On an expedition filled with steep learning curves (you’ve never seen snow before? Try telemark skiing down a hill with a 30-pound pack! You’ve never slept outside before? How about camping on a glacier! You’ve never had a science class before? Let’s talk biogeochemical field methods!) the steepest, by necessity, is that of camp cook. When your name appears on the “plan of the day” as part of the three-student cook team it’s do or die. Well, I doubt that our camp of hungry JIRPers would kill a cook who, at the end of a long day of fieldwork, failed to produce an edible meal. However, cooks do run the risk of going down in JIRP history like “that idiot in such-and-such year who cooked the pasta into barely edible salt mush.”
Luckily, Brittany, Lyda and my first mistake was one of quantity not quality. Fifty JIRPers can eat a lot of oatmeal. They cannot, however, eat eighty servings of oatmeal. Having made it through breakfast without memorable slipups we faced our next task: lunch and what to do with 30 servings of rapidly congealing Quaker Oats (because all of our food on the icefield is delivered via wildly expensive, gas-guzzling, helicopters, food waste, always environmentally and financially irresponsible, is inexcusable). Word to the wise: 1. JIRPers love burritos 2. if you mix leftover oatmeal with brown sugar, flour, raisins, vegetable oil, and baking powder and stick it in the oven it won’t turn into an “oatmeal cake,” but it will turn into a delicious pudding-esque dish even if you forget about it and bake it at 400 degrees for an hour and a half.
For dinner we decided that it’d be a fun challenge to make a meal that used every dish in the kitchen. Well, our goal was to make enough roasted potato medley, chopped salad, and beef stew, for 51 people— no more, no less. The somewhat predictable result was four hours of chopping and roasting twenty-five pounds of potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots in a single oven, stewing canned beef in the largest cast iron skillet I have ever encountered (this behemoth requires two burners), and a brief stint as short-order cooks desperately trying to chop enough peppers, apples, and lettuce to keep the salad bowl full in the face of the seemingly inexhaustible appetite of a never ending line of JIRPers (it was our own fault, we told them to help themselves to “bottomless salad”).
When the line of salad-seeking JIRPers finally ended we had a moment to enjoy our meal staring out at the view of the Taku Towers from the porch of the cook shack before the mountain of dishes called us back inside. Sitting with Brittany and Lyda, enjoying the meat Brittany stewed, clutching a cup of coffee Lyda brewed, and savoring the last of the peppers we had frantically chopped I found myself reflecting that 1. Kirkland-brand canned meet and pre-ground coffee has never tasted so good and 2. my day cooking, a task that I’d dreaded as a chore for weeks, had been one of my favorite days so far on the icefield. Sometime in-between preparing almost twice the amount of oatmeal we needed and the final dash to finish the salad something about JIRP clicked for me. Far from the day I had anticipated away from the science and exploration I thought constituted the “real” business of JIRP, my time in the kitchen—surrounded as I was by the laughter I shared with Lyda and Brittany, the aroma of baking “oatmeal cake,” and the smiles of JIRPers with full bellies—took me to the heart of what it means to be part of an expedition family.
Here on the icefield we talk a lot about community and teamwork. The idea that we are stronger together than the sum of our parts is an organizing principle of our daily life, drawing us closer as we navigate the challenges of living and learning in this harsh environment. I began to feel the strength of this community on the long trek from Camp 17 to Camp 10 when the quiet encouragement of the person ahead of me on the rope team got me through the final slog up the crevasse field to our camp at the Norris Cache. It buoyed me when I took a hard fall running through Camp 17 to grab my ski boots for a sunset ski on the Ptarmigan Glacier and my fellow JIRPers patched up my bruised knees and low stoke level (word to the wise: DO NOT RUN IN CAMP). Co-authoring a research proposal and digging snow pits with the rest of the Mass Balance project group, I’d begun to feel an inkling of what’s possible when JIRPers devote themselves to a project as a team. But it was in the kitchen with Brittany and Lyda brainstorming an original menu from limited ingredients and dashing about to make enough salad that I first understood that phrase “stronger together than the sum of our parts” as not only an aspirational aphorism but an incontrovertible truth.
Our meal won’t go down in JIRP history. I’m sure the potatoes we agonized over have already begun to fade into the many delicious meals we’ve had here on the icefield in the minds of our fellow JIRPers, but my first day in the kitchen will stay with me. Working together wasn’t always easy: I stubbornly stuck to the idea that we should fry up two sausages to feed 51 people for dinner long after Brittany and Lyda, sensibly, pointed out that if we did that 40 JIRPers would go hungry. But, together, we produced three meals (none of which involved sausage) that kept our expedition, our community, happy and fed.