What Alaskan plants and animals are the best food sources?

By: Cristen Conger
alaska landscape
When stranded in the wilderness, your daily recommended calorie intake doubles from its normal level. See more pictures of Alaska.
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After several hours of wandering in the Alaskan wilderness, nature's soundtrack of rustling brush and twittering birds gives way to the audible rumblings of your own belly. One of the most uncomfortable parts of wilderness survival is the lack of available food. More irritating than a blistered foot, hunger nags at you with the persistence of an 8-year-old child begging for a Happy Meal.

In the game of survival, water trumps food, but solid sustenance provides much-needed energy. Wandering the Alaskan wilderness is not the time for dieting. People can go for weeks without food, but survival experts recommend consuming about twice the amount of calories as you normally would. If animal fat presents itself, gobble it up. In short, the fattier, the better when you're grazing off the land. Since your next mealtime isn't guaranteed, store up energy to sustain you for as long as possible.


Once you've downed the last bite of granola bar and you're left completely foodless, it's time to peek inside nature's refrigerator. In the southern, temperate regions of Alaska, in particular, many culinary options await. The farther north you trek, the slimmer the pickings -- the geography gives way to tundra and arctic conditions.

Foraging in the wild can present a number of obstacles. But if you go into the situation knowing how to select Mother Nature's meals, it can save you from disease and death. Also, keep in the mind the importance of energy conservation -- don't wear yourself out trying to find a refueling source.

The first task is planning how and where to find food. Should you track down a moose and eat for days or stick to edible plants? How do you know whether something is safe to eat?

First, let's look at the meat options in Alaska.


Protein in the Wilderness

arctic fox
Arctic fox (alopex lagopus) are among the small game found in Alaska.
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When it comes to hunting in the wild, should you seek out big or small game? In Alaska, big game includes bear, ram, and caribou. Beaver, and fox fall into the small game category. While a moose will undoubtedly feed you longer than a rabbit, you have to consider the cost of hunting one. Energy is a precious commodity when you're trying to survive in the wild.

Hunting can burn up to 600 calories per hour, which translates to 12 percent of the 5,000 recommended daily calories for survival [source: Angier and Underwood]. That does not include what it takes to haul an animal back to camp and butcher it, which tacks on another hundred or so calories. For that reason, big game hunting of moose, caribou and bear is likely not an efficient use of your strength. Also, injuring an animal without killing it places you in danger if it becomes aggressive.


You have a better -- and safer -- chance of catching smaller game, such as rabbits, birds, and foxes instead. To catch these, watch out for animal runs, fresh droppings and tracks. You may need to scout out an area before actually hunting, and if you know how to set up animal traps, that raises the likelihood that you'll snag one.

In Alaska, with its thousands of rivers and lakes, water may offer more viable options. Even in arctic regions and during the winter, you can find fish. The state's freshwater fish stock includes salmon, trout, arctic char and whitefish. Drop your line -- or hand -- in the water just before dawn or at dusk to maximize your chances of getting a bite. Also, watch out for bears when hanging around salmon streams since they feed off them, and you may be putting yourself in the snack line.

Fatty salmon provides premium fuel. For instance, while a trout only yields 200 calories, a healthy salmon gives you 900. But if you hook a fish with sunken eyes, flabby flesh and sharp smell, toss it back.

sockeye salmon
Sockeye salmon spawning in Alaskan stream.
Tom Walker/Getty Images

Even after you've exhausted your hunting or fishing resources, your protein provisions haven't run their course. In fact, the best readily available protein source in the wild is insects. Yes, the creepy, crawly, icky, mushy insects can save your life, given that a majority of their squishy bodies is pure protein. Insects actually hold more than three times the amount of protein (for their size) as beef.

Insect larvae in particular contain a lot of protein. You can find the eggs in moist areas under rocks and inside rotten tree logs or stumps. Beetle species, the most popular edible insect in the world, call Alaska home as well. Sizzling the crunchy critters over a fire will make them more appealing to eat. As you travel north, the insect population grows more limited, but in the off chance that you find an earthworm, rinse it in water and feast. Whatever your locale, stay away from stinging, biting, smelly or bright-colored insects, such as spiders and some caterpillars.

For the less adventurous diner, we'll look at edible plant options in Alaska on the next page.


Edible Alaskan Plants

You can eat all the parts of a cattail plant.
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Although animal meat offers the best energy source because of its fat, Alaska also hosts an array of edible and easily recognizable plants. But unless you know what you're dealing with, plant food can be risky. Don't eat anything that you cannot identify since many species look similar, but can be fatal when ingested. Pay careful attention to the leaf shape, spacing and root structure. To be safe, don't eat any mushrooms.

According to the U.S. Army Survival Handbook, there are some rules to live by for selecting plant food outdoors. In general, do not eat a plant if it has:


  • Milky or discolored sap
  • Beans, bulbs or seeds inside pods
  • Bitter or soapy taste
  • Spines, fine hairs or thorns
  • Dill, carrot, parsnip or parsley-like foliage
  • Almond scent in woody parts and leaves
  • Grain heads with pink, purplish or black spur
  • Three-leafed growth pattern

While hundreds of edible plant species exist in Alaska, there are some commonly known varieties that you can easily remember. For instance, cattails grow in wetlands and swampy areas. You can eat the telltale brown stalk, along with the roots and leaves.

For a sweet treat, a number of berry species grow throughout the state. In forest and woodlands in particular, you can find raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. Farther north in the tundra, tasty red and blue lingonberries resemble a blueberry's shape and cloudberries look like pale orange raspberries. Rasberries and other clustered berries, called aggregate berries, are safe to eat 99 percent of the time [source: Davenport]. In general, you should stay away from green, yellow and white berries, while 90 percent of purple, blue and black berries are edible [source: Davenport].

Keep an eye out for poisonous baneberries in Alaska. According to the Alaska Department of Parks and Recreation, these berries grow in shady woods and may be red or white. Their attractive white flowers look like lace, and you could mistake the berries for oversized blackberries.

Even the barren arctic landscape provides plant food. The buds, needles and stems from spruce trees can be eaten raw or cooked in a tea. Birch trees have edible inner bark as well, and with a little digging, you may uncover frozen berries in snow.

Take care when dining on plant food when hungry since it can cause a stomachache. In addition, while all people can safely digest all of the plants mentioned above, that doesn't mean they all taste good. Making plants palatable may require cooking, but in survival situations, sometimes you take what you can get.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Acerrano, Anthony J. "The Outdoorsman's Emergency Manual." Winchester Press. 1976.
  • Angier, Bradford and Underwood, Lamar. "Basic Wilderness Survival Skills." Globe Pequot. 2001. (April 17, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=h2U4Qsmq3hYC
  • Davenport, Greg. "Surviving Cold Weather." Stackpole Books. 2003. (April 17, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=NA3IO6Wkn74C
  • Davenport, Gregory. "Wilderness Survival." Stackpole Books. 2006. (April 17, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=7ZJjaNNgHhgC
  • Discovery Channel Survival Zone. "Learn to Survive -- Plants and Animals." U.S. Army Survival Manual. (April 17, 2008)http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/survival/guide/guide.html
  • Gonzales, Laurence. "How to Gather Food." National Geographic. (April 17, 2008)http://www.nationalgeographic.com/pathtoadventure/handbook/survival/survival4.html
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