Monday, August 26, 2019

Wild Food Adventures in Glacier Bay

For years my brother Christian has been working as a guide in SE Alaska. While I always closely follow his explorations on his “Life on Water” blog, this summer he persuaded me it was time to participate in another Alaskan adventure of our own. Last time we explored the Juneau area by foot, this time, we were afloat in Glacier Bay.

In early August Christian, his best friend Danny, and I flew from Seattle to Juneau and then from Juneau to the small town of Gustavos, where a friend of Christian’s met us at the airport and shuttled us to the National Park office just in time for the orientation video that the Park require all visitors to see before issuing a permit. The video gave a nice overview of the history of the Park along with guidelines for avoiding conflicts with moose and bears, as well as navigating the icy waters and 20 foot tide swings. Hypothermia, they said, was the constant danger. Grizzly Bears where chance encounters, easily managed with proper food storage and cooking away from camp.

Beach Strawberries by the handful
Permit in hand, the last of the stressful logistics that Christian had carefully planned was taken care of. The wilderness part of our journey had begun. We positioned the kayak and canoe that Christian had borrowed on the government pier for an early departure, and used a Park wheelbarrow to transport our gear to the campground ¼ mile down the beach. We didn’t get half that far, however, before spotting several shoreline snacks. Beach strawberries (Fragaria chiloensis) abounded. While the plants are also common along the more familiar shorelines of the Salish sea, I had never seen them fruit so prolifically. The more southerly specimens are demur, hiding a solitary fruit under their glossy green leaves, but these northerners were unabashed, with fruit gregariously perched on branched inflorescences, like magnificent frigate birds ballooning to attract mates.  Christian and I crawled along the mossy shoreline, shouting out our successive find: “five…six. I got another!” Sweetened by the Alaskan sun, the didn’t even need to be fully red to be delicious. 

Beach Strawberry Habitat

Ripe Nagoon!
As if that wasn’t enough, Christian cried out “Nagoon!” The Nagoon (Rubus arcticus ssp. stellatus) is our north American variety of the Arctic Bramble (Rubus arcticus), which is a circumboreal species that is said by many in Europe to be the tastiest berry of them all. Catching Nagoons in fruit was one of my goals for the trip since I only saw a single withered berry on my late summer trip to Juneau. Like ruby’s glowing in the setting sun, they were a site to behold and those that were fully ripe, were as sweet as jam. When we finally gave up the chase, our hands told the tale vividly. I fell asleep counting my blessings (and smelling my fingers).

The next morning we were up before the sun. It was too early for words, and we silently packed our gear into the boats and sat on the dock watching the first light hit Mt. Fairweather. At 15,325’ it rises dramatically from the nearby Pacific Ocean and watches sentinel over Glacier Bay. The Huna Tlingit know the mountain as Tsalxhaan and the nearbye Mt. St. Elias as Yaas'√©it'aa Shaa. Their mythology tells of a time when the two mountains were closer together, but a marital feud tore them apart. Their children are the smaller peaks in between. The story is strikingly similar to the Lummi legend from near my home town about Kulshan and his two wives, and makes me smile thinking about mountains like temperamental humans or relatives that we love dearly but also managed to also get under our skin quickly.

Christian’s plan was to hitch a ride on a boat operated by the company he works for to “J-hop” or John Hopkins Glacier at the head of Glacier Bay, hop into our boats, and paddle our way part way back towards the mouth of the Bay and catch the park “Day Boat” back. The S.S. Legacy cruised silently into the bay at 5:30AM and sent a punt to the dock to pick us up along with a friendly Interpretive Ranger.

Once aboard the Legacy we went to the bridge to thank the Captain. Danny was a captain for the same company for 10 years, so it was a bit of a surprise reunion for both Danny and Christian as none of the other crew were expecting them. While motoring down the bay Christian’s sharp eyes were glinting as he called out interglacial wood remnants on the shoreline, a black bear, two grizzlies and a cub, and mountain goats all before the other crew saw them. Each time, the Captain slowed the ship and quietly approached the shoreline for the 60 guests aboard to have a closer look. I suppose it was Christians way of giving back for the free ride, or perhaps just his naturalist compulsion. The Captain in turn, ordered us to eat breakfast with the crew, and we readily obliged!

Shortly after lunch we entered John Hopkins Inlet where we disembarked the S.S. Legacy and dropped our loaded boats into the water. Christian and I were in a 15’ open top Coleman canoe, which raised many eyebrows as most people paddle sea kayaks. We always quipped “this is how John Muir traveled Glacial Bay.”

