I have had the honor of calling Gabby Markel ’17 one of my best friends since freshman year. From traversing the backwoods of Alaska to zooming down ski slopes to creating delicious meals for her friends, Markel is a dynamic member of the community. She is one of the strongest, most interesting people I know so I was excited to hear more about her fascinating story. – Emory Strawn
So, you’re from Alaska. Where exactly is Girdwood?
[Makes downward L-shape with hand.] So this is Alaska: ocean [points to air], land [points to hand]. Most people live in south-central, which is right here, [points to thumb webbing], I also live in the south-central region, right on the ocean, an hour south of Anchorage, which is the biggest city in Alaska. [Girdwood] is like 1,500 people.
How did you end up at Williams?
I originally had heard of Williams because of the ski team. Also because Williams is wonderful! I have completely discovered that I like it for lots of other reasons also! [But yeah,] I was on the ski team, I actually am now on the crew team. This is a very recent transition. [Laughs.]
What other stuff on campus are you involved in besides crew?
Recently, like this whole semester, for me has involved stopping all the other extra things that I was involved in. But last year, I was on the alpine team and the crew team. I was a housing coordinator last year and I do a lot of stuff with Think Food, which is the food group on campus – I ran things like community dinners and stuff like that.
So you’re very interested in food?
I’m really into food! Everyone’s like “Oh, you are a math major! What do you want to do?” and I’m like “I’m probably going to be a cook…” [Laughs.] The way I kind of look at it is that you have all these things that you really enjoy and you have these things that you are good at, and like food is kind of like the middle of my Venn diagram of those two things that I am good at and really enjoy. So, I can’t say exactly what kind of food job I would like to have, but I have a hard time seeing myself doing something for a long time that wasn’t relevant to eating.
Have you had any experience cooking as a job?
So, I have always loved to eat and was always a little above average at being proficient at cooking. When I was 16 I got hired to work on a boat. It was a family friend – they own two 50-foot ocean-going vessels that sleep six to 10 [people] and so we [take] some tourists [out] but also mainly fish and game so it’s pretty relaxed. But we will take out, like, eight researchers and we go out into Prince William Sound, which is this protected area that’s pretty close to my house, it’s like 100 square miles, lots of glaciers and lots of whales. And [the researchers] are going out to study like sealions and they use our boat like a floating hotel. So my first job ever I got hired to cook three meals a day for like 10 people on a boat for two weeks. So I was decent at cooking then, but after those two weeks I got a lot better. I had that job for three years. And then I cooked at a lodge last summer as a breakfast and dinner cook in Alaska.
If you could pick your dream job, with food, what would it be?
Oh, okay. My dream job is running a backcountry catering business. So for example, L.L.Bean shoots their summer catalogues in Alaska because they need snow, and like car commercials and stuff like that because they want glaciers. But sometimes we get groups of guys from L.A., [Calif.] who are like the photography crew who want fancy food on top of a glacier and they are all kinds of obnoxious. People who are willing to pay large amounts of money for really good food in challenging places. Basically cooking really good food in an outdoor environment so I could follow that part of my passion, being in a physical place that I would really enjoy and it would be a lot more mentally challenging than most cooking jobs.
And your Winter Study project last year also had to do with food?
Yeah. I did a 99 project last Winter Study on bread baking. I focused on sourdough bread. I grew yeast and I made a couple of different sourdough starters and explored a couple different schools of thought of sourdough bread – it’s like factions of religions. I just like baked lots of bread all the time. At the end, I had a Breadstravaganza in upstairs Paresky and I made like 20 loaves of bread in one day. And just, like, invited every single friend I have on Facebook and brought butter and everyone came and ate bread!
So, if you’re comfortable, we could discuss the obvious: when did the bear attack happen?
I’m exactly three months out – this happened on Aug. 4. This was when I was cooking at a lodge my parents own. This lodge is a backcountry lodge but as far as backcountry goes in Alaska, it’s not that backcountry. From my house and from Anchorage its about a two-hour drive on a highway, then a half hour on a dirt road, then you get to a lake where you park your car, get in a motor boat, and it’s like a half hour across the lake. So basically I was cooking breakfast and dinner at this lodge. I was running in between my shifts on this hiking trail in the woods in Alaska. There is basically one trail out there. I grew up trail running in Alaska and since I was little, it’s the kind of thing that whenever you go outside, you think about bears. Where my hometown is, it’s mostly black bears, which don’t really bother people. But this was further down the Kenai peninsula and super close to a big salmon run and there are a lot of really big brown bears. I wasn’t running by myself, you never run by yourself, you never run quiet. Like when we run, every ten seconds, you are yelling. Because that’s the only responsible way to do it if you choose to put yourself in bear country. So I was yelling and running with bear mace and it didn’t go that well.
Wow, that’s crazy. So you were running with someone else?
Yeah, I was running with someone else, another one of the breakfast cooks. Most bear attacks are when bears are just surprised. For some reason they didn’t hear you, they didn’t see you, you just surprise them. It’s an aggressive territorial thing, which is what happened. So yeah, we were running, came around a corner, trail in the middle of nowhere, brown bear territory, really brushy because it was August, and close to a river. And yeah, we just came around a corner and I was running in front and I got taken out and [my friend] was fine, although honestly mentally I think she is a lot less fine than I am. It swiped, it ran at me, pushed me over. In grade school in Alaska, they teach you that if you ever get approached by a bear, you are supposed to curl into a ball, which works. So I curled into a ball and most of the bad stuff is all like the back of my head and my back. I have a lot of doctors but my favorite doctor by far is my plastic surgeon who didn’t shave my head, which is amazing because all the gnarliest scars are all over the back of my head and I just have one little bald spot.
What was the recovery like?
So, I was just well enough to come back for fall, but mostly I was just super weak. I was in the hospital for 10 days and then honestly it was weird because my lower body was totally fine. I could walk around and bike theoretically but I had a super bad concussion and broke my nose – actually, my favorite injury, I love this, is that I have either a bear tooth or claw mark indent in the bone of my nose. So I like fractured my nose, had a hole in my skull, most of what was keeping me from being well was concussion-related, brain-trauma stuff. So when I first got here, it was a lot, super overwhelming, but that’s kind of like why I dropped my second major, I dropped my second sport, I made sure that I really wasn’t committed to being anywhere but in class. And then I would just go home at like 2:30 and lie in bed for like an hour. But I got better a lot quicker. One of the coolest parts was that every week, everything would just be so much better and like right now, I’m 100 percent.