Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rocky Mountain Wild Food Road Trip

Another great road trip!
Every spring for the last 35 years, people throughout North America who are interested in the interactions between humans and the environment have gathered for the Society of Ethnobiology Conference.  This year, the conference was hosted by the Denver Botanic Gardens on the flanks of the Rocky Mountains.  Katrina and I decided to drive to the conference in order to explore a part of the country we haven’t previously traveled, get some birding in, and most importantly, experiment with the many edible wonders along the way.  Our route took us from Bellingham across Snoqualmie Pass to Yakima, and southeast through the Blue Mountains in Oregon and along the Columbia Plateau through southern Idaho and Northern Utah to Salt Lake City.  From there we crossed the Uinta Mountains and the Colorado Rockies.

Sumac fruit
We rushed out of rainy western Washington and made it over the pass before too much snow fell.  Sunny eastern Washington skies greeted us and we slowed our pace to explore the Yakima River between the towns of Yakima and Wapato.  The town of Wapato is of course named after my favorite root vegetable Sagittaria latifolia (see my post on Arrowhead for more on Sagittaria), but it was too early in the spring to spot any of the emergent leaves in the slow moving backwaters of the Yakima River.  We did, however, find a number of other edibles including Cattails (Typha latifolia), the young basal leaves of Curly Dock (Rumex crispus), and remnant fall fruits of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), which were still delightfully sour.

A basal rosette of tender young Curly Dock (Rumex crispus) leaves
I have eaten the peeled raw flower stalks of many species of Dock (Rumex sp.) but have never tried the leaves.  “Wild Man” Steve Brill recently posted on the Forageahead Listserve that the young leaves of Dock are good after they are cooked (evidently superb in lasagna).  I found the young leaves of Curly Dock to be tender and mild flavored when raw, but they left me with an acrid aftertaste that burned the back of my throat the same way that Siberian Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia siberica) does after it has started to flower.
Golden Currant (Ribes aureum)
I was also very excited to see the emerging flowers of Golden Currant (Ribes aureum) for the first time, and we easily spotted the bright yellow flowers throughout much of the rest of our trip to Denver.

Catherine Creek State Park
We pressed on through the Blue Mountains in Eastern Oregon, and after scouting out the dumpster at the Pendleton Woolen Mills in Pendleton Oregon (no shirts or blankets to be had, just bits of yarn), headed into the Wallowa Mountains and set up camp at Catherine Creek State Park.  Temperatures dropped as the sun set and it even snowed about ¼ inch while we roasted sausages on the campfire.

A steel Camas digging stick
The next morning we went to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City Oregon and I was pleased to see that the Center included some materials on Native American Foods, including a basket of dried Camas (Camassia sp.) and a peculiar digging stick forged out of steel with a top handle made of Bison horn.  Inspired by the heritage trail, I decided to try and find the house that my Dad was born in near Boise.  With Dad on the phone directing us by looking on Google Earth and summoning memories from when he was 4 years old, we got pretty close.  His old house is gone and the area has turned into ritzy 1- 5 acre equestrian estates.

Pronghorn Antelope
Continuing east on I-84 we started to see Pronghorn Antelope on the side of the road.  We crossed into Utah and drove to the Great Salt Lake, where we intended to spend some time birding the next day.  We laid out our bedrolls on a sandy beach and enjoyed the moonlit night.  The next morning we got up early and drove to Antelope Island State Park, which is in the middle of the Great Salt Lake but is connected to the mainland by a causeway.  The birding was amazing and we even saw a few Bison and Pronghorn.

Massive clusters of Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) samara
By mid-afternoon the birding had slowed down, so we left the Island.  While at a gas station I noticed some Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) trees that were just loaded with edible samara (winged seeds).  They were in the peak of their season and I munched several handfuls.  When still green, elm samaras make an amazing addition to salads.  They have a flavor and texture that is like a cross between spinach and oatmeal.  They are a very common street tree and we saw them planted abundantly throughout Salt Lake City, Eastern Utah, Boulder and Denver Colorado, as well as Yakima, WA.  They aren’t as common in Western WA, but they are definitely around.  If you haven’t tried Elm samara (particularly Siberian Elm), I highly recommend them, they are one of my favorite salad greens.

After collecting a small stash of samara, we climbed into the Wasatch Mountains and followed HWY 40 into the Uinta Mountains to Starvation State Park in eastern Utah.  The park surrounds a reservoir of the dammed Strawberry River and is made up of exceedingly beautiful red sandstone, dry Juniper and Agave scrublands, and nice sandy pocket beaches.  The tremolo call of loons lulled us to sleep as the stars twinkled through the thin atmosphere.  We rose early the next morning to find the tracks of a coyote who had circled us as we slept.

Rising early in a world full of mystery

Ponderosa berries
We continue east along HWY 40 as the day began to warm and come to life.  Our next stop was Dinosaur National Monument where we saw some amazing Allosaurus fossils.  The Allosaurus were a similar size and shape as the T-Rex, but lived almost 100 million years earlier.  We also saw some spectacular petroglyphs, mountain bluebirds, and colorful spring wildflowers.  That night we camped near Kremmling CO, at the base of the Rockies and near the headwaters of the Colorado River.  Only a short drive from Boulder, the next day we took back roads through the mountains and enjoyed the scenery.  I optimistically tried the young cones of Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa).  Last year, ethnobotanist Nancy Turner told me that young Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) cones could be eaten, so I thought it was worth experimenting with the cones of Ponderosa Pine.  They were no bigger than an inch long and ¾ of an inch wide and required a bit of twisting to remove them from the branch.  Raw, I found them to be more tender than I expected and milder than Juniper berries, but still very resin flavored.  Boiling for 5 minutes softened them further, but they still were too resinous to enjoy more than one.

That evening we met Katrina’s brother Derek in Boulder, who kindly put us up for the evening, and the next day we drove to the Denver Botanic Gardens for the Society of Ethnobiology Conference.
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