The experiences that John Muir chronicled in his book “Travels in Alaska” constantly emerging in our minds as we spent the next several days paddling dangerously close to glaciers, hiking off trail up steep ravines, and leaping over glacial torrents that roared and gnashed their teeth as they ground boulders to silt. Calving tidewater glaciers were the biggest risk. When we first set up camp a mile away from the John Hopkins Glacier the best spot was on a sandy beach next to Chocolate Falls a few feet above the high tide line. The calving events echoed through the valley like thunder, a few even generated displacement waves that lapped our shore. I worried about a tsunami washing our camp away in the night. Tsunami’s aren’t the only danger. If you get too close there is a risk of falling ice and rocks as well. 

Our first camp with the John Hopkin's Glacier in the distance
While trying to find water for dinner we paddled towards a stream between the John Hopkins and Gilman glaciers. Sandwiched between the two tidewater glaciers, the river current started to push against us and the water became choked with icebergs. Suddenly, a house of ice fell off the John Hopkins Glacier. We ogled for a second, and then realized a big wave was headed our way. “Make for deep water!” ordered Captain Christian. We turned hard and paddled with are hearts thundering in our ears towards the steepening wave that lunged towards us. We made it over the top before it broke, and quickly decided that silty water was good enough for dinner.

However, the lesson was short lived. The next day we paddled to the Lamplough Glacier to admire its icy blue. A piece of the terminal moraine poked out above the high tide line, merely a stones throw from the active face. “Let’s camp there” Danny half-jokingly suggested. Before I knew it, Christian joined his side and I knew it was futile reminding them of our last scare. There were hardly tracks on the beach, and certainly no tent spots, but we “dug in” behind the steep face of the moraine wall and prepared for the cannon fire. I got used to the booms, but it was the tsunami waves sloshing against our barracks that kept me up at night. Would a wave full of icebergs crush me in the night?
Camp 2. Ice everywhere!
Still in one piece the next morning, we paddled to the Reid Glacier. We found camp on a terminal moraine at the mouth of the harbor. This camp wouldn’t pose any calving hazards as Reid is no longer a tidewater glacier. However, a problem bear was reported there earlier in the summer, and when searching for an old miner’s cabin, we found bear sign. Fortunately by then, I was tired enough to sleep the whole night through.

Dryas seeds carpeting the valley sides
The Crowberries were in season
I teach about ecological succession in a couple of my university classes and draw from the pioneering work done by William Cooper in Glacier Bay. Cooper too, was inspired by John Muir to see Glacier Bay before the glaciers were gone. Muir wrote that the first European explorers couldn’t even get into Glacier Bay because the ice extended all the way to Icy Strait. By 1916 it had receded 65 miles, at a rate of approximately ½ mile per year. Astonished by the rapid change, Cooper established long-term monitoring plots and with the help of his students, monitored the ecological succession ranging from newly exposed glacial outwash to Sitka spruce forest for the next 40 years. At the time it was the longest study on succession in the world. In 2016, a team of scientists relocated his plots and analyzed 100 years of ecological data! Similar work was started in 1980 after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and those studies will get their 40th field season next year.

Having a desire to contribute something to the understanding of the park, I spent my spare moments documenting the flora at each camp, paying special attention to the increase in diversity as we traveled down the bay and forward in successional time. If you want to help vet my observations, follow this link to i-naturalist.

The next morning, we paddled to the Reid Glacier and hiked up the lateral moraine high enough that we could traverse a stable part of the glacier. The sides were impregnated with rocks plucked from the valley walls, making the surface look like a gravel road, but towards the center, the glacier was much cleaner. We found a rivulet cascading down blue ice and drank deeply from the chilled beverage. Returning to the canoe, we descended a dry canyon that had been carved by meltwater rushing beneath the glacier. In many places, the canyon walls had fallen in since they were no longer supported by the ice above, but in a particularly deep portion of the canyon we startled a Great Horned Owl from his rocky perch.
Our camp near the Reid Glacier
Near camp I found Alaskan Wild Potato (Hedysarum alpinum). This plant is the most important root vegetable for the Dena'ina, who eat it raw, boiled, baked, or fried, often served with grease (Russell 2012). While the best time to harvest the roots is in the spring, I wanted to get a taste, so I dug one and sample it raw. I also tried my hand at processing the tiny beans, and decided I would starve before getting enough to eat. Not surprisingly, there is no ethnobotanical literature associated with their use.
the small beans

Alaskan Wild Potato (Hedysarum alpinum)

We met some friends of Christian’s for dinner aboard their boat “Laysan.” I was pleased to learn that their daughter is studying to be an ethnobotanist. I look forward to meeting her at a conference. Bellies full of pasta, we hit the water at 7:30 with a nice tailwind and following current. We paddled five miles to Skidmore Gap before dark. The last mile, we had to fight a large eddy, which generated enough chop to get us wet. Darkness fell as we made camp in the salt marsh. The wind thrashed our rainfly and I hardly slept.

