Aatunat qiurtut. - The sourdock are ready.
Sourdock (Rumex fenestratus) is a member of the buckwheat family that produces tasty green leaves. It is sometimes called wild rhubarb, though there is a similar, related plant that botanists classify as wild rhubarb (Rumex arcticus). Both plants have tasty green leaves. Those of the sourdock plant are sour, while those of the wild rhubarb have a lemony flavor.
Sourdock is particularly prized in Alutiiq communities. This large herb produced thick stems and long leaves. It grows four feet tall and is widespread in the Kodiak Archipelago. Sourdock can be found in wet meadows, on slopes, and in disturbed areas. Roadsides and in vacant lots are good places to collect this plant.
Alutiiqs traditionally gather sourdock leaves and stems in May and June, before the plant flowers and becomes tough. The leaves can be eaten fresh or stored for later use. In the past, Alutiiqs preserved quantities of cooked sourdock in seal oil for winter consumption. Raw berries, especially blackberries, or chocolate lily roots were often added. Today, sourdock is made into jams and pies, boiled and served as a vegetable, and added to soups. It stores well in the freezer and can be used all winter long as a vegetable or condiment.
Photo: Sourdock in a coastal meadow.
Cingtaatarsurlita! – Let's gather razor clams!
Pacific razor clams (Siliqua patula) can be found in sandy beaches from California to the Aleutian Islands. Alaska is home to some of the world’s largest razor clams, which can grow up to a foot long. These large, narrow bi-valves have a thin, brittle, brown shell, and they are delicious!
Razor clams have a limited availability on Kodiak, due to its rocky coast. They typically occur on sandy or muddy outer coast beaches, from about four feet above mean low tide to a depth of 30 fathoms. However, they are relatively easy to find. These clams leave a distinctive dimple in the sand wherever they burrow. Strong diggers, razor clams can burrow up to five feet per minute to avoid capture. They can be collected during any low tide, but they are easier to harvest in spring when cool weather slows them down.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Kodiak Islanders worked in the razor clam industry on the Pacific coast of the Alaska Peninsula. The Kukak Cannery, built in 1923, processed clams harvested from abundant bed in nearby Swikshak Beach. The cannery employed Alutiiq men to dig clams, living in camps along the beach. They worked with men from the Quinault Indian Reservation and workers recruited in Grays Harbor, Washington. It was a tiring, dirty job done with a shovel and hip boots. The men packed live clams in 50 pound boxes, which were picked up by tenders for delivery to Kukak and other canneries.
Alutiiq women worked in the Kukak cannery processing clams beside ladies from other coastal Alaskan communities. A steamship transported them to the facility, where they lived in bunkhouses and ate in a mess hall. During the day, they spent long hours loosening clams from their shells and cleaning the meat. But after hours, the Kukak cannery was a lively community, where people made close friends, enjoyed music, played games, and explored the bay.
Photo: Razor Clam on the beach at Cape Alitak, May 2010. Photograph by Sven Haakanson Jr.
ARapagka nag'art'lliik mararmi. – I lost my (2) boots in the bog.
The Alutiiq word maraq can be used to talk about any low lying, wet piece of land–a swamp, bog, marsh, or even a muddy meadow. The rainy Kodiak Archipelago is unofficially full of such places, but if you consult a map of Kodiak habitats, maraq is particularly common on the south end of Kodiak Island. The Ayakulik river flats are a good example. Here, numerous shallow ponds are surrounded by grasses, sedges, and small shrubs, forming a habitat classified as wet tundra.
Kodiak’s bogs contain a multitude useful plants harvested by Alutiiq people. These include a variety of berries collected for food, a coarse ‘swamp grass’ once woven into mats, and the medicinal plant narrow-leaf Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum Harmaja).
Known in Alutiiq as atsaqutarpak, or by the newer word nunallaq caayuq (wild tea), Labrador tea is a low-growing, evergreen shrub with narrow, leathery leaves. It is commonly used to treat lung and throat ailments–from coughs, colds, and fevers to asthma and tuberculosis. Alutiiq families brew tea from the plants aromatic leaves. They boil the leaves in water, steep them in hot water, or even chew the raw leaves and swallow the juice. People use the plant fresh and dried, but are careful to consume it in moderation. Large quantities of Labrador tea can be toxic.
Photo: Wet lowlands of southern Kodiak Island.