Friday, June 21, 2019

Coastal Wild Food Mission

In early January, I spent a week foraging for wild foods along the coast of the Olympic Peninsula
with some kindred spirits. Typical of winters on the Peninsula, we had some intense rain, but we not only endured, we enjoyed ourselves and feasted on some excellent seafood. Here is my account of the adventure.

My friend Eli directs the Boulder Outdoor Survival School(BOSS), one of the oldest and best survival schools in the country. Last fall he asked me if I would help with a staff retreat that incorporated some lessons in wild foods and coastal ethnobotany. I readily agreed as I enjoy nothing more than teaching people that already have a keen interest nature. Furthermore, I looked forward to trading skills with his instructors. Eli polled the staff for availability, and early January was the only suitable block of time.

I knew straightaway that if we were going to find anything to eat in January, we had to find a stretch of the coast with a diversity of beaches. Not much grows on land during our dark wet winters, but sea critters like it wet, and don’t mind the dark that much either. We also needed a relatively wild stretch of shoreline on public land so we could build shelters, have fires, and harvest foods without breaking any park rules. With some scouting and a bit of luck, Eli and I found some shoreline managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Access was limited to boat, a ½ mile bushwhack down a steep hill through heavy brush, or a mile-long walk along the beach at low tide. These limitations along with the season virtually guaranteed some privacy. It was perfect! or so we thought….

I met the BOSS team in Bellingham and we loaded gear, my 18’ Grumman canoe and supplementary food into vehicles. We carpooled to Whidbey Island, onto the Port Townsend’s Ferry, and westward on HWY 20 making a final stop in Port Angeles for fishing licenses and some tackle. When we arrived at our launch point, the tide was low enough for the beach walk, but I loaded my canoe with the heavier gear like canvas tarps. After introductions and some inspirational words, we all carried the loaded canoe into the water and set out afoot and afloat down the beach.

It was a ceremonial launch for the adventure. And boy, did it start to feel adventurous right away. With a new friend in the bow we ventured into the ocean in the open top canoe. Waves were breaking where they met a long shallow sandstone shelf, and I wove through shallows to avoid them, but the falling tide had us between a rock and a wet place. We were only ½ way to our destination before a rocky point began forcing us towards the break. In a last-ditch effort to stay out of the break we squeezed through two rocks that proved to be too shallow and grounded us. Jumping out into the cold water lightened the load a little, but we were still stuck. We waited for waves to float the boat temporarily and heaved it through the channel for one last bit of easy paddling on the other side. With no more “inside” options, and a better sense of the water temperature, and too little freeboard to get through the break dry, I decided to head for shore and ditch some weight.

We dropped about half the gear on the beach and headed out again. We made it through a 2 foot break without taking too much water, rounded the point, and made quick time in deeper water towards camp. The waves were about a foot larger on the other side of the point and sent a menacing spray into the air as they crashed hard against a much steeper beach near camp. Nervously we approached the backside of the break, paused for a lull between sets, and boogied for the beach where friends helped us pull the canoe up the steep cobble beach before it was dashed by the waves.

Darkness was fast approaching, so we set up tarps, built a fire, and settled in. The tied was low just after sunset, so we went on our first harvesting mission. Limpets and mossy chitons were in abundance so we plucked a few to roast over the fire. That evening was New Years Eve, so we stayed up for hours after sunset and howled at the moon with each bottle of Champagne that we opened. We might have even made it until mid-night.

Collecting spruce roots for our Halibut hooks
Over the next two days of unseasonably warm and dry weather we explored the uplands during the day harvesting Miner’s Lettuce, Chickweed, Witches Butter mushrooms, and some oddly fresh stinging nettles. I even saw a Thimbleberry in flower on January 1st! We also dug spruce roots and collected bitter cherry bark for weaving projects. When the tide was low in the evenings, we scoured the shorelines for seaweed, and shellfish, which were oddly absent. I was expecting easy clam digging on the gravel beaches and mussel harvesting on the rocky beaches, but the siltstone substrate mainly supported Rough Pidocks, which burrow so far into the soft rock that you can’t extract them. We did find the occasional Heart Cockle. The wild food highlights were a Giant Pacific Octopus that we found on the beach. The thing was big enough to feed us for two days. One evening all we ate was battered and fried tentacles until our bellies were full. The most memorable meals was a limpet, chiton, octopus pialla.

On the third day in camp, a light rain rolled in, that picked up in the evening. The next day heavy rain was forecasted, and not wanting to sit under a smoky tarp all day, we decided to go for an adventure into Olympic National Park to show the Midwesterners what real trees looked like. While the park was closed on account of the Government shutdown, we skirted the road and bushwhacked into a patch of massive spruce trees that were dripping with rain and moss. Many were over 7’ in diameter! As soon as we lost sight of the road, it felt like the grove went on forever. Some of the mossy hollows under logs were almost dry, and the thick carpets of duff with a soft blanket of moss would have been divine to camp on, if they weren’t soaking wet. It was an authentic way to experience a rainforest.

