Vegetarian Traveller in Alaska
Most people see awe-inspiring Alaska from either behind the railings of a cruise ship or on a cushy road trip. Hey, this is the ultimate wilderness, so isnt it just a wee bit ironic that the majority "check" out the place behind the careful walls of crowded ships, tourist buses, safe air conditioned trains, and airplanes? This is the place that begs for you to cut off that umbilical cord and free yourself from the baked Alaska, smoked salmon and polluting cruise ship. So you're Vegan or vegetarian and scared stiff that you'll have to hunt down Caribou for your dinner. Take a breather and a pair of seceters and you'll be just fine.
You'll find that once you've let go, the doors will open for you to make intimate contacts with local people further away from regular tourist routes. It allows you to be freer with your choices, less concerned with your belongings, and closer to nature.
So here's the big question: how are you going to do this? Below are several tips which can aide you in your journey. Go forage!
Did you know
- There is no federal regulation of the word 'vegetarian' or 'vegan' in the United States.
Foraging, the practise of finding wild plants and turning them into something for the dinner table is an age old practise in Alaska. Being a primary subsistence activity, people forage for food, for medicine, for fuel, for raw materials with which to make clothing and implements, for trade items and for cash. Picking your food from the wild is about more than just free fresh, ethical food. It's about liberating yourself, about actual freedom of choice away from the normal transaction and distribution process.
Once you've had hours of hearing the sound of birdsong and rustling brush you'll clearly hear the rumble of a tummy. To prepare for your happy meal needs some study and thorough awareness of nature's fridge. The first task is planning how and where to find food.
In the southern, temperate regions of Alaska, in particular, many culinary options await. The farther north you trek, the slimmer the pickings, the geography gives way to tundra and arctic conditions.
Edible Alaskan Plants:Do's and Dont's
Unless you know what you're dealing with, plant food can be risky. According to the U.S. Army Survival Handbook, there are some rules to live by for selecting plant food outdoors. In general, do not eat a plant if it has:
- Milky or discolored sap
- Beans, bulbs or seeds inside pods
- Bitter or soapy taste
- Spines, fine hairs or thorns
- Dill, carrot, parsnip or parsley-like foliage
- Almond scent in woody parts and leaves
- Grain heads with pink, purplish or black spur
- Three-leafed growth pattern
- Don't eat anything that you cannot identify since many species look similar, but can be fatal when ingested.
- Pay careful attention to the leaf shape, spacing and root structure.
- To be safe, don't eat any mushrooms.
- Do the Universal Edible Plant Test
- Be sure to test each plant part (leaves, roots, flower, etc.) since some plant parts can be safe to eat, while others aren't.
- In dire situations stick to what you know as the test takes about 24 hours to complete.
Common Varieties of Edible Plants
While hundreds of edible plant species exist in Alaska, there are some commonly known varieties that you can easily remember.
Cattails grow in wetlands and swampy areas. You can eat the telltale brown stalk, along with the roots and leaves. You can eat all the parts of a cattail plant.
A number of berry species like the raspberries, strawberries and blueberries grow throughout the state. Farther north in the tundra, tasty red and blue lingonberries resemble a blueberry's shape and cloudberries look like pale orange raspberries. Rasberries and other clustered berries, called aggregate berries, are safe to eat 99 percent of the time. In general, you should stay away from green, yellow and white berries, while 90 percent of purple, blue and black berries are edible.
Keep an eye out for poisonous baneberries in Alaska. According to the Alaska Department of Parks and Recreation, these berries grow in shady woods and may be red or white. Their attractive white flowers look like lace, and you could mistake the berries for oversized blackberries.
- Birch and Spruce
Even the barren arctic landscape provides plant food. The buds, needles and stems from spruce trees can be eaten raw or cooked in a tea. Birch trees have edible inner bark as well, and with a little digging, you may uncover frozen berries in snow.
Take care when dining on plant food when hungry since it can cause a stomachache. In addition, while all people can safely digest all of the plants mentioned above, that doesn't mean they all taste good. Making plants palatable may require cooking, but in survival situations, sometimes you take what you can get.
