Straights, and the coast of Yakobi, Chichigof and Baranoff Islands. Given the spices and condiments we brought along to make our meals tasty, we ended up eating 85 percent wild food. We learned a lot. Most importantly, we developed a deeper connection with the earth. And yes, we did come home a bit thinner.
If you are interested in learning more about our journey, look for a book of stories, photos and recipes from our trip coming out in the next year or two.