Elise Patkotak: Alaskans understand the food chain

Elise Patkotak

He stood out. There he was at the Sportsman Show wearing a suit, coiffed hair, some strange-looking beads and a lovely aftershave that almost, but not quite, overcame the normal smell of most Alaskans -- a smell that is a mixture of items probably best left unlisted but that surely includes various motor oils, gunpowder and smoke.

I was there with Bird TLC. We'd brought some of our feathered education ambassadors to meet and greet people who might normally only see them as faint outlines high in the sky.

What I love about Alaskans is that they can be thoroughly devoted hunters who also appreciate the grandeur of our wildlife. So as they wandered through the Sportsman Show, checking out boats and guns and hunting knives, they stopped by our area and listened respectfully to the story of our birds. Then most reached in their pockets and put some money in the box, money that keeps the owls in frozen rats and mice, buys medicine for sick eagles and meal worms for one loud and charming northwestern crow named Kodi.

Explaining a hunting culture to people outside of Alaska is increasingly difficult. As a population, Americans have become so far removed from their food sources that they are unable to make the connection between their steak and a steer with melting brown eyes. They oh and ah over the baby pigs at the State Fair and don't really get that those cute little babies will one day be their breakfast bacon. People who live in cities and suburbs often think people who hunt for a living are barely one step removed from the Beverly Hillbillies -- and not necessarily a step in the right direction.

I used to think that way too. One of my earliest childhood memories involved a little lamb that would appear right before Easter in my friend Grace's backyard. We lived in the city so by backyard I mean a little cement area with a fence around it and, because we were Italian, a fig tree growing in the middle of it in the one piece of accessible dirt. Each Easter, we would feast on a lamb roast as our traditional Easter dinner, based on the belief that Jesus was the lamb of God. It all sounds a bit cannibalistic when put that way, but honestly, it wasn't. And each Monday after Easter, Grace and I would go to her yard to say hi to the lamb and it would be gone. And our dads would assure us that the lamb had gone to a nice farm so it could have grass on which to play.

Eventually even Grace and I, the original personification of Catholic school dorks, innocent and gullible, willing to believe anything we were told because our parents, the priests and the nuns would never lie to us, what with them being the ones who told us lies would lead directly to hell -- yes, eventually even Grace and I figured out the connection between the lamb in the yard and the lamb in our mouths. After that, our moms would not let our dads bring the lamb home to butcher no matter how fresh and tasty that made it.

So Grace and I retreated to our happy world where meat was the stuff hanging in our dads' freezers behind their butcher blocks. It was red and white and looked nothing like any animal we'd ever seen. The disconnect between the food on our plate and the animals that provided it remained solid.

I've lived in Alaska long enough to know the connection now. If I want a whale steak for dinner, I can't pretend to not know where it came from. And all those hunters and fishers at the Sportsman Show can both hunt wild game for dinner and appreciate wild animals for what they are. That's why they all got that childlike look of awe and broke into big grins every time they handed Kodi, our Cache Crow, a dollar bill and Kodi politely deposited it in his cash jar.

As for the guy in the suit, who knows why he thought coming to the Alaska Sportsman Show dressed better than most Alaskans dress for their wedding was appropriate. If he hangs around here long enough, he'll quickly figure out what he's doing wrong.


Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow.



Elise Patkotak