We were somewhere between the Aleksektok Rapids and Baker Lake, Nunavut when the six Nutella, peanut butter and dehydrated banana chip wraps I’d eaten for lunch began to regurgitate. I wasn’t about to give up my big lunch. I needed those calories. I forced them back down as we canoed over rolling waves in the generous current of the Thelon River.
I’d tripled my wrap intake that day. Why? We were due to arrive in Baker Lake two weeks early, after paddling some 1,500 kilometres from Yellowknife, so we had extra food. Sure, we could have packed it back with us. And maybe the human body isn’t meant to ingest a quarter-pound of Nutella in one sitting. But none of that rattled around my brain that day. No, my skinny frame was screaming for food and if it was in front of me I was gonna eat it.
Food pervaded every thought during those 57 days. We had to be efficient and light. Every square inch of our river barrels was packed with calorie-rich foods. Meals were divided among the four of us—we each came up with a few different breakfasts, lunches and dinners and took turns cooking them. Before tucking into our tents at night, we’d discuss the next morning’s breakfast menu. Oatmeal with chocolate chips and almonds? Mmm. During the morning paddle, we’d ask who was on lunch. Damn Hot Freybe pepperoni sticks today? Hell yeah. In the afternoon: “Can we have chilli and cornbread again?” You bet we can.
We ate well. Stuffed our bellies. But it never seemed enough. Carrying more than 125 pounds over multi-kilometre, multi-leg portages and paddling for more than half the day—and usually well into the evening—would evaporate every last calorie. I was down 15 pounds.
The night after my internal struggle with the Nutella, we camped a few kilometres from Baker Lake and cooked a massive dinner: a double serving of mac and cheese with summer sausage. I stopped counting how many bowls I ate after my third, curious how my body would allow me to do this. Not long after, I raided my barrel for snacks: a military ration of cornbread, peanut butter, jelly, trail mix. I wasn’t even hungry. It hurt to eat.
I probably wasn’t fit for society the next day, breathing heavily through my nose, eyes fixed on the TV menu screen at the KFC/Tim Hortons-combo that shuffled through pictures of fried chicken. A gun could have gone off beside me and I wouldn’t have blinked. I ordered a Spicy Big Crunch combo, a Boston Cream doughnut, and a Dr. Pepper. There were no smiles shared between the four of us as we ate our first civilized meal in months. Just grim determination.
That night a new friend invited us to dinner with his family. He served us poutine and deep-fried lake trout. The amount of grease, enough to flatten most, barely satisfied me. The Northern Store had boxes of ice cream sandwiches on clearance. We bought a 12-pack after dinner. I ate four with no hesitation, no shame.
The next morning I flew to Rankin Inlet on my way back to Yellowknife. I ripped open the in-flight snack packages to lick the innards and thought about my eight-hour layover in town by myself. I knew without my travel mates I’d be even more depraved with my food choices. I bought a Boston Cream doughnut at the local Timmies right after landing, and walked straight into the Captain’s Galley restaurant down the road and ordered a burger with all the fixings and fries. I smelled pretty bad and my clothes were torn and dirty. This alone would excuse the other diners for staring at me, but then I noticed I was dripping burger juice down my beard as I shoveled the last fries into my face with a conviction they’d perhaps never seen before. I ordered a peanut butter cup brownie with ice cream for dessert.
I left the Captain’s Galley and walked straight across the street and bought a family bag of salt and vinegar chips. I absconded to the rocks by the shore of Hudson Bay and ate them there alone. I loaded my lip with chewing tobacco to steady myself, but I soon took it out after walking to the Co-op in a stupor to buy two more bags of chips and a Coke. It was now late afternoon and my flight was due to leave in a couple hours. I bought two slices of pizza at the airport to tide myself over until the in-flight meal.
Weeks later and I’m still binging. It’s been a blur. There’s no such thing as a leftover in our house. My gut is numb. I’d ask for help, but I’m not quite at that stage.
Not yet, at least.