Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Road Trip

Fraser River Wapatoe (Sagittaria latifolia)
Inspecting Wild Rice on the Pitt River
Katrina and I just got back from a road trip from Victoria through Washington, Alberta, and British Columbia.  Our goals were to see some places we haven’t seen, harvest new wild foods, and hike as much as possible.  Our first stop was a conference in Vancouver on the state of the North Pacific Herring.  It was a neat conference because Aboriginal People, academics, and government resource managers were all present.  After the conference we drove up to Pitt River, which drains into the Fraser and rented a canoe to go on a rice reconnaissance mission.  We went to the same spot that I had found rice two years earlier and found some more that was almost all still in the floating leaf stage.  We paddled around a small island called Siwash Island (Siwash is an old term for Native Americans) and found an extensive patch of upright flowering rice.  I took a video of us paddling through it that I am going to try and figure out some way to post.  I collected several rice specimens that I want to send to a new Northland prof that is doing genetic work on Zizania palustris.  I am now convinced it is northern wild rice.  It was growing out of 1 to 5 feet of water and some of the nascent grains were about an inch long.  We also scouted out some new Wapato (Sagitaria latifolia) patches, but none of the Wapato had developed tubers that were big enough to harvest.

From there we drove to Bellingham and met my little brother, Christian, for a short hike in the Chuckanut Mountains to a place called the Bat Caves and the Oyster Dome view point, which are places I went to frequently while growing up.  It was fun to see how a section of the trial that used to be clear cut is now a young forest!  The next day we continued south to Seattle to stay with Katrina’s parents for a couple days.  Katrina’s dad (Jeff) is a big marathon runner, and at 60, he moves along pretty well.  He invited us to run a half marathon in Woodinville with him the next day.  I decided to run with Jeff since I wasn’t sure what kind of shape I was in.  We ran about 8 minute miles for the first 8 miles.  I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to run ahead and once I left him, I couldn’t restrain myself and pounded out 7 minute miles for the last 5 miles.  It was fun course along the Samammish River with only one large hill.  After the race I was crossing a bridge over the river and was surprised to see what may be more Wild Rice growing in the slow moving water.  It was also still in the floating leaf stage.

Erythronium montanum
After the race we went to Mt. Rainier.  We drove to the northwest side of the park and set up a base camp at around 4900 feet next to Mowich Lake.  The next day we did a pretty epic 18 mile hike through Spray Park- an alpine section of the trial that goes up over 6000 feet and has a nice view of Mt. Rainier and its colossal glaciers.  I took some great photos of Erythronium montanum that I was surprised to see flowering so late in the year.  Then again, we also ate some Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis)!  Gaining elevation is like going back in time (we also have had a very late summer).  I have been thinking a lot about how meaningful watersheds are as discreet food production units, or food sheds.  For example, many of the traditional territories here on the coast follow watershed boundaries that benefit people looking for a diversity of ecosystems (e.g. from maritime to alpine), as well as the ability to travel forward or backward through the phenology of a particular food resource by going up or down in elevation.  Here on the Northwest Coast where the watersheds are so topographically defined, time travel is really apparent.

Spray Park with Mt. Rainier in the background
The last section of our loop was on the wonderland trail, which traces a 75 mile loop all the way around Mt Rainier.  We went by the Carbon Glacier, which is the longest Glacier in the Lower 48.  Someday I would like to try and do the entire wonderland trail in one day.  Our legs were pretty tired when we got back to camp so we went for a swim in Mowich Lake to refresh ourselves.  There were other “swimmers” hooting and hollering over how cold they thought the water was, but Katrina and I felt it was warmer than the ocean.  However, the water clarity was worthy of hooting and hollering.  There was probably 40 feet of visibility; I swam down as deep as I could and enjoyed the clear blue depths.  That night I played with an extremely bright laser that Christian brought back from China for me.  It is really useful for pointing out stars as the water in the atmosphere reflects the light and makes a green light sabre that leads the way to the star.  I think it will also be useful for pointing out birds and distant plants to people on nature hikes.  On our trip back from Mt. Rainier, we took a circuitous route through the mountains to Mt. St. Helens and then through some nice rural areas with a lot of Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) and Oregon Ash (Fraxinus latifolia).

We only left the mountains briefly to pick up Christian in Seattle and then headed east to Levenworth and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area.  My sister, Monica, and her partner, Bryan, met us at a public campground just outside of the park, which served as our base camp for the next few days.  Monica had planned three progressively more painful days of trail running in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area but a road closure made it necessary to change her plans a bit.  We ended up doing a 12 mile hike the first day, and a gruelling 18 mile hike with 4300 feet of elevation gain the second day.  I actually did about 22 miles that day because I ran a couple miles back up the trail to meet my brother and Katrina and hiked back to the car with them.  We bailed out on the third day of trail running and went for a nice swim in the Wenatchee River and ate ice-cream instead.  The highlight of the Alpine Lakes trip was seeing mountain goats.  They are evidently well acquainted with people, because we got to within 20 feet of them on a couple occasions.