The morning brought a brilliant blue sky with less wind. The tide was still too low for crossing through the narrows without an extended portage, so we broke camp slowly, explored the beach, and scouted the route through the gap. At high tide we dragged our boats through as much of the narrows as possible, and then carried our gear in several trips across to Skidmore Bay. Humpbacks were feeding nearby, and we lounged in no hurry to leave this cloistered place.

Beach Lovage
Along the beach I found Beach Lovage (Ligusticum scotticum) and Beach Carrot (Conioselinum gmelinii). These two members of the Carrot Family (Apiaceae) are edible, but previously untasted by me. Extra careful identification is necessary before ingesting hairless members of the Carrot Family that look similar to Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Douglas Water Hemlock (Cicuta douglasii).

Beach Lovage root, leaves, and seeds
The young greens and shoots of Beach Lovage are traditionally eaten in the spring by the Inupiat (Jones 1983), Chugach Eskimo, Dena'ina (Russell 2012), and the Sitka Tribe of the Tlingkit (Store Outside Your Door 2011). Later in the summer, the tender leaves can still be eaten or used for seasoning oil, fish, or soups (Jones 1983). The Kwakwaka’wakw had a name for the plant (Boas 1921) but no uses are published. I crushed, smelled, and tasted the foliage of Beach Lovage and found it to be strong and spicy like mature carrot tops or parsley. They had a strong flavor that I agree would be good in soups or mixed with milder greens. I also sampled the roots raw and found them to have a strong but not disagreeable flavor. However, when I later searched the ethnobotanical literature, I could find no references of the roots being used.
The same beach also provided Sea Beach Sandwort (Honkeyena peploides), a leafy green eaten by the Inupiate (Jones 1983). Like the name suggests, these plants are only found on sand and pebble beaches from Alaska southward to the central Oregon coast. Look for them on storm battered beaches above the normal high tide line but below the forest in the spray or “littoral” zone. They have succulent thick leaves with a milder flavor than many other mustard greens. Anore Jones (1983) writes that the shoots and young leaves are best in the spring before they flower; traditionally they are eaten fresh in the spring or cooked and fermented for use all year. She adds that today many people also eat the greens fresh or blanched in salads, or boiled as a pot-herb. Like so many of our native greens, this tasty plant was overlooked by the Coast Salish and most other Northwest Coast Indigenous harvesters, as well as more contemporary foragers. However, this trip has taught me that the Inupiate like their greens.
Seabeach Sandwort habitat
Soapberries were everywhere
My palate freshened with new flavors, I decided it was time to clean the rest of myself. I took a plunge in a clear saltwater lagoon, warmed in the sun, and met back up with Christian and Danny to set out for our next camp. The tailwind kicked up again in the afternoon and we paddled lackadaisically, letting the wind blow us as we admired the Humpbacks. We made camp on an island near the Hugh Miller Lagoon, and paddled into the lagoon to explore. Inside the water smelled fishy; mergansers, geese, and Bald Eagles were abundant. We headed to the delta of the Hugh Miller River and watched Pink Salmon run up the braided channels that were so shallow that their humped backs were exposed as they wriggled upstream. Wolf, Grizzly Bear, and Moose tracks were everywhere! We caught a salmon, barbequed it on the beach so as not to bring the scent back to camp, and then walked up the sandy delta. The sun was nearly behind the ridge when we turned around and a large Grizzly was near our canoe fishing for salmon. With little wasted effort, he walked the shoreline until he saw a fish, paused for the proper moment, then plunged his head into the water with jaws agape catching the salmon in his teach. Dragging the fish ashore, his claws pinned it to the ground while he tore pieces away with his teeth. What took 30 minutes to cook and fed the three of us, was gobbled by the bear in seconds.

The first Bog Blueberries were starting to ripen
Back at camp there was finely enough drift-wood on the beach to support a fire, and we roasted the last of our sausage before bed. The next morning, Christian rigged a sail and we slowly made our way to the pick up point at Blue Mouse Cove. Back on a powerboat headed for civilization, the eyes of the day passengers were full of questions. I watched the shoreline pass by quickly and pondered the blisters on my hands, my sunburned nose and taught shoulders. Glacier Bay had given me more than I had hoped for. We ate sumptuously what nature had to offer, we had a high adventure in an elemental land, and we enjoyed each others company. I only wish I had another week!

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