“This is the best day ever,” Grandson Timothy exclaimed to me once after swimming in the ocean on a kingfisher blue day, then eating potato chips and drinking root beer in a tent pitched on our deck next to the sea. I understand that sentiment. I lean out the truck window as my dad and I drive past craggy and mossy bullpine at the Lungs-of-the-Island, inhaling the scent of a forest in full spring bloom. I can’t stop smiling. Maybe it’s because our island is sparkling with sunshine endorphins flickering off the ocean and bursting open dandelion faces. Wrangellites are out bike riding, out walking their dogs, out hiking up Rainbow Falls, romping on the beach, or taking a slow island drive.
My dad wanted to take a road trip to check out the spruce tips, which means we’re probably going to pick some. He’s 83 years old now, having recently celebrated another birthday. We pack gloves, my cedar basket, cloth bags, lunch, water for us and the dogs, and wear clothing that allows us to get close to the spikey bushes without being poked and scratched. And then there’s the rifle and the chainsaw and the shovel that my dad asked me to load in the truck. My dad wants to drive his truck and so he does. This time of year we pick a few baskets of spruce tips for ourselves and for local Elders. For my dad, he’s not just picking spruce tips, he’s visiting his forest. He worked as a Forest Service field supervisor for years, and built many of the cabins, outhouses, picnic tables, boardwalks and trails we use on the island, and throughout the Stikine Ranger District.
The sound of a squawky blue jay drifts through the open window. I’m having fun driving the logging road with the windows down, and a dog leaning out the window as my dad and I conduct our ritual creature count. So far we’ve seen two porcupines and a deer. I tell him the last creature we glimpsed hurrying into the woods, hairy and bigger than a porcupine, was a baby sasquatch. Together, we listen for hooters, watch for bear poop and stop for animal tracks.
We drive for about another mile, then turn up a steep, but short gravel hill. On each side of us the alder is overgrown and it’s like we’re entering a magical place. Once we crest the hill a wide-open sky welcomes us with a picnic table, firepit and enough room to turn around. Snow-topped mountain peaks rise in front of us and a thick forested hillside drops steep into the ocean below. And it’s a kingfisher day, but a bit breezy. Sure enough, the spruce tips in this location are at a perfect stage, and some have already bloomed out. This is the earliest spruce tip ripening spot on the island and it’s easily accessible for Elders, which makes it the perfect place to pick and picnic.
Oscar, my border collie, jumps down out of the truck, and I grab my cedar basket, gloves, bag and head for the closest tree growing on the edge of an embankment. I watch my footing because it’s steep and put on my gloves. “Gunalchéesh,” I thank the tree. The rhythmic motion of picking spruce tips soothes my worries. I want to live in the moment just as this pesky bee on the spruce tips.
Spruce tips make me happy. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about them. Often people want to know how spruce tips taste. They’re hard to describe. Some say spruce tips are like rosemary. Others say they’re tart or piney, even somewhat like a pickle and perhaps a bit citrusy. I’ve added them to clam chowder and salmon chowder, to halibut Olympia, spring rolls and teas. I’ve made spruce tip ice-cream and spruce tip scones, spruce tip butter and spruce tip tortillas. I also discovered that spruce tips are best preserved frozen in plastic freezer baggies in the freezer for use all year long. And you can chop up the whole thing and add it to any recipe.
At nearly every growth stage you can add a handful of spruce tips to infuse your water for a refreshing drink. If you’ve never tried spruce tips, the best way to get used to the sprucy flavor is to try spruce tip iced tea. Basically, go by the rule of 8s. If you love the taste of spruce tips, use about two tablespoons of chopped tips in your baking and cooking. That’s about eight spruce tips per recipe. If that amount makes it too sprucy, then divide that in half. Four spruce tips per recipe. If you’re hesitant to try spruce tips as a seasoning (either savory or sweet), then try one or two chopped spruce tips per recipe.
My dad is sitting at the nearby picnic table. The table is old and weathered, and soon the Forest Service will replace it with a new style. Oscar has jumped on the table and is kissing my dad’s face, and that blissful high rushes through me like a creek in spring-melt. I reach for another spruce tip and pick it — and another and another — until my cupped hand is full. I dump the handful into my basket.
My dad is now next to a tree picking a few spruce tips and, after a few minutes, sits down again at the picnic table. I join him at the table and bring out the picnic lunch. We eat saltines and egg salad, some apple slices and leftover cake. I pick the smallest spruce tip from the basket and pop the whole thing in my mouth. My eyes widen with the tart spruciness and the taste instantly returns me to my childhood. Spruce tips are one of the first things I foraged as a kid. We’d strip the soft needles from the older tips and eat the tart center.
“Do you want one,” I ask my dad, holding out a small spruce tip. He says no thank you. “You know I chopped some into the egg salad.” I say.
“Mmmm,” he say, “figures.” We laugh, and he hands Oscar a cracker.
Surrounded by alder and muskeg-scent, a basketful of green tips, a dog with moss stuck in his tail fur, and my dad, sitting at a table he built with his own hands, I’m sure that spruce tips will now taste like today, which is the best day ever.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’. It appears once per month in the Capital City Weekly.