Caribou and Kosher Camping

**That is a picture I took of Denali, just 2 days ago.**

My daughter and I hiked up, up the mountain, our legs burning as we climbed.  Both of us were in skirts and my sheitel (wig that some Orthodox married women cover their hair with) was soaked through, but we were grinning.  My husband and son had opted to take the shuttle for the 2 miles or so, but my daughter had been determined to take the trail and the views were worth it.  We looked out over a pristine valley of arboreal forest, beyond which rose rock cliffs and, far in the distance, the snowy peaks of the Alaska range, Denali, the highest point in North America, among them.

We spent 3 glorious days in Denali National Park.

We cooked our kosher food over a camp fire, slept in our 2 tents, and prayed our prayers to the sounds of ravens and squirrels.  One morning, as I davened morning blessings, a rather pushy squirrel nearly climbed up my leg.  Another morning, it was so chilly I could nearly see my breath in the tent as I whispered Modeh Ani.  In between, we saw all kinds of wonders.  On a bus ride, we saw mother brown bears and their cubs rushing to eat as many soap berries as they could before winter, caribou foraging the tundra, moose disappearing into the trees, ptarmigan wandering, and arctic ground squirrels popping up out of their dens.  We saw valleys carved by glaciers and glacial rivers, mountains colored by mineral deposits, and “the mountain,” Denali, rising up above everything, mysterious and distant.

Hashem truly blessed Alaska with an overabundance of wild beauty.

Our fellow bus riders, when they found out that we were Jewish and kept kosher as we passed them the packaged lunch that came with the tour and broke out our granola bars, asked us if it was hard for us to keep kosher here.  In fact, I’d almost say it’s easier to keep kosher camping than it might be traveling in urban areas.  Since we already needed to pack most of our food for the trip, we just packed what we would normally eat.  The dehydrated camping food I’d bought was kosher and actually was pretty tasty.  I made a kind of chili from it that we used in tortillas to make burritos.  It’s easy enough to buy kosher granola bars for hiking.  The only downside was that I forgot the kosher marshmallows I’d spent so much money to order online for the trip, but we’ll use those later.

Beyond kosher, we had the most beautiful backdrop for our normal observance and prayers.

There was some sadness as we packed up yesterday to drive home.  This was probably our last trip to Denali.  My daughter was sad that there was a hiking trail we didn’t take.  I wanted to tell her, “We’ll take that one next time,” but I stopped short, realizing that there may never be a next time.  Instead, I talked about how there are hiking trails in the lower 48 and many of them are very pretty.  I talked about how we could camp down there without much worry of moose or grizzly bears, particularly where we’re considering moving.  Inside, though, I wanted to stretch out that time.  If there was a way to transport a fully functional Jewish community up here so that we could stay…I’d do it in a heartbeat.

But…there isn’t.  In order to complete our conversion process, we must move.

Once we move, the kids will be in day schools.  In high school, both kids will likely be in boarding schools.  Our lives won’t have much time left in them for finding mountains to climb.

But, yesterday, sweat soaked and grinning, we climbed and there is meaning and value in the climb, even if we never reach the summit.

Everyday Holiness

One of the things I love most about Judaism is the awareness and intention it can bring to even the most mundane and everyday of tasks.  Growing up, “religion” was something that was always separate from everyday life.  We went to church on certain days and not others.  We prayed only on certain days or at certain times.  Religion was an obligation to be taken care of and THEN you lived your life and in church it seemed like everyday life was inherently unholy and that holiness was something separate that you only touched briefly when you were in church unless you were part of the clergy.  It wasn’t for just any layperson or any day and it certainly wasn’t found in the “worldly” world around us.

This never quite fit with my own personal experience of the world, even as a child.

I felt more connected with whatever that “more is out there” was when I was out in the world, particularly the natural world, than I ever did in the stuffy air behind stained glass windows.  To me, it seemed like the dark wood pews, frowning statues of saints, and stained glass more seemed to keep what I felt was something more out.  I know understand that Hashem was even there because there is no place He isn’t, but as a child it seemed to me that church was the last place I could find that connection.

Judaism is so different when it comes to everyday life and religion’s place in it.

An observant Jew’s day is filled with prayer and almost every aspect of the day is given greater intention, from what we wear, to how we speak, to what and how we eat.  I open my eyelids and, as tired as I was having to wake up extra early for work at 4am, I utter the first prayer of the day, Modeh Ani, thanking Hashem for giving my soul back to me and giving me another day here in this life.  Blessings and prayers are on my lips throughout my day and each day involves some kind of study of Torah.  My faith isn’t something confined to certain days or times, but is integrated into every waking moment.  Even working on a firewall at work can have a greater purpose and intention and should.  We’re asked to elevate the mundane everyday into something greater, not try to escape it.

Perhaps the most perfect and visible example of this is how a Jew eats.  Most people are aware of the basics of kosher, that there are some things a Jew shouldn’t eat and that even the foods that are permitted need to be prepared in very certain ways.  Really, though, that’s only the beginning.  The Jewish table is not a feeding trough, but an altar.  Each meal is a sacrifice, carefully and lovingly prepared.  Just as in the times of the temple when the Priests would eat the sacrifices, both the meat of the animals sacrificed and the meal offerings, so to is each Jew like a Priest offering up and eating a sacrifice.

We bless Hashem before we eat or drink anything, thanking him for our food, but also acknowledging where our food came from.  We have to know if a fruit or vegetable grew on a tree or from another plant or if something was made of certain grains.  It requires awareness of how our food grows.  In addition, there is a blessing that must be recited the first time we eat a fruit each year, which really makes each first time as if it is THE first time I had an apple or a peach.  As I take a fruit in my hand, I have to know where it came from and remember if I’ve enjoyed that fruit already this year or if this is my first peach all year.  Afterward, there are more blessings, again thanking Hashem for creating all this food.

