Preserving Food

The frigid temperatures of winter prevent many from living in the area on a permanent basis, even with all the modern conveniences found in today’s world.  But the Arctic environment is not without its multitude of benefits, one of those being the ease of storing food in the winter season.  Once the mercury drops below freezing in early to mid-October, the temperature will remain below that point for a period of roughly six months, lasting into the waning days of April.  With those frozen temperatures, there is no trouble in preserving meat or any other foods on a long term basis.  Everyone seems to have a freezer these days, some run it in the summer, but in the winter it is used without power, as a means of protecting food from becoming too cold.

On the other hand, storing food in the summertime can prove to be a hassle.  In an area where electricity is neither abundant or cheap, there is either a large time or capital cost associated with preserving food through this warm season.  Traditionally, Nunamuit and Koyukon people preserved all their food sources outside the winter season through the use of drying and smoking. Fish were dried and smoked on racks along the river. Larger mammals like caribou and moose were cut into thin strips and laid out to dry as well.  In areas where permafrost was abundant, shafts were dug into the ground.  With a ladder, Nunamuit people would descend, storing meat in these natural cold cellars throughout the warmer periods.

In Wiseman, all residents maintain a freezer in the summer months.  For some, this means having a larger electrical system to accommodate the increased load of a freezer (some having more than one).  Others will maintain a smaller system, but will run the generator on a frequent basis to ensure that their batteries stay at an adequate level.  Unwilling to purchase a larger electrical system and wanting to minimize my interactions with a generator as much as possible, I mulled my options for the summer.  I had meat that wasn’t going to be consumed before it would spoil, so I needed to figure out a way to store it.  A propane refrigerator seemed like a viable option.  At the coldest setting, the temperature would be below freezing.  Not requiring electricity meant that I could leave for however long without worry.

One of my neighbors had been trying for years to get rid of their propane refrigerator.  It had been last used at a mine to the north.  Having no use for it, the appliance sat outside.  We loaded it up into the rear of the Yellow Submarine, their 1980s Chevy Suburban, and drove it the few hundred yards over to my cabin.

The problems started from the beginning.  The lines were air locked, requiring the refrigerator to be flipped end over end, in order to release any pockets of air.  That complete, the pilot light would stay on, but no cooling took place.  Plenty of banging ensued, on lines, on the regulator, and on unknown parts in hopes of fixing the issue.  Somewhere, somehow the banging did something and cooling began.  When it worked, it worked great.  The temperature would drop below freezing and everything inside would remain frozen.  The problem was that it rarely worked.

Daily I’d walk outside to find that the pilot light had gone out, only to relight it again and face the same issue later on.  On some occasions, I got it to work for days, even more than a week at a time.  This led me to take the chance to leave and hope it remained intact.  My hopes were squandered, the flame went out and the food began to thaw.  Thanks to the heroic assistance of my neighbor, Jack, my fish and meat stayed cool.  Later on in September, I left for a longer period.  The fridge had worked for a week straight so I figured it would be fine. Temperatures were cooling off and would likely be below freezing before I returned.  My experiences with the fridge throughout the summer should have taught me better than to trust it. I returned to find my remaining caribou meat spoiled and the loss of a few fish.  Another lesson learned the hard way.

Dealing with the propane refrigerator seemed to be a Sisyphean bout with frustration.  Everything would seem to be going fine, until I return to find the pilot light out once more.  My list of things I don’t like and/or have no desire to deal with has expanded to include propane refrigerators.  Starting next spring, I will be making more use of the traditional practices of preserving meat. Practices that have been time tested, require minimal expense and little to no maintenance post processing.  This will include activities like canning, drying and smoking.  And that reminds me, is anyone looking for a propane refrigerator? I happen to know a guy looking to get rid of one.

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