Smell of the week: Interior Alaska

This has been an olfactory week for me. I arrived back in the Interior late on Sunday night and moved into an Rainey-Skarland cabin circa 1936 built at UAF by the first anthropologist and department founder. The smell of new paint outside and wood oil inside (along with other various scents common to log cabins in Alaska) greeted me. Beyond the wood oil used to clean the logs, the interior of the cabin is a mix of ketones and, in some areas, something resembling indole. Indole in low concentrations is often added to jasmine perfumes as some find the floral scent is enhanced by it. Not me. I am particularly sensitive to indole and find it cloying–actually, indole doesn’t smell a whole lot different to me whether in low or high concentations! I am using mint grapefruit and lavendar-vanilla combos to brighten the olfactory mood since the interior is quite dark (dark wood and dim lighting). My kitchen (which has no logs) smells like coffee right now. After one or two vindaloos and chana aloo, the place will smell more like me.

My ambles across campus to work are guided by whiffs of crisp fall air punctuated by the wet dog smell of the high bush cranberries. The volatiles from fall colors might be attributable to the ester methyl salicylate (we have a lot of birches around here) and the smell of leaves on the ground might be attributable to the alochol cis 3-hexen-1-ol. The odor is pleasing to me and a blend of many things. The cranberries, however, I do not like. They smell like a milder version of isovaleric acid: a substance that some people can smell and others can’t.  We did an experiment on UAF Open Research Day in our lab. We used androstenone and isovaleric acid, among others. For those of us who are anhedonic smellers of both substances, it was a rough day. The isovaleric acid was so strong, we had to ventilate the lab for a day. Since I stored some personal belongings in my office over the summer my office greeted me with the scent of Indian spices–soon to be deployed in the cabin!

Last night, I went to the campus pub to hear a 10-piece Latin orchestra featuring (among others) my colleague Dr. Mark Sicoli. My favorite tune was Ran Kan Kan by the late timbale king, Tito Puento. The pub has it’s own characteristic smell mixed stale beers (more here on the volatile differences between fresh v. stale beer) wedded to the carpet and maybe a low note of nachos? There weren’t many dancers out (hopefully that will change since there aren’t many opportunities to dance to a live Latin band!!) but I danced with a few men. One Cuban, the finest Latin dancers in my book, had a scent I couldn’t place. I think there was some cologne that had highnotes like raisins and spice and maybe a lingering scent of cigars (a flavour I adore in red wine) in his coat. The smell of raisins is partly attributable to autoxidated fatty acids. Cigars are so complex because of their varied composition: a great exposition of cigars and their scents is here. Aside from the moves, a great thing about dancing with Latin men is not smelling their sweat because they often wear cologne (unlike a lot of non-Latin dancers who, after a few fast-beat extended salsa mixes, smell more like androstenone and isovaleric acid!). Here’s to more nights with Candela at the pub!


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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