Last night, in a class on the weekly parsha (weekly Torah portion), one of our Rabbis asked a very good question.  If Hashem could create people any way He chose, why create them so that they needed to eat at all?  Angels don’t have to eat and He could just as easily have created humans so that they never needed to eat anything.  The answer was that everything contains sparks of holiness that need to be elevated and when it comes to food, we elevate those sparks back to the Creator by eating it.  There’s a little more to it, though.

If I eat mindlessly, without blessings, intention, or awareness and then I use the energy from that food either wastefully or to do bad things, then I really am not elevating that food or the sparks of holiness within it at all.  If, however, I eat only what I need and do so with intention and awareness and blessings to the Creator of it, then use the energy from that food to make the world a little better, doing acts of chesed (kindness) and mitzvos, then I certainly have elevated the sparks of holiness in that food, returning them to their source, Hashem.

From a Chassidic perspective, that’s the entire purpose of creation, for us to gather the treasure that our Father has hidden in this world and return it to Him.  That treasure isn’t just in special buildings with stained glass and marble, but in everything around us every single day.  It is even within us and every person we interact with.

Even something as simple as eating a piece of fruit can be holy and a deeply, profoundly religious act of sacrifice to Hashem.

To me, this heals a wound I felt as a child, not understanding the duality I was taught which seemed to contradict a greater truth that my heart already knew…that there is no separation between faith and religion and the mundane, that Hashem is everywhere and in all things and that our lives were meant to be filled with that awareness, not just reminded of it on certain holy days.

We are meant to be one as well.

But…What Do You EAT?!

I won’t lie…feeding our family of 4 a healthy, kosher diet in Alaska is a never ending challenge.  While keeping kosher in the lower 48 was sometimes difficult, living in Alaska brings in an entirely new set of challenges.  I decided to share how we handle some of those since there might be other people trying to keep kosher far outside of decent-sized Jewish communities or who are also wrestling with health challenges that make keeping kosher a bit tougher.  I also was inspired because I finally found a word that describes what we eat.

Pegan

It sounds funny, like we stalk wild peas out in the tundra, running them down with a spear and a mighty yell.  Basically, it describes a diet that is mostly plants, low in carbohydrates, higher in fats, and uses meat more like a condiment than the main event.  This works for us because Mr. Safek is an insulin-dependent, type 2 diabetic who seems to do best on a low-carb diet.  We tried paleo years ago and virtually all of this numbers improved.  The problem is that a regular paleo diet quickly becomes expensive in Alaska where kosher meat has to be shipped up and is costly and supplies of it are limited and fresh fruits and vegetables are also expensive and hard to come by.  Another challenge is that we have 2 kids to feed that aren’t big meat eaters and I have to eat a little differently due to lactose intolerance and some issues with my liver and reflux.  We’re a complicated bunch to feed even without kosher concerns in the mix!

Often, I will make something that is a pareve (not meat or dairy) main dish.  Then, the kids and I will add some kind of vegetable protein to it, like beans, tofu, or the like while Mr. Safek will add some carefully rationed kosher meat to his.  This allows us to meat everyone’s dietary needs without gobbling up a ton of kosher meat.  Fishing for salmon, trout, and other fish allows us to have a source for local kosher meat as well.  We also go through a lot of eggs, which are more widely available and less expensive than other animal proteins.

I cook a lot from vegan cookbooks because we can always add meat to those recipes if they’re pareve by nature or leave the meat out as needed.  I often wonder if I should branch out my kosher kitchen into also having pareve utensils and cookware, but for now, I just use my meat utensils and cookware and am careful not to serve this pareve food with dairy, since it’s really actually meaty from the pots and such.

And…when all else fails and I absolutely am dying for something kosher that we can’t find up here, I either make my own or ship things in.  I will admit, I recently spent $20 on kosher marshmallows, but summertime without roasted marshmallows was just dragging my spirits down more than the twenty some dollars was worth, so I caved and Amazon Prime comes to my rescue with several bags that I’ll need to find uses for.

I recently also happened upon a unique Alaskan kosher challenge!

We’re planning a tent camping trip in August to Denali National Park.  It’s one of our favorite places to camp and an amazing place to visit if you get the chance, but kosher food options are super scarce there and we won’t have refrigeration for the days we’ll be up there.  I looked into kosher MRE’s for the trip, the meals that the military uses to feed kosher keeping troops, but the cost of shipping wound up being more than the meals themselves.  So, I had to do some research to figure out what kosher backpackers use.  After some digging, I found a brand of vegan dehydrated camping meals that are certified OU kosher AND were available on Amazon Prime with free shipping, so we have those on their way and I plan on adding in fresh fruits and vegetables that can handle sitting in the truck without any cooling.

And, as if that wasn’t enough…we still have to worry about bears and keeping our food contained in a way that doesn’t attract them and other wildlife to our camp.

Keeping kosher in the last frontier is always a challenge, but I find that there is always a way around those challenges and being able to enjoy Alaska without caving to the temptation to make things easier by breaking kosher feels so good.  I also think it makes me a better, more inventive cook and often forces us to eat healthier than we otherwise might, if convenience foods were more available.

I’ll put the links to kosher MRE’s and the kosher dehydrated camp meals in the conversion resources section of this site in case it is helpful to anyone else planning a trip far from kosher restaurants and grocery stores.  Being observant doesn’t have to force you to miss out on adventures and enjoying Hashem’s creation!  I think it’s also good for those living in bigger cities to see that if we can keep kosher here, it really can be done anywhere!