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I have worked in kitchens long enough to have experienced many different diets: vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, raw food, gluten-, dairy-, nightshade-, salt-, nut-, and shellfish-free. While working at Saltoluokta Fjällstation, I experienced a new eating preference: vilt (wild). These are vegetarians who will eat wild fish and meats. I have never run across one of these in the US, though I have met several people who are vegetarians but will eat animals that were raised sustainably.

Wait, what can't they eat?

Wait, what can’t they eat?

To be a wildfoodatarian in the US would hardly be worth explaining. Unless you or someone you know hunts wild game, you will have trouble acquiring wild game. So what about that buffalo burger, or fried crocodile, pheasant breast, or elk steak you ate on that one vacation? They probably all came from farms. Laws in the US prohibit hunted meats from being served in restaurants, as the animal must be inspected prior to slaughter. Wild fish is still fair game (no pun intended). The laws, put in place in the 19th and 20th centuries, worked as a preventative measure to protect wild animal populations, which had been severely depleted by commercial hunting (read more here).

Spelt galette topped with caviar, red onion, whipped creme fraiche, dill and lemon.

Spelt galette topped with caviar, red onion, whipped creme fraiche, dill and lemon.

Today it appears that the only way to get real wild meats is to go to the local Food Bank during hunting season. For example, in West Virginia, hunters can donate their deer to local meat processors who will butcher everything and donate it to the Mountaineer Food Bank. It’s an excellent program, but it raises awkward questions: why is uninspected meat okay for the poor? Could hunters earn income from sales of hunted deer – an income that could perhaps help economically depressed regions?

Warm smoked Sik (whitefish) were succulent and delicious.

Warm smoked Sik (whitefish) were succulent and delicious.

Sweden has different laws concerning wild meats, and one regularly sees moose, wild boar, and many types of game birds on menus. Wild game is served in other European countries, as well. All these countries simply require the game to be inspected and processed in a certified facility, post-hunt. Reindeer occupy their own category – as semi-domesticated animals that must be slaughtered in a certified facility – a complicated system Amanda is still trying to understand for her research.

Strangely, the wildfoodatarians I encountered didn’t require much menu modification due to Saltoluokta’s game-based menu. All of our proteins for the main courses were wild foods: moose, reindeer, smoked whitefish, trout, and arctic char. Occasionally we used a bit of pork belly, but who wouldn’t? Even our lunch menu used ground reindeer and moose meat for things like lasagna or pasta bolognaise.

Roding (arctic char) roasted over a wood fire.
Röding (arctic char) roasted over a wood fire.

It was a great experience to work with all these wild foods. Reindeer innalår (tender top round) marinated, grilled, and then finished at high heat in the oven was supremely delicious, crusty and slightly charred on the outside, tender and deep pink on the inside. Moose innalår received the same treatment but the meat is lighter in color and milder in taste while still remaining distinctly wild tasting.

Slicing reindeer innalår that has been grilled and then finished at high heat in the oven.

Slicing reindeer innalår that has been grilled and then finished at high heat in the oven.

The fresh caught and smoked sik (whitefish) from the lake were moist and succulent—excellent served with a sour cream caviar sauce and boiled potatoes. Röding (arctic char) and öring (brown trout) were often served whole, after roasting in a bath of white wine, butter, and a showering of almonds. Lax (salmon) is not easily found in Sweden, but it is abundant in nearby Norway. We wrapped exotic asparagus in thin slices of cold-smoked Norwegian salmon and served them up with a chive hollandaise.

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Asparagus spears wrapped in cold-smoked Norwegian salmon with chive hollandaise.

Northern Sweden becomes a blanket of wild berries during the summer: lingon, blue, cloud, and crow berries found their ways into the menu from accompanying souvas (salted and smoked reindeer meat) to cloudberries sitting below mascarpone cream in a tiramisu. Havtorn (Sea buckthorn) is known as the tropical fruit of the north. It is quite acidic but when sweetened can taste similar to sour orange with hints of mango or pineapple. We used it as a coulis to drizzle on desserts or add a bright taste and color to appetizers.

Havtorn (seabuckthorn) berries add a wonderful taste to sill (pickeled herring),

Havtorn (seabuckthorn) berries add a wonderful taste to sill (pickeled herring),

While mushrooms are abundant here, there is not much of a mushroom eating culture. Still we served a mushroom soup which contained a mix of wild mushrooms in addition to button mushrooms. A morel mushrooms cream sauce made an appearance alongside the roasted moose, and pickled chanterelles livened up a few appetizers.

Cloudberries waiting for their marscapone-cream topping.

Cloudberries waiting for their marscapone-cream topping.

