*This post is not a foraging guide. Please only forage with an experienced guide.
In March, the arrival of herring in droves to their spawning grounds along the coast of Baranof Island is accompanied by a flurry of whale activity. Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) are an important “forage fish” – small fish that are preyed upon by larger predators like salmon and whales – and provide a reliable source of early-spring food as they migrate from the open ocean to the same coastlines each year to spawn.
Like the herring, humpback whales have a deep connection to place. Many of these whales migrate thousands of miles every year from their winter homes in Hawaii or Mexico to forage in some of the most biologically productive waters in the world. They often return to the exact same bays and straits as years past to forage in a familiar landscape. Some of our field team who have been here for several summers will note, on passing whales in certain locations, “oh yeah, there are usually whales here,” or “this is a great spot to find bubble-net feeders.” It is evident in their recurrent feeding behaviors that some whales who frequent this area, many of whom are so recognized that they are known by names instead of their database codes, understand the landscape and know where, when, and what to forage.
Observing the whales and other marine life forage the fjords with familiarity, I wonder at how disconnected people can feel from our own landscapes. In the suburbs of Washington D.C., where I lived as a teenager, my mental map held a handful of landmarks: my house, school, Chipotle… I could not identify local flora and fauna, where to find them, or how they interacted with the seasons and broader ecosystem.
Here, nature demands attention. The rich ocean life that draws the humpbacks also supports incredible terrestrial biodiversity. Southeast Alaskan communities are embedded in the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest: the nation’s largest national forest and temperate rainforest, and one of the richest terrestrial ecosystems on earth. For those who are familiar with the landscape, the Tongass stretches out like a forager’s paradise.
Rainy days at the end of May gave us ample time to explore our summer home. The landmarks on my mental map have become salmonberry and blueberry bushes, edible spring greens, spruce trees and alders, and the muskeg above the lake, where Labrador tea grows abundant. As humpbacks forage in our bay, we have carved out a bit of time to forage, deepening our relationships to this landscape and spicing up our pantry, which we replenish every few weeks with groceries from nearby Petersburg.
An important note: I live in Sitka, Alaska, just 17 miles from Warm Springs Bay on the other side of Baranof Island, and have learned how to recognize certain local plants and forage safely and ethically. Some plants have poisonous lookalikes, so it is crucial to seriously study your own local flora before attempting to forage. It is always a good idea to have an experienced forager show you in person. This land belongs to the Tlingit people who have been its stewards for over 10,000 years; as a guest on Tlingit land, I follow these principles to minimize my impact on the ecosystem and forage sustainably:
1) Only harvest where the species is healthy and abundant. That is, if I’m searching for a specific plant, but can only find a few scraggly-looking ones that seem to be struggling, I won’t harvest.
2) Don’t take too much. For example, when I harvest Labrador tea, I only pick one or two leaves from each healthy plant then move on to the next. This is to distribute the stress and avoid severely damaging any individual plant.
3) Give thanks to the species and land every time you harvest. I was taught to say gunalchéesh, which is “thank you” in the Tlingit language, the language of this land. When interacting with the landscape, it is important to honor traditional relationships and the foraging ethics of your region.
Here at the field station in Baranof Warm Springs, we have been eating our pancakes with spruce tip syrup we made from foraged spruce tips. As a food, spruce tips are surprisingly fruity! They are famously used to flavor local brews and make a delicious syrup.
A beautiful and brief hike to the nearby muskeg (bog) reveals an abundance of healthy Labrador tea plants. A tea made from the dried leaves of this shrub is traditionally used as a tonic for overall health and to boost the immune system. The tea is delicious: a bit herbal, with hints of citrus and mint.
Drifting in the aptly-named Kelp Bay one afternoon during a lunch break, our boat floated over a patch of bullwhip kelp and we harvested a stalk. As much as it may look like a giant, alien worm (my first impression), diced into rings and pickled it is deliciously crunchy.
Ethical foraging mandates minimizing negative impact on the ecosystem, but it is worth noting that some species benefit from human foraging. For example, harvesting Indian Rice (Fritillaria camschatcensis, also called Chocolate Lily or Rice Root) helps to distribute the loose clump of edible rice-like bulbs at its base and facilitate the species’ propagation. Another example of a “regenerative” harvesting practice (as opposed to extractive) is the ongoing traditional Tlingit practice of suspending hemlock branches in the water during the annual herring spawn to create additional spawning substrate, then selectively harvesting branches to collect the herring roe (eggs) – a delicacy and critical early-spring food – and leaving the rest in the water to hatch. Like the other species that share this landscape, humans have been a healthy part of this ecosystem for millennia thanks to sustainable traditional practices.
As the seasons shift, I am eager for the salmonberries to ripen so we can make jam to spread over our store-bought toast. Unlike the whales, we get to peruse the grocery store aisles in Petersburg to fulfill our caloric needs and cravings. Foraging, for me, isn’t about survival like it is for the other species that coinhabit our landscape. It is about strengthening my relationship to this place and honoring the land and the people who have been its stewards since time immemorial.
As I wander through the forest, eyes intently scanning for signs of plants I know, I spot a deer track in the mud. Cropped stems of skunk cabbage and blueberry shrubs indicate that deer have been foraging nearby. Beyond, compressed foliage reveals a hidden game trail. I look down it as it winds deeper into the wilds, and I begin to see the patterns of the land.