Spruce tips emerging on May 25 beside a Juneau trail. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Spruce tips emerging on May 25 beside a Juneau trail. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Brewing survival: How spruce tip beer helped 1790s ‘Voyage of Discovery’ navigate scurvy and survey

Health value of tips now forming on Juneau’s trees known to Natives, European explorers for centuries

Bright green tips emerging now on Juneau’s spruce trees kept alive sailors searching for a safer route between Europe and the Orient. Spruce tip beer was the secret to survival. It played a key role in the British “Voyage of Discovery” led by Capt. George Vancouver in the 1790s.

Scurvy was a deadly companion on long ocean voyages. Maintaining the lives of the crew required finding food, water and fuel. But the scourge was scurvy, a debilitating disease that killed many sailors due to a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. Today people know the cause is a vitamin C deficiency, something curable with a pill or citrus (leading other seafarers to call English sailors “limeys”). Neither option was readily available to global sailors or ice-bound adventurers. However, a remedy had been known to Europeans since about the 1500s and known for generations to Native people. Greening spruce tips kept them alive.

The sailors’ endurance led to the names that mark the land and water we identify today.

Although their stay here was brief the legacy lives on with English names covering the maps of Southeast Alaska. That is due primarily to one British navigator. A few years after the famous Capt. James Cook sailed along the outer coast of the Pacific Northwest, Capt. George Vancouver in the 1790s explored the inside waters.

A portrait of English Captain George Vancouver by Lemuel Abbott (ASL-P20-025)

A portrait of English Captain George Vancouver by Lemuel Abbott (ASL-P20-025)

Two centuries after the expedition a Juneau university professor retraced the routes by sailing his own boat along the same shorelines. He was guided by 200-year-old journals.

“The legend was that at about 55 degrees North there existed a passageway across North America linking the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. Captain Cook [in 1778] and others had searched for the elusive waterway, but found no sign of it. Vancouver’s task was to explore every navigable waterway leading north and east that might be the entrance to the Northwest Passage,” wrote Wallace Olson, professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Southeast in the introduction to his 1993 book “The Alaska Travel Journal of Archibald Menzies, 1793-1794.”

For reference, Juneau is located at latitude 58 degrees north and longitude 134 degrees west.

A closeup Vancouver’s engraved 1794 chart showing Icy Strait, Lynn Canal and Point Retreat (ASL Collection of Vancouver)

A closeup Vancouver’s engraved 1794 chart showing Icy Strait, Lynn Canal and Point Retreat (ASL Collection of Vancouver)

Capt. George Vancouver’s botanist and surgeon was Archibald Menzies. While many of the people sailing with Vancouver kept journals, Menzies’ writing was extremely detailed around northern Southeast Alaska, the area Wally Olson describes in his book.

While the place names are predominantly British, in 1794 the locations were well known to the resident Tlingit people. Alaska Native people have extensive naming protocols based upon usage, not fealty to a far off government. But Capt. Vancouver prevailed due to his chart and map making skills, written journals, ship’s logs and colonizing power.

A good example is Admiralty Island. Britain’s Navy is called the Admiralty. Being a naval officer, George Vancouver designated the 100-mile-long island visible from many Juneau locations for his employer. The island already had a name, of course, now acknowledged as Xutsnoowu, Brown Bear Fort.

As his mission dictated, Vancouver’s crew investigated every bay and inlet in the 1794 search around the Juneau vicinity. He is responsible for naming Lynn Canal after his birthplace of King’s Lynn in Norfolk, England. Berners Bay recognizes Vancouver’s maternal family: his mother was Bridget Berners; her family came from St. Mary’s in Wiggenhall. Thus, the origin of the names Point Bridget, Berners Bay and Point St. Mary’s between Juneau and Skagway.

Sandy Johnston, a 32-plus-year librarian in the historical collections at the Alaska State Library, uncovers George Vancouver’s “Voyage of Discovery” bound maps that named much of Southeast Alaska in 1794. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Sandy Johnston, a 32-plus-year librarian in the historical collections at the Alaska State Library, uncovers George Vancouver’s “Voyage of Discovery” bound maps that named much of Southeast Alaska in 1794. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Menzies noted an important component of present day Tlingit culture. As Vancouver’s key sailor Lt. Whidbey guided the explorers in a small boat from the northern end of Lynn Canal they were accompanied by Alaska Native people in their canoes.