Avant-garde Swedish cuisine is becoming popular for using wild ingredients such as birch leaves, lichen, sea buckthorn, pine tips, bark, reindeer hearts and tongues, and many other wild foods. Ironically, in the US, it appears one might only be able to approach this experience by going to a soup kitchen in West Virginia or DC where a local hunter has graciously donated his or her deer or the National Park Service is culling the deer population.

Low temperature arctic char with

Kristoffer Åström’s low temperature arctic char with smoked carrot sauce, white wine braised cabbage, burnt butter and herbs at Cafe Gasskas in Jokkmokk.

Recently, Amanda and I joined Eva Gunnare from Essence of Lapland for an impromptu wild edibles class where we made a delicious meadowsweet saft, ate birch leaf crackers, and checked out wild salad greens. Stay tuned for a description of that meeting.

Snowmobiles are the workhorses of the north. Almost everyone seems to own a snowmobile or two. Some are old, battered and wheezy, while others are shiny new and extremely powerful. Many people use snowmobiles as a tool, to move supplies or people, herd reindeer, check on livestock, etc. Snowmobiles are perhaps even more often used as a toy, a way to get out and cruise around at high speed in the woods.

A snowmobile (called a snowscooter in Swedish) is an extremely useful tool.  Here the snowmobile is being used to bring food to the reindeer during this particularly hard winter.

A snowmobile (called a snowscooter in Swedish) is an extremely useful tool. Here the snowmobile is being used to bring food to Johan’s reindeer during the particularly hard winter.

I have seen people riding with dogs sitting regally behind the driver. I have seen snowmobiles pulling long sleds with a half a dozen people and gear, and I have seen hundreds of pounds of long lumber being pulled on a sled. Some diehard users will drive them on bare ground as well.

A skilled driver can take a snowmobile almost anywhere. Many times I have scaled steep and difficult ascents on skis only to shake my head in disbelief at seeing snowmobile tracks from a reindeer herder at the top.

Snow?  Who needs snow to drive a snowmobile?

Snow? Who needs snow to drive a snowmobile?

Our friend Sofia grew up driving snowmobiles and to watch her drive is very impressive. She is about 5’4 with a slender athletic build. On flat even ground she sits on the seat and opens the throttle so we speed along smartly. On variable terrain is where she comes alive, standing and leaning this way and that; deftly convincing the roaring machine to remain upright. Sometimes she will swing one leg over the seat so she is standing with both feet on one side and then aggressively lean outward like she is sailing. All of these movements are fluid and easy, giving the impression that she is dancing with the snowmobile.

Last week I rode with Sofia and our coworker Elin to some cabins located about 10 km across a large frozen lake. The hydropower dams cause water fluctuations which force the lake to heave up miniature mountains of ice, especially where there are rocks that protrude from the water. These small ice mountains can be 30 or 40 feet tall and give the impression that one is walking on a landscape from a far off planet.

Snowmobile with a few sleds behind used to transport us closer to good skiing.

Snowmobile with a few sleds behind used to transport us closer to good skiing.

Traversing the lake requires negotiating these ice heaves. The marked trail dips and climbs steeply and large cracks in the ice loom very close by. I would be nervous to walk on this terrain, let alone drive a snowmobile pulling a sled with two other people and a dog. Sofia charged forward prudently but with confidence, gunning the snowmobile as we approached uphills in order to maintain enough speed, and leaning aggressively to keep us upright.

Several times we came to pools of water that had collected on top of the ice. These are places that are easy to get stuck as the water mixes with the snow to form something akin to concrete. I was riding in the sled with my back facing forward, so I could not see what was ahead. Suddenly I would feel us accelerate, a crescendo rising from the two stroke engine, and then we would plunge into the water, droplets showering over me. Sofia maintained enough speed to keep us from getting stuck, and we were all thankful for her driving skills.

Camera's can't capture how fast Amanda was driving this snowmobile, hence the blurry picture.  More food for the reindeer.

A camera can’t capture how fast Amanda was driving this snowmobile, hence the blurry picture. More food for Johan’s reindeer in the snow pasture.

Sofia’s skill were not developed overnight; she began driving snowmobiles at a very young age, perhaps before most kids learn to ride a bicycle. I watched a 6 year old driving a snowmobile with his dad sitting behind him. The young boy turned the snowmobile around and drove by us, casually waving before speeding off across a frozen lake and climbing a series of small but steep hills.

Saltoluokta Fjällstation relies on snowmobiles during the winter to transport guests and their baggage along the 4 km isleden (ice road) across Lake Langas. The isleden is marked by orange poles drilled into the ice and one must be careful to follow it closely, as weak ice can be found on either side.