Some of the other common plants are Alder, Angelica, Caribou Leaves, Chamomile Chickweed, Cinquefoil, Cleavers, Coltsfoot, Cottonwood, Currants, Dandelion, Devil's Club, Elder Flower, Fireweed, Horsetail, Iceland Moss, Juniper, Kinikinnick, Labrador Tea, Lambsquarter, Nettles, Plantain, Poplar, Reindeer Moss, Rose, Wild Roseroot, Shepherd's Purse, Seaweeds, Tamarack, Yarrow, Yellow Dock and so on.
The Ethical Vegetarian's Survival Guide
- Purify Your Own Water
You can always carry Link titlebottled water, but hey, how much water are you going to carry on your back. Bottled water, not only weighs a ton but also wastes plastic, which may be thrown on the side of the road or burned, creating an eyesore for other travelers or breathing disorders in village children. The best choice for you would to purify your own water. A couple of options are -
- Iodine tablets
- Water filters
- Ultraviolet treatment using a light pen
- Chlorine dioxide treatment using liquid solutions.
All four of these options have their benefits and can easily be found online or bought in an outdoor equipment store.
Ofcourse, a large number of options for transport exist, but walking is the best as you never end up having to wait, it's good for your body, environmentally friendly, and it's about the best way to meet the local population and interact with them. And if you have a compass, map and the right equipment, go camping and trekking.
- Eat Local Food
Even veggie food that you're used to is comfort food. People are switching to vegan and vegetarian food all over Alaska. But a lot of the products are imported and are expensive. Remember food miles. So you're probably likely to get your soya or flax seed cookies in a vegetarian restaurant or health food store but eating local dishes is the one step towards not sticking out like a sore thumb. If you eat what the locals eat, you can eat with them, chat with them, and enjoy truly authentic food. If you are lucky enough in your travels to be invited by locals to eat a home cooked meal, this is a wonderful opportunity to savour.
- Be Safe, know your limits, follow the trail on the map and be confident
Being aware and do your homework to learn what to expect in terms of weather, trail or road conditions, as well as local dangers and issues. Also know what to do in case of emergencies or first aid needs. Just don't push your luck, it's a good idea not to become a part of history too soon.
- Public Transportation
Getting around once you've arrived in Alaska is more difficult. This state is massive, sparsely populated, and has limited demand for public transportation. The best time to go is between late April and the end of September. There are three basic ways to get about
- Alaska's Marine Highway
The Alaska Marine Highway is the lifeline of southern coastal communities from Ketchikan to Dutch Harbor. Roads don't even go to most of the towns served by the "blue canoes." Cars and RVs are welcome on most ferries.
- Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines flies to the main cities and dozens of small airlines and air taxis cover the rest of the state.
- Rent a car or RV
This is also a great way to drive around the Alaskan interior but book ahead as cars become scarce and expensive in the summer.
- The Alaska Railroad
Runs for over 500 miles of track between Seward and Fairbanks, with an additional spur that goes to the quirky town of Whittier. Seward is the last stop on many cruises and Whittier is an Alaska Marine Highway port. The only other railroad in Alaska is the scenic White Pass & Yukon Railway out of Skagway, popular with cruise passengers and Chilkoot Trail hikers.
- Alaska Trails Parks Highway Express
Even though 75 percent of the state is inaccessible by road, Alaska Trails Parks Highway Express Bus service covers much of the 25 percent. Plenty of other regional bus lines are based out of Anchorage, Seward, and Homer, and several companies run shuttles from Anchorage to Denali.
- Cycling or Hitchhiking
Cycling is a super way to venture where there are no roads, but do remember that bicycle shops are rare once you leave Anchorage and Fairbanks.
- Cook Your Own Meals
Most of the time when we travel people cook for us and even while camping or trekking on guided treks this basic need is taken care of. Ofcourse you'll need some cooking experience, a stove, a cook kit, and fuel (unless you can manage to light a fire with wood). There are tons of guides to help you out with cooking in the wild.
- Wash Your Own Clothes
Though laundry services are great carry your own biodegradable soap and wash your clothes away from streams and other water bodies that might get polluted.
