Nasqulut tak’ut. - The bull kelp are long.
Bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) is a variety of seaweed with a long, hollow stem attached to a bulb with trailing leaves. This plant grows abundantly in Kodiak’s nearshore waters and has a one-year life cycle. Microscopic spores emitted in the fall live through the winter to produce new kelp each spring. During the warm months, the plant grows rapidly, forming a sturdy stem up to sixty feet long. In the winter, kelp plants die, and large accumulations wash onto area beaches.
Alutiiq people once used the kelp’s hollow stem as a suction tube. Pieces about two feet long and one inch in diameter were kept in kayaks and used to bail water. The thinner parts of the stem were dried and used for line. The line was soaked in saltwater to make it supple and then used to anchor kayaks or as line for jigging halibut, cod, and rockfish. Bull kelp is also a traditional food. Pickles and relishes are made from the bulb, and the tender stems of small plants are eaten raw. Today, many gardeners mix bull kelp with eelgrass to produce a rich fertilizer.
Akagwingq’rtuten-qaa? - Do you have cloudberries?
The cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), also known as the lowbush salmonberry, is an herbaceous plant that grows in Kodiak’s meadows and bogs. These plants produce juicy, pale-orange berries that look like plump raspberries. Cloudberries are some of the first plants to fruit in the Kodiak region. They can often be gathered as early as late June and remain available through mid-August. Many people prefer to harvest them early in the season, when they are firm and easiest to pick. These berries can over ripen quickly and become mushy.
Cloudberries are a favorite wild food among the Alutiiq people. They are gathered in large quantities because they store well, and they were once kept in seal stomach containers filled with seal oil. These containers were hung from the ceilings of sod houses and their contents used throughout the winter. Today, cloudberries are eaten raw, stored in the freezer, or cooked into a tempting selection of jams, jellies, and desserts. This popular berry is also a favorite addition to akutaq, a traditional dish made by mixing berries with combinations of fat, fish eggs, mashed potatoes, and sugar.
Drawing: Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 276. Courtesy the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
Ciqumek aturtaartut paal’kaaliyakameng. - They use cottonwood when they make smoked salmon.
The black cottonwood, or balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), is a common deciduous tree in coastal Alaska. It thrives at lower elevations in moist soil and typically occurs in large stands on floodplains, riverbanks, and disturbed ground. Kodiak is home to two very similar varieties of this tree. Cottonwoods have oval leaves; thick, deeply furrowed gray bark; and a soft wood. The term cottonwood refers to the many small cottony seeds released by the trees’ flowers each summer. These fluffy seeds float through the air like snow.
Cottonwood has many uses. Alutiiq people favor cottonwood for smoking fish, because it burns slowly and at low temperatures. People prefer to use dead wood and bark for this task, because green cottonwood imparts a stronger, less desirable flavor. Cottonwood is not typically used to heat homes, although shavings of the wood make excellent tinder.
The Alutiiq word for cottonwood, ciquq, can also be used to mean “dish” in the Chugach Alutiiq dialect, because the soft wood of this tree was once carved into kitchen utensils. Before carving, craftsmen sometimes burned their stock with hot rocks to aid in shaping the wood. In addition to plates, ladles, and spoons, people carved cottonwood into fishing floats and toys. Planks of green cottonwood are valuable for construction because they resist water better than spruce, and cottonwood poles make good supports for fish-drying racks.
Cottonwood also has healing properties. Alutiiq steam bathers use its leafy branches to switch away aches and pains, particularly those associated with arthritis. Arthritis can also be eased by soaking your feet in hot water infused with cottonwood branches.
Photo: Stand of cottonwood trees on the shore of Karluk Lake.
Ugyuutet piturnirtaartut. - Pushki (cow parsnip) always tastes good.
Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum), known locally by its Russian name puchki, is an herbaceous plant that can grow up to eight feet tall. It has a fleshy stalk topped by large clusters of small white flowers. Cow parsnip thrives in open environments: forests, mountain meadows, and along the coast. It can be found in northern habitats from the Canadian Maritimes all the way to Japan. It prefers sunny locations and flourishes in the rich organic soil that forms over archaeological sites.
Alutiiq people traditionally harvested young, tender, cow parsnip stems from mid-May through early July. Be careful when picking this plant, however. Hairs on the plant’s stems and leaves can irritate your skin, causing rashes, itching, and blistering. Early morning or late evening are the best times to pick cow parsnip, because light can enhance its irritating qualities.
Today, people peel away the stem’s outer skin and eat the underlying flesh either raw or mixed with oil. Fresh cow parsnip leaves are also used to wipe away the slime on raw fish and to flavor fish when baking. However, people consider the leaves to be poisonous and they are never eaten. A poultice of hot, mashed cow parsnip roots is said to ease many common aches and pains.
