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Have pudding, will travel

When you’re 14, wet, cold and in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, only one thing can help. Anthony Doerr recalls a transporting moment

Anthony Doerr | January/February 2014

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Nowadays I can appreciate the city’s leafy, bygone beauty, but as a teenager all I saw were dark Februaries, dead mills and freeways going elsewhere. I became so enamoured with leaving that I papered my bedroom with maps of distant islands. At night I dreamt of icefalls and grizzlies and twisting braids of rivers smoking in Arctic light.

At 14, I announced that I would buy a van with my lawn-mowing earnings and drive to the Yukon. My mother—half-amused, half-horrified—pointed out that I couldn't obtain a driver's licence for two more years. Then she stuck a catalogue for a summer outdoor-leadership school beside my breakfast. 

They offered three trips in Alaska. I jabbed my finger at the least scary-looking: a month-long sea kayaking expedition.

Mom said, "You have to be 16 for that one."

"Oh well," I said, and rustled the newspaper classifieds. "Look, here’s a minivan for sale. Only five hundred bucks."

"Fine," she said, "we'll tell them you’re 16. But no vans.”

A month later I was standing in the rain wearing two pairs of nylon underwear and a lifejacket. Ahead of me loomed the bright green fjords of the Tongass National Forest, 17m acres, one of the few rainforests in America.

Fifteen of us departed in 11 kayaks and we didn’t set foot indoors for a month. Among my memories are the glories you might imagine: a humpback whale passing directly beneath my boat, its huge shadow sliding along for what might have been ten full seconds, a galaxy of bubbles rising past the hull. I paddled up a stream so thick with salmon that the blades of my paddle knocked into them. Mudflats grabbed at my boots; bald eagles nested above my tent; glaciers gleamed between the high peaks like faraway kingdoms. But what I remember most about that trip was the food. 

We were divided into three-person tent groups, and each threesome had to pack, protect and cook its own meals. My tent group was particularly unskilled at food preparation. With our little backpacking stove, we managed to burn every supper: brown rice, lentils, spaghetti noodles. Even instant potatoes. 

The chocolate we were meant to ration was gone after the first two nights; we left a 2lb bag of pancake mix uncovered during a rainstorm. I started eating noodles raw, just so they wouldn't take on the burnt taste of our pot. Homesickness manifested itself in lists I made in my notebook: “Doritos. Pizza. Steak." I had hallucinations about my mother's toffee bars. 

By week two, all my group had left that remotely resembled dessert were two 12oz bags of just-add-water brownie mix. We "cooked" our first batch by mixing up the batter in our frying pan, putting on the lid, and burying the whole thing in hot embers. After ten minutes, the outsides were carbonised and the centre was raw. Still: ambrosia. I'm pretty sure I danced.

We jammed our second bag of brownie mix into the stern of a kayak where it would be safe from bears and rain, and we did not touch it for another week. Finally, one rainy afternoon, in a place called Port Malmesbury, stranded because of high seas, we sat in our tent, upended the whole bag into our cookpot, and poured in a bit of water. 

It is no exaggeration to suggest that when I put that first fingerful of raw brownie batter into my mouth, nuclear pleasure-bombs exploded in my head. 

Sugar: what humans won't do for it. I think of prehistoric men climbing trees to raid beehives; I think of the white gold that drove slavery. I think of childhood, and what it meant to walk in from a hard day's play to a kitchen full of colour and calories, and find my mother making something sweet.

Twenty-five years after my trip to Alaska, my son Henry and I sit on the floor of the kitchen, take out a bowl and spoon, and tear open a box of Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Brownies mix. When the first little puff of brown sugar-dust floats up into my nose, I am immediately transported back to the Tongass: trees drip, waves crash, whales breach on the horizon; I taste that adolescent longing to be elsewhere, pinioned against a craving for the comforts of home.

Pictured En route to elsewhere: the author—at 14, pretending to be 16—on the water in the Tongass National Forest

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