One of Saltoluokta's snowmobiles waiting at the ready.

One of Saltoluokta’s snowmobiles waiting at the ready.

Warm temperatures and long sunny days have finally weakened the isleden enough to make it unsafe. We took one of the last snowmobile transports across at the end of April. I noticed Jore, our driver, wearing a set of ice claws around his neck, a security device you can use to pull yourself out of the water in the event you fall through. We crossed the thin ice at high speed, and the water that had accumulated on top of the ice splashed over us as we rode behind in the transport sled. The next day the isleden was closed and a new transportation method was put into place: the helicopter. More on that soon!

 

“What the heck is Upski?”  I asked.

“It comes from your country,” responded Johan quizzically. “I think it started in Colorado and has been around for almost 30 years.”

Upski is a method used to ascend snow-covered mountains via parachute and wind.  It differs from randonée skiing in that it’s easier. It differs from kite skiing in that it is less dangerous.  Upskiing uses a harness attached to a parachute, or canopy (the preferred nomenclature) that can be completely depowered by releasing a Velcro tab that allows the wind to flow through it via an adjustable hole in the middle.  This advantageous feature hopefully helps the user avoid crashing into rocks, plummeting off cliffs, or having to cut the lines.

Catching wind with an Upski can sometimes feel like hooking a big fish!

Catching wind with an Upski can sometimes feel like hooking a big fish!

Saltoluokta is apparently an ideal place to Upski owing to the plethora of treeless, snow-covered mountains and almost constant supply of wind.  While many backcountry skiers will wax poetic about their love of skinning up mountains, most are probably lying, and too broke to afford a lift ticket. I count myself in that proverbial boat.  Skinning up is a good workout and peaceful and blah blah blah. The downhill is what puts the ear-to-ear grin on our faces and the spring in our step.  So Upskiing seems like a sweet deal; let the wind pull you up the mountain, then stow your lightweight nylon canopy in your backpack and ski back down to the bottom to do it all over again.

I had the opportunity to try Upskiing with a small group of beginners led by a Swedish mountain guide and two American Upski ambassadors, imported to introduce people to this newish sport.  In the morning, we packed our canopies and headed up the mountain holding on to a tow rope attached to the snowmobile like a ski train.

Here we come!  A momentary lack of wind causes the canopy to bounce off the ground like a helium balloon on its last legs.

Here we come! A momentary lack of wind causes the canopy to bounce off the ground like a helium balloon on its last legs.

The day started off as one of the most windless we had felt in weeks, making for perfect learning conditions that piqued our desire for more speed.  During most of the first hour we traveled slightly slower than the speed of a walking penguin. There are of course no penguins here; you are thinking of the South Pole which is spelled and pronounced differently from Saltoluokta.  There were moments of ephemeral excitement when a stray gust of wind would momentarily whip up the canopy, the lines would draw taught and we slide along for 20 or 30 meters (that’s right I count in meters now).

When the wind did arrive, our canopies eagerly jumped into the air, pulling us forward with a start.  One can steer the canopy by edging the skis and pulling on the ropes in the direction one wishes to go.  The feeling was exhilarating and with a steady wind the kilometers slip by quickly.

The straps in the middle of the canopy allow for more or less wind power.  Seeing what is ahead of you can be a bit difficult at times...

The straps in the middle of the canopy allow for more or less wind power. Seeing what is ahead of you can be a bit difficult at times…

Due to the speed created by the wind it is extremely advisable to have fixed heel skis (not cross country skis). However, cross country skis are what most people are wearing on their feet here (sometimes even in bed!).  My coworker Mats was eager to try Upskiing. Lacking the necessary equipment, he fashioned a haphazard binding system out of old telemark skis, zip ties, NNN-BC boots (not at all compatible with the telemark bindings), rubber straps, and I think I saw aluminum foil, cornichons, and bobby pins, but I might have had snow in my eyes.

The terrain where we were was only slightly uphill, so I never got to experience a wind assisted summit, but it seems like it could work under the right circumstances.  Perhaps eventually a new breed of wind skiers will be born that enjoy the Upski more than the downski.  Rich Upskiers could even engage in “Heliskiing” (Helicopter skiing). Instead of being dropped off at the top of the mountain, they would be picked up there!