- Pack Your Trash
When camping or on the road, pack your trash, to leave no trace. Of course this means carrying extra weight, but it keeps the landscape clean. If you can, in highly sensitive areas (such as arctic zones or more heavily used wilderness camps) even pack your human droppings in plastic bags, then haul them back to a place where they can be safely disposed of.
What to do and where
Restaurants and Health foods shops
- Alaska Vegetarian & Vegan Restaurants, Natural Food Restaurants, Health Food Stores and Natural Food Stores
- Health Food Stores & Vegetarian Restaurants in Anchorage, Alaska
Yoga and wellness spas
Communities and Groups
- Animal Net societies, groups, communities
- Calypso Farm and Ecology Center. Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) Program. Calypso Farm and Ecology Center is a non-profit, educational farm based in Ester, Alaska. They provide hands-on science education to Fairbanks school children through their education programs as well as Community Shared Agriculture (CSA). They also encourage volunteer travellers.
Other Local CSA Programs and farms for volunteer work, organic vegetables and information.
- Basically Basil
- Rosie Creek Farm
- Demeter Farm run by Eric Mayo and Sue Kerndt in Fairbanks
- Spinach Creek Farm run by Lynn and Pete Mayo Fairbanks.
Travel forums and Eco tour operators
- Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Assn. (AWRTA) Membership organization of small, locally-owned ecotour operators with the goal of promoting and protecting wild places in Alaska.
Preparation for your travel
- Sources for wilderness tripping gear: A directory of mail-order catalogues and on-line vendors for wilderness
Read and identify before you eat
- Alaska's Wild Plants: A Guide to Alaska's Edible Harvest (Alaska Pocket Guide) by Janice Schofield
- Wild Food! Learn about Edible and Medicinal wild plants and mushrooms, nature and ecology with America's best known forager "Wildman" Steve Brill.
- Foraging and Wildcrafting in Alaska For Fun and Profit By Charles Walsh and Sandra Fongemie
Where to buy the best maps
Trail maps published by Trails Illustrated, part of National Geographic are sold online or at park visitor centres. The maps are water proof but as they dont cover the entire state, the topographic maps by the U.S. Geological Service are a good bet. They are available at the sales office in Anchorage on the campus of Alaska Pacific University, in the Earth Science Information Centre.
Vegan or Vegetarian Shoes
As vegan or vegetarian lifestyles grow in popularity and become more than just fashion statements, products in the marketplace try and keep pace. The definition of a vegetarian is someone who eats no animal meat at all while a vegan is one who consumes nothing from animal sources, with the intention of not exploiting animals in any way.
So for those who maintain a vegan lifestyle, but who also like to go hiking or trekking, shoes made of leather are a definite no no. Unfortunately leather is the best material for trekking as it is flexible and easily water-proofed. But there are non-animal boot materials and are called Vegan boots or shoes.
Where to shop online for Vegan Shoes
- PETA's Shopping Guide to Compassionate Clothing: Vegan Companies
- Garmont Women's Vegan Hiking Boot
- Men's Hiking Organic Hemp Vegan Boots and Shoes
- Patagonia Shoes
- The Alaska Vegetarian Society is a wonderful way for people to come together and explore the delights and many compelling reasons for eating a plant-based diet.
- Foraging wild edible plants in Alaskais the primary subsistence activity, along with hunting and manufacturing clothes, tools and implements.
- The traditional diet of the Inuit (Eskimos): Were they the only raw-food culture?
- Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany and Use (Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology) by Harrie Kuhnlein, Published by Taylor & Francis; 1 edition (January 1, 1991)
- The Alaskan Traditional Diet Survey
Further Reading and online resources
- Alaska Native Food Practices, Customs, & Holidays (ETHNIC AND REGIONAL FOOD PRACTICES) by Karen Halderson, Published by American Dietetic Association; 2 edition (1998)
- How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine and Crafts by Frances Densmore, Published by Dover Publications (June 1, 1974)
- The Inuit Paradox: How can people who gorge on fat and rarely see a vegetable be healthier than we are? By Patricia Gadsby, DISCOVER Vol. 25 No. 10, October 2004, Biology & Medicine.