A Babe in the Woods Is Born in Alaska

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Artist, chef, and columnist Isabelle Lirakis is a babe in the woods.

I’ve lived all my life traveling the world. As a child, my parents dragged me to museums, churches, expos, and flea markets and through the streets of Europe since before I could even walk, teaching me to experience different cultures by observing their food and traditions. Later in life, I took to traveling in order to sell my jewelry, hats, chefing skills, and artwork — all the while going to fabulous parties and dancing till dawn in Paris, New York, Newport, and beyond. Life was shiny and glittering and filled with gadgets and I loved it.

But then I traveled to a small cabin in a tiny village in Southeast Alaska. It was off the grid. I wasn’t there for a weekend or a wedding. I was there to stay for the summer season. (And yes, there was a boy involved.) Just to be clear, I do not camp or hike. I like my vintage Hermes scarves and Missoni skirts and pointy-toed shoes with animal prints. The great outdoors has never interested me — unless it was to search for mushrooms or berries I could add to my gourmet dinner. Let’s just say my outdoor activities up till that point had centered around roller blading through Central Park with a cigarette in hand, annoying all the joggers working so hard to keep in shape.

Realization No. 1: You don’t know what you don’t need…until you don’t need it

The cabin sat atop a small cliff overlooking a bay full of fish, crabs, and many other little creatures (many of them edible). We were situated near a small town, but to power our abode, we used only solar and wind energy, which was stored in a few 12-volt batteries. If I wanted to charge my phone, a little meter showed me just how much power I was sucking up. If I left the cord in the socket without my phone attached, it drained almost as much energy. (To use said phone, I would sit on one particular tree stump in one particular position.) On really sunny or windy days this was no problem, but when the conditions had neither, you could very quickly find yourself without any juice, meaning no light (save candles) to eat dinner by. In other words, I quickly learned that I didn’t need all the lights on all the time, nor did I need to be glued to a screen 24-7.

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Just because you need to hit the lumber mill doesn’t mean you can’t wear a Missoni miniskirt.

But you know what? I didn’t feel one bit deprived. Quite the opposite, actually. I had all the creature comforts I needed — the internet and a freezer, stove, washer, and dryer. Obviously, you start prioritizing what you’ll use when your power source is limited, but the point is, I didn’t really care if the dryer worked that night or not. No Netflix? No problem.

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The rowboat we used to catch (really big) fish, like salmon and halibut.

Perhaps more importantly, I noticed that the amount of energy we waste on staying connected, physiologically speaking, is enormous. There is a low-level but pervasive stress associated with being always “on” that I’d previously never been conscious of. I became aware of just how much energy we spend back in the “real world” on absolutely nothing.

Realization No. 2: We are so in nature’s way and not the other way around

Being submerged in the wilderness helped me gain a new perspective: We humans really do get in the way of nature. First we just plop ourselves anywhere we like without considering our surroundings. Then we create so much waste, and it all needs to be stored somewhere. And organic waste in a landfill doesn’t decompose and replenish the soil — it simply takes up space among the toothbrushes and food wrappers and other junk we toss out. So let me say this: If a city girl in Alaska could compost with out attracting bears, anyone can do it. Because it was easy to see from my perch in that cabin that these parasitic habits will surely be our own downfall.

Take, for example, the young bear I watched struggle to claim a spot for himself along the water’s edge. He traversed about 40 miles on and off the main road, zig-zagging across it, forcing trucks and RVs to stop at his whim. A few days later, he made his way right up to our cabin for an afternoon visit.

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As carefully integrated into the ecosystem as our houses were, this bear was not going to find a home on our peninsula. He had to be kicked out. Cute and harmless as he seemed right then, it wouldn’t be long before he would be a real danger to himself and us. As every household moved him along his merry way down the river, it dawned on me how much we take nature for granted. It was sad to watch this poor, scared, and dejected little bear getting kicked out. Luckily for him, Alaska is still wild enough that he surely found a place to call home. But we truly under-appreciate the space we allot for humans, along with our unwillingness to make it amenable to other species. Think about it: In more developed areas, simply adding trees and bushes for birds and bugs would go a long way.

Anyway, as the long days and light-filled nights of Alaskan summer rolled along, we fished and foraged and gardened and generally lived off the land. I cured halibut and smoked salmon, cracked King crab and made shrimp a million ways (stay tuned for recipes). And I loved every minute of it. Eventually, of course, my wanderlust got the better of me (I moved on to Thailand), but my newly hatched romance with my natural surroundings had only just begun. A babe in the woods had been born.

All images by Isabelle Lirakis. Click on any image below to open the gallery.

Born in Bagneres de Bigorre in the French Pyrennes, chef Isabelle's inspiration for food is born from her eclectic life of travel. A love of good food has been her constant companion -- from her early years cooking for her French grandmother to traveling the world as a fashion designer to life on the road as a private chef and even living off the grid in Alaska with only a fishing rod and a stove as company. Today, Isabelle lives in Newport, Rhode Island, where she dedicates her life to her passion -- foraging, growing, and cooking up whatever she finds with her classic French twist.

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