If I wake up a 6:30 am I have time for a ski tour before I start work at 11 am.  I have skied most of the close, smaller, peaks around Saltoluokta, but larger peaks are visible in all directions, some of them with ideal slopes for skiing.  The biggest visible peak is Måskostjåhkå, which measures a little over 1400 m and is completely above tree line.  The approach to the base is about 5 km long over gently sloping terrain and the ascent has two steep parts and then follows a ridgeline to the pointy top.  My friend Sofia had a day off on Friday, and I rearranged my schedule to start at 3 pm instead of 11 am. Tommy, the head chef, gave us a ride in a sleigh pulled behind his snowmobile. In addition to Sofia and her border collie, Vessla, there were two other coworkers that came along for the snowmobile transport, necessitating two sleighs.  Even though the terrain was not very steep the smaller snowmobile had problems pulling the load, so we periodically had to jump off and push up the steeper parts.

Måskostjåhkkå at 1420m catches sun and beckons to be skied.

Måskostjåhkkå at 1420m catches sun and beckons to be skied.

Wind is very common in the mountains and it whipped at us as we rode in the sleighs, sitting cross-legged on reindeer skins, our backs to the wind.  Fortunately the wind was not so strong, and it was blowing in clear skies, a welcome sight.  Forty minutes of riding (and pushing) brought us to the base of Måskostjåhkkå where our two friends donned their skinny touring skis and set off back towards the lodge.  Tommy loitered for a moment; snapping pictures of us and watching reindeer make their way up a steep slope.  Sofia and I did an avalanche beacon check, strapped on our backpacks, and clicked into our skis.  We looked at the topo map and chose a route that would afford us the most protection from avalanches, opting to avoid a ravine and instead traverse a wind-scoured slope.  A group of seven reindeer had chosen the same path and were steadily traversing the slope single file. We waited for them to reach the top and then set off following their tracks.

Snowmobile transport makes the approach quicker.

Snowmobile transport makes the approach quicker.

Thousands of acres of un-skied snow awaited us; only reindeer stealing our powder turns.  Fortunately the reindeer are very considerate of powder conservation, consistently walking in each other’s footprints.  Our first traverse was the steepest of the day, but the reindeer had chosen an elegant line and the snow had a firm base with about 4 inches of soft snow on top, promising blissful turns on the descent.  At the top of the first pitch we picked our way through rock gardens on a plateau while heading towards the next pitch, which also proved to have a layer of soft snow.  At the top it became icy and windblown and we erred in our route and had to remove our skis and walk over wind exposed rocks for several hundred meters before clicking back into our skis.

Sophia and I layered up and ready to gain elevation!

Sofia and I layered up and ready to gain elevation!

The approach to the summit was gradual, but the snow was carved in windblown chunks, that looked not unlike currents in a river.   Vessla the border collie loped in front of us, occasionally pausing to roll in the snow.  We traveled along the bumpy snow for about half an hour, steadily gaining altitude until the top of the mountain was visible.  Here the snow was harder and wind-carved more dramatically and ornately, resembling sea corral in places.  The wind was strong enough to occasionally blow my hood off.  The weather had been cloudy with occasional bursts of sun, but as we reached the summit, the clouds cleared and we were treated with a magnificent view.

Sophia with lots of snow and mountains behind her.

Sofia with lots of snow and mountains behind her.

We donned extra layers and ate an early lunch out of the wind under the watchful eye of Vessla.  The decent of the upper section was much better than expected.  The wind carved snow was soft enough to break through and didn’t throw our skis off course.  We skied the bumps, occasionally getting air as we carved our way down.  We picked our way through a few rock gardens before reaching the first steep downhill.  The snow was soft and the angle was perfect for controlled turns with lots of speed.

Vessla with her snow makeup on.

Vessla with her snow makeup on.

Vessla ran hard to follow us as we gleefully made arcs.  A long traverse followed, ending at another excellent slope with great snow.  We had reached the point where Tommy had left us with the snowmobile but we were able to continue downhill for another half mile or so. We followed a shallow ravine that snaked its way through the foothills and deposited us out in a small flat valley floor.

Back down on the valley floor.Back down on the valley floor.

Skins were reapplied to our skis and we crossed the valley and climbed a small hill on the far side.  From here we could see Saltoluokta lodge below and to the east.  We removed the skins and tackled crusty snow, our tired legs fighting their way down the last long descent.  The slope eventually led into a dwarf birch forest where we found better snow.  Without the firm snow below, Vessla labored to keep up.  Sometime it looked more like she was swimming than running.  Finally the trees and slopes disappeared and we emerged onto the frozen lake that Saltoluokta fjällstation overlooks.  We skated on our skis for the final leg of the journey.

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Back at the frozen lake!

I had time to eat a hearty lunch of moose stew with mashed root vegetables, take a shower and a quick nap before starting work.  My legs were tired but my mind was carefree and happy, a great way to start work.  Should I consider this trip as my commute?