Archibald Menzies describes “the Chief,” likely from Klukwan, wearing a vital component of Tlingit life: woven robes. Menzies writes “These were made of fine wool…with a great variety of black emblematic figures on a white background with yellow border and both fringed round the edges with the richest furs…”

Wallace, in a footnote, suggests this design was a “Raven’s Tail Blanket” or a transitional design comprised of both Chilkat and Raven’s Tail elements. Today, Raven’s Tail robes are making a significant cultural return as the black-and-white weavings with strands of black wool descend from complex patterns. A special exhibit of these stunning robes is currently mounted in the Juneau-Douglas City Museum until November. It has been curated by renowned weaver Lily Hope.

Rebecca Albert harvests spruce tips as her dog Tilli rests at her feet. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Rebecca Albert harvests spruce tips as her dog Tilli rests at her feet. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

At the end of May in 1794 while some of the crew collected firewood and fresh water from the lush forest others were engaged “in brewing of spruce beer from the branches of the Canadian spruce, which was found to make very good and wholesome beverage,” reports Menzies in his journal. In a footnote, Olson says, “One of [Captain James] Cook’s practices, adopted by Vancouver, was to carry malt, hops and yeast to make beer. On the Northwest Coast the men were often times sent ashore to gather and cook green spruce boughs, using the resulting green water to make beer.”

Today people harvest spruce tips for many purposes, including beer. Local breweries in Juneau brew batches of spruce tip beer, as does the distillery in its distilled beverage offerings. A local food producer makes small jars of spruce tip jelly. Syrup, tea, honey and sea salt can be found in Juneau made from spruce tips.

Some local culinary items made from spruce tips: salt flakes, jelly and beer. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Some local culinary items made from spruce tips: salt flakes, jelly and beer. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

With bright green spruce tips emerging presently now is a good time to harvest. It is strongly recommended to follow the respectful harvesting practices of the Alaska Native people. In her award-winning column Planet Alaska, Vivian Faith Prescott offers guidance on selecting the spruce buds and preparing recipes for additional culinary items (see Juneau Empire on June 13, 2018 and March 23, 2022).

While the land gave life to the English sailors, the sailors gave back to the land and water but in a very different manner: with new names. One place that escaped the English honorific names is Point Retreat. Vancouver named it after an incident that kept the “men at their oars” much of the night to avert a conflict with the Tlingit people most likely from the Aak’w Kwaan village. Rather than engage in serious battles with the residents, Lt. Whidbey chose to exit the area with his crew in their small boat, retreating around Xutsnoowu Lutu (Brown Bear Fort Point) on July 17, 1794.

For more than 100 years Point Retreat has also been used as a lighthouse location to ward off collisions with rocks at the sharp point of Xutsnoowu land that splits Chatham (named after the Earl of Chatham who was the first lord of the Admiralty) Strait from Stephens Passage (named for Sir Philip Stephens, secretary of the Admiralty). First lit in 1904, downgraded, then reestablished substantially as a light station with keepers’ residences in 1924, the Point Retreat Lighthouse has undergone the same changes in ownership as many other U.S. lighthouses.

Point Retreat lighthouse on the northern tip of Admiralty Island. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Point Retreat lighthouse on the northern tip of Admiralty Island. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)

Once the U.S. Coast Guard determined the function of a light could be mechanized and supported without human keepers, the lighthouses became excess property. But Americans have a fascination with lighthouses. In early 2000, Congress passed legislation to allow the structures to be operated and preserved by qualified nonprofit organizations that pledged to maintain the buildings for public or private uses. In the case of Juneau’s area lighthouses, successful groups have assumed the operation of Sentinel Island, Five Finger, Eldred Rock and Point Retreat lighthouses. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the functioning lights, often powered now by solar panels.

Point Retreat lighthouse was transferred to the Alaska Lighthouse Association in 1998. Volunteers restored the lantern room with a custom-made replica. The light still guides ships safely around the point of the Brown Bear Fort, Xutsnoowu Lutu.

The key factor in the Voyage of Discovery story is what the searchers didn’t find: there is no