A heavily laden Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) bush
Balsam Roots
After that trip I spent a few days with my dad fishing and smoking pink salmon, picking blueberries, and making apple butter.  Then Katrina and I set out eastward on yet another adventure to the dry forests of the Rockies.  I wanted to get a better grasp of the vegetation of this biome and harvest as many wild foods as possible.  As soon as we crossed the Cascade Mountains, our pace slowed considerably and we found ourselves frequently screeching to a halt to scamper over to a Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) or Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) to test its fruit.  The Serviceberries were totally dry on the bush, though it looks like it was a good year for them, we were just too late.  I had sampled a few on the coast, but they are never very good on the coast.  The Chokecherry crop was really good, but in most places, they were very astringent.  I think it might still be a little early for them in the lower elevations.  As we were leaving a little town called Twisp on Hwy 20 and climbing into the mountains I found a chokecherry bush that was LOADED with of very good quality fruit.  I feasted for a while and longed to harvest for the larder, but we just couldn’t managed much fresh fruit while traveling.  As we continued to climb up Loup Loup Pass I started to see the dried leaves of Balsam Root.  We turned onto a forest road to find a place to camp and also found a nice spot for harvesting Balsam Root.  I didn’t have a digging stick with me, but managed to extract one from the dry powdery earth.  It was so dry I probably could have used an air compressor and just blown the dirt out around the root (not that I think pneumatoforaging is sustainable).  That evening I made a couple small digging sticks out of some cut up sections of shovel handles that I found in a burn pile at the campground we slept at, and the next day used them to harvest more roots.  The roots have a spade shape that anchors them into the ground; the top inch of the root is about the size of my thumb and two inches long, then it swell dramatically to 3-4 inches and tapers gradually over the course of the remaining 24-30 inches to what I suspect is a fine tip, though I have never actually seen it because it always breaks off.  The root bark is fissured like fir bark and has a nice smell.  We haven’t cooked them yet.  I have a slow cooker that will hopefully allow me to reduce the complex carbohydrates of the balsam root into something digestible, although I suspect that they are easier to cook when they are harvested earlier in the year.

Our next stop was a little town called Ione in the very NE corner of Washington.  My mother’s grandparents lived in Ione.  They moved to Ione because it was a booming town with the world’s largest crosscut saw mill that I think my Great Grandpa worked at.  I had hoped to go to the Ione historical archives but they were closed for the day, so we just drove around town, checked out the riverside park, and then continued on to a campsite.

Firebrand Pass in Glacier National Park
Large juicy Serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia)
From there we drove through Idaho and into Montana.  We continued to make little wild food stops, but the only one of much interest was a place we saw called Bitter Root Lake that we wanted to investigate for Bitter Roots.  I didn’t bring a plant book with information on Bitter Root, and couldn’t exactly remember what they looked like, but got pretty excited by a plant that looked kind of like balsam root and also had a long tap root.  We harvested a few but they turned out to be an invasive member of the Boraginaceae.  When we got to Glacier we found out that the Going to the Sun road was closed and we didn’t want to pay the exorbitant entrance fee so we stayed on HWY 2 and camped in a less expensive National Forest campground on the Continental Divide.  The Serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia) in the campground were enormous, juicy, and sweet without very big or strong tasting seeds.  I could have eaten them for hours without stopping, but it got dark and we had dinner to cook.  The next day we found a trail entrance to the park without a toll booth and packed our lunches for a small looking loop trail we could see on the Montana page of our US atlas.  The trail started in aspen and pine savannah that eventually became a thick pine forest with some Black Huckleberry understory.  I was convinced that the forest was a product of fire suppression and that the Blackfoot or Kalispell burned the area for hunting and berry production and maintained a much more open landscape.  In areas without a closed canopy, the Black Huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) were delicious and moderately abundant.  We continued up into the subalpine and started to see Soapberry (Shepherdia canadensis), which is a culturally important berry that the coastal people traded their prized eulachon grease to obtain.  It does grow in a few placed on the coast, but not nearly as abundantly as we were seeing it.  The Soapberry and Black Huckleberry range extended into the alpine where we found plants that looked more like mats than bushes.  After a little less than 5 miles of hiking, we crossed the Continental Divide (heading west) at a place called Firebrand Pass, and learned from a hiker with a map that we probably had 10 more miles in our loop.  As we descended gently into the completely wild watershed on the other side, we settled into a brisk but comfortable pace.  Several hours later, we came to our first trail sign, and figured out that our loop was going to be about 22 miles.  Thankfully, the terrain was easy and the primitive trail necessitated some leg refreshing river fords.  An hour before sunset, we made it to the trail head and hiked another 1.5 to the highway and hitch hiked back to our car.  I guess picking day hike trails from the National Road Atlas can lead to some unexpected adventures; at least we were in shape for it!

Katrina putting Thimbelberries (Rubus parviflorus) to good use
Our next stop was Waterton National Park, which is directly north of Glacier and has been formally linked to Glacier as an International Peace Park since 1932.  Once again, we were faced with what I felt was an expensive entrance fee, but it was cheaper than Glacier and so we decided to pay it.  We drove to Red Rock Canyon and decided to backpack on a 16 mile loop trail with an overnight at Twin Lakes wilderness camp.  Shortly after leaving we got a nice look at a family of Mt. Goats playing on a boulder field.  I sampled some False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa) berries; the leaves were mostly dead and dry and the berries were completely red, juicy, and surprisingly sweet.  I bet they would make really nice syrup.  We got to our camp late in the afternoon and quickly jumped in the lake before the sun went behind the mountains.  The next day we leisurely hiked down the mountain and picked Thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus...  in the last week of September!

A young Big Horn Sheep
Driving north in Alberta, we followed the continental divide on some small scenic highways without much traffic.  I really wanted to see Big Horn Sheep and we stopped frequently to scan the mountains with binoculars.  In true safari fashion, we ended up seeing one right on the side of the road.  It was a young male with horns that hadn’t started to curve down yet.  We also got a nice look at a Moose that was feeding on the roadside grass.  I needed to get back to Vancouver Island for a Traditional Foods Conference at the end of September so we drove pretty hard after crossing the continental divide and entering into BC.  We camped on Arrow Lake, which is a reservoir of the Columbia River, and then the Harrison River, which is a tributary of the Fraser.  My dad met us on the Harrison and we spent the day fishing for Pink Salmon in heavy rain.  At least the fishing was pretty good, we each landed a dozen or more.  There were some guys fishing for Sturgeon near us and we watched them land three.  The biggest was 86 inches long.  Occasionally the sturgeon would surge out of the water making dolphin like splashes (as in, they sounded as large as a dolphin), but when they were hooked they didn’t jump at all.  They are pretty amazing creatures.
The Traditional Foods Conference on Vancouver Island was a success again this year.  It is the 4th year of the event and it is hosted by the Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities Indigenous Foods Network, which I am an active member of.  For me the best part is eating wonderful food and networking with people.  Let me try and list some of the food that I ate at just one of the feasts over the course of the two day event: Crab, Butter Clams, Elk, Halibut, Prawns, Little Neck Clams, BBQ salmon, Candied Salmon, Octopus, Rock Cod, Herring Roe, Smoked Eulachon, and Eulachon Grease.  Soapberry “icecream” and wild berry jams were also available at the event, but for the most part, seafood is the focus.  I did a bentwood box cooking demonstration and boiled some potatoes in a 5 gallon bentwood box that I made.  It usually takes about 30 rocks to get the water boiling and then a rock every 3-5 minutes to keep it boiling.  Some of the other workshops were basket weaving, fish smoking, soapberry spoon making, and pit cooking.  I met a woman named Elise Krohn that is doing some interesting work for Northwest Indian College and a number of tribes in western Washington.  She might hire me to lead some workshops with her later this year.  

A good days harvest of Crabapples (Malus fusca)
Katrina and I are finally back in our apartment after 3 months on Calvert Island and then a month traveling.  It is really nice to have a kitchen and access to my all my stuff again.  We have been processing a lot of food this last week.  We picked about 6 gallons of Blue Elderberry and made syrup, juice, jam, and froze a bunch whole.  Elderberries seem to be a pretty reliable crop, but the crab apples, which don’t often produce very well, were prolific this year.  We picked 8 gallons in about an hour, and canned some of them whole and juiced the rest.  Katrina wants to mix the juice in with apple juice for cider making.  Yesterday we picked some English Oak (Quercus robur) acorns which are fruiting more abundantly than the Gary Oaks this year.  We found a tree with long spreading branches that were close enough to the ground to allow us to pick the acorns off of the tree.  I never done that before I found it more fun than stooping around a tree for nuts.  I made a little drying box with a hair dryer, a metal grill, and a cardboard box for drying the acorns out, and it seems to be working well.

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