Photo: Philip McCormick in a patch of cow parsnip, Uyak Bay, 1987.
Cukilanarpat tak’ut. - The devil’s club are tall.
Hikers in Alaska’s coastal forests are familiar with devil’s club, known by its appropriate Latin name Echinopanax horridum. This spiny member of the ginseng family can grow up to ten feet tall and flourishes in wet ravines under the spruce canopy. It has broad leaves and bright red berries, but devil’s club is best known for its numerous sharp spines. The Alutiiq word cukilanarpak literally means “big thorn.” To dislodge the needles from a person’s skin, Alutiiqs washed the affected area with a young boy’s urine. This caused swelling and made the spines easier to remove.
Although many hikers avoid devil’s club, Native people in Alaska and Canada highly regard its many medical properties. Throughout the year, Alutiiqs harvest the cambium, or inner bark, of the devil’s club stem, which they boil to make a potent tea. Taken in small doses, this tea can provide relief from coughs, colds, aches and pains, and fever. Washing your hair in this tea is said to make it grow. Devil’s club roots are harvested in the summer and dried for later use, but the plant’s poisonous leaves and berries are avoided. The root can be mashed and heated to form a poultice that helps to relieve joint pain, or burned to create a medicinal powder. In Prince William Sound, this powder was applied to the navel of a newborn babies to promote healing.
In addition to its medicinal value, devil’s club is thought to have magical properties. On the Kenai Peninsula, Alutiiq people swing plant stalks in the air to scare away wolves. Others nail a piece of devil’s club above their doorways to ward off evil.
Photo: Devils club with berries. Photo by Priscilla Russell, courtesy the KANA collection.
Pukilaanek iwa’at’skut. - Let’s look for driftwood.
Spruce trees are a recent addition to the Kodiak environment. Pollen and tree-ring studies indicate that the spruce forests of Shuyak, Afognak, and northern Kodiak are 500 to 900 years old. For ancient Alutiiq communities, driftwood was the primary source of lumber for home construction, tool production, and fuel. Locally available alder and cottonwood were useful for some tasks, but they were no substitute for the spruce, hemlock, yew, and cedar logs that washed onto Kodiak beaches.
Today, driftwood heats Alutiiq homes, fuels banyas, and smokes salmon. Families collect wood, searching the coast for suitable logs, particularly after stormy weather. Logs are tapped with a rock to ensure that they are not waterlogged and then towed home behind a skiff. Others may be marked and left for future collection. People use different signals to showlog ownership. Some carve their initials into the ends of a log. Others will place a rock on top of a log or stack driftwood and tie a line around one end of the pile. These actions signal that the finder will be back to retrieve his supply.
Photo: Driftwood on the beach at Cape Alitak, May, 2010.
Tuuciiqutat alagnangq'rtaartut. - The elderberry bushes always have berries.
Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is a large shrub with toothed leaves and soft wood that grows up to twelve feet tall. This bush occurs throughout northern North America in both wooded and open areas. Around Kodiak, it is particularly fond of the rich organic soil that forms over archaeological sites. Red elderberry has small, strong-smelling, ivory-colored flowers that produce clusters of small, red berries. Warning! The seeds, leaves, twigs, and roots of this plant are poisonous and can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Only the fleshy part of the berries and the blossoms are edible.
Alutiiq people use red elderberry for medicinal purposes. A tea made from the plant’s flowers was once used to induce sweating in cases of high fever, pneumonia, chills, flu, tuberculosis, and other chronic diseases, and a poultice made from the inner and outer bark could relieve back problems. The leaves can be used to make a yellow dye and the berries a purplish red dye, and the flowers can be used to make wine.
Photo: Alexandra (Sacha) Smith standing in front of a Pacific Red Elder bush in fruit, ca. 1991. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA collection.
Qaatanek pisurciqukuk. - We (two) will gather ferns.
The spreading wood fern (Dryopteris dilatata) is one of at least nine varieties of ferns commonly found in the Kodiak Archipelago. This large fern, which thrives in moist forests and coastal meadows throughout the north, can often be found growing near sourdock and nettle plants. The spreading wood fern has dense, triangular fronds that can reach over a foot in length. When it first sprouts in late April and May, the fronds appear as tightly curled fiddleheads. These tender shoots are both delicious and nutritious.
Alutiiqs collect fiddleheads for food. People prepare the young fronds by boiling or steaming and then eat them as a vegetable. They can also be added to salads. Fiddleheads are best consumed in the early spring when they are less than six inches tall, because the fern develops a bitter taste as it grows and unfurls. In fall, people collect the tender, juicy, buried portion of fern stems, which can be roasted. Both of these edible parts of the fern can be canned, dried, or boiled and stored till needed.
Photo: Fern frond, collected in the Old Harbor area, Kodiak Island Alaska.