On the way home, we decided to forage along a new different beach during the after dark low, which turned out to be a bust, because it was too sandy for clams. By about 11PM and everyone was soaked head to toe and ready to head back to camp for dinner. The rain was falling so hard on our walk along the beach near camp that I often couldn’t see trees on the shoreline. I was further disoriented by the extremely flat shoreline, and rushing of brown water down the beach. It was like I was crossing a huge shallow river. With an unsettled knot in my stomach, I pushed to the front of the group so that I could focus on wayfinding while my BOSS compatriots scoured the shoreline for shellfish.

Gear floating under our sleeping shelter
Eli beat us to camp by taking the high route, and fortunately had a nice fire going by the time we all arrived. What was less fortunate, was the news he shared. Our camp was inundated with a foot of water! The sheet flow that was flooding the beach also flooded our camp. What were we going to do? We were cold, hungry, and without anywhere to sleep.

Food seemed like the easiest thing to take care of. We hadn’t eaten for 14 hours and maybe everything would seem better once our bellies were full and our bones, a little warmer. As the intensity of chewing slackened, we started to weigh our options. Should we sleep in the well drained and relatively dry gravel intertidal zone, and get up before high tide, or hike to the top of the bluff. I was concerned that the 200’ high slopes above camp was steep, saturated, and prone to landslides. In fact, I was pretty sure that two of the silty torrents we walked through on our return to camp were draining recent slides. We decided to move to the top of the bluff.

At 12:30PM, we broke camp under dimming headlamps. Bringing only a few tarps and our sleeping gear, we made for the headland. Clawing our way up the slippery slope we couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. Nature had turned this staff retreat a real adventure! At the top we found an old World War II bunker, but despite the thick concrete ceiling, it was flooded with water. We set up two tarps for a group shelter on a flat spot nearby and snuggled for warmth in our sodden sleeping bags.  Amazingly, I got some sleep.

In the morning we slid our way back down the hill, finished tearing down the rest of camp, and loaded the canoe for our paddle out.

My new BOSS friends around a campfire

I learned a valuable lesson about my own capacity to generate heat on this trip. No matter how wet my clothes were, if I kept moving, I could not only stay warm, but I could dry them out over time. Naturally, a fire was a faster way to go about this, and that is the great thing about camping with BOSS instructors. They can ALWAYS get a fire started, even during the wettest season at one of the wettest places in Washington. This vital comfort of a fire was never lost to us.

Our final meal: Clam Chowder, Acorn Bread, Wild Rice, and Chickweed Salad

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Friday, June 14, 2019

Giant Vetch, A “sketchy vetch-pea” or a tasty edible?

Last week I paddled down the North Fork of the Skagit River to Craft Island with my brother Christian and Lindsey for a barbeque on the beach. I found a healthy population of Giant Vetch (Vicia nigricans ssp gigantea) growing along the shoreline with peas ripe for the picking. Aware of the Kwakwaka’wakw use of this plant for food, I decided to give it a taste. For years I have approached all wild peas with trepidation because of lore among the wild food community that they are toxic. However, the time was also ripe for evaluating the facts and conducting a cautious experiment. But first, the plant:

Giant vetch is our most robust species of vetch with herbaceous stems that can clamber up grass and other vegetation to a height of 3-6 feet. The stems, leaves, and flowers are all minutely haired to hairless. Leaves are pinnately compound with 18-30 leaflets that are more or less opposite. Each leaf has a large stipule at the base and a well-developed tendril at the tip which divides into 3-7 branches that enable the plant to trellis up surrounding vegetation. Flowers are irregular but lack obvious petals being fused into a tubular corolla with a conspicuous boomerang-like bend. The corolla is 5/8-3/4” long, creamy white at the base and pink at the tips when fresh but fading quickly to orange or light brown. The calyx is half the length of the corolla, purple and green in color, and crowned with prominent triangular lobes. Flowers are borne on a compact raceme of 7-20 flowers arising from the leaf axils on leafless stalks (peduncles) that are several times longer than the raceme. The peas develop inside pods, which contain 5-8 peas. Pods are initially green and flattened but swell to nearly cylindrical as the peas mature. Each pea is roughly the size of a garden pea.
Habitat and Range
Giant Vetch is predominantly a coastal species found in salt marshes, sand and gravel beaches, as well as rocky shorelines in the transition zone where driftwood often accumulates, from the Channel Islands in California northward to Sitka Alaska. In Washington and Oregon, it also grows on river levees, lakeshores, and upland environments with ample sunlight and enough disturbance to keep woody plants at bay. For example, I occasionally see it on rural roads and powerline corridors that are mowed less than once a year.

Despite the sizeable peas, the ethnobotanical literature for Giant Vetch is minimal. The earliest record comes from the botanist George Suckley and ethnographer George Gibbs (Suckley and Coooper 1860), who explored the route of the future Northern Pacific Railroad line from the Cascade Crest to the Puget Sound in 1854 and 1855. They noted that Giant Vetch was abundant at Fort Steilacoom (just south of Tacoma WA) and describe the seeds as "eatable." Shortly thereafter, Robert Brown (1868) reports that “the seeds… are eaten,” but fails to mention by whom and how they are prepared. Leslie Haskins (1934), the author of an early wildflower book provides an equally ambiguous account stating that the seeds are edible and used by the Indians, but this may just be a reference to earlier botanical works and not based on personal observation. Another historical account with little meaning comes from Edward Sturtevant, the pioneering agronomist and author of Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World. He passes on what appears to be a personal anecdote from Asa Gray, who many consider to be the father of American Botany. Gray “remarks that the seeds are eatable, when young, like green peas (Hedrick 1919).

The most reliable accounts come from two Kwakwaka’wakw elders interviewed in Fort Rupert, BC by Nancy Turner in 1969, who reported that the seeds are roasted in their pods over a fire before being eaten. Helen Norton (1981) also documented the use of Giant Vetch among the Kaigani Haida, but her account is a little problematic. Several consultants told Norton that the peas were boiled and eaten after the pods dried, but one woman was sure that they were unsafe to eat.

In a part of the world where very few seeds are traditionally eaten, this dearth of ethnobotanical literature should be expected. However, I am surprised that Giant vetch is not traditionally used in California, where seed foods are commonly gathered.

My experiment
On June 12, 2019 I collected a dozen Giant Vetch racemes with pods at different stages of ripeness from the northwest side of Craft Island in Skagit County, WA. The next morning, I shelled seed pods at each stage of ripeness to assess the differences. I found the pods that that were still bright green contained seeds that were three quarters the size of the mature seeds or smaller; pods that were just starting to yellow contained peas that were green, plump, and tender looking; and pods that had started to blacken contained hard, brown seeds. I then targeted those pods with peas that were full sized or nearly so, and still bright green. The size of the seeds could easily be judged by the thickness of the pod. I placed about 30 peas in two cups of water and boiled them for 3 minutes. Then I drained the water, and ate the Giant Vetch peas with a fork and knife. They tasted very similar to Garden Peas (Pisum sativum) but were not as sweet. There texture was also very similar, but slightly more fibrous. I monitored my health for the rest of the day and did not notice any ill effects.

Populations of Common Vetch (Vicia sativa) and other members of the Vicia genus have been implicated in both human and livestock poisoning (Turner and Szczawinski 1991). Lupines (Lupinus spp.), are also members of the pea family (Fabaceae) with distinctive pea pod looking fruits. Lupines contain many toxic alkaloids, especially in the seeds and pods. A few species also contain enzyme inhibitors (Turner and Szczawinski 1991). I could find no accounts of Giant Vetch poisoning in humans or livestock.

Having had very positive first taste, I was left wondering why Giant Vetch peas lack a richer history of use. My conclusion is that the plant has three strikes against it: (1) Giant Vetch has poisonous relatives; (2) it has a very limited range along the coast, and (3) much of its range occurs in areas were small seeds were only marginally used by Indigenous peoples.

Please comment with your experiences if you have eaten this plant.


Brown, Robert 1868. “On the Vegetable Products, used by the North-West American Indians as Food and Medicine, in the Arts and in Superstitious Rites.

Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria, Vicia nigricans account.

Haskin, Leslie L. 1934. Wild Flowers of the Pacific Coast.

Hederick, U.P. 1919. Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants.

North, Helen 1981. "Plant use in Ktaigani Haida Culture: Correction of an Ethnohistorical Oversight." Economic Botany, Vol 35, No 4.

Suckley, Goerge and James Graham Cooper 1860. "The Natural History of Washington Territory and Oregon, with much relating to Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, and California, being those parts of the final reports on the Survey of the Northern Pacific Railroad Route, relating to the Natural History of the Regions Explored, with Full Catalogues and Descriptions. Bailliere Brothers, New York

Turner, Nancy J. and Marcus Bell 1973. “Ethnobotany of the Southern Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia.” Economic Botany, Vol 27, No 3.

Turner, Nancy J. and Adam Szczawinski 1991. Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America. Timber Press, Portland OR.

WTU Image Gallery at the Burke Museum Herbarium, Vicia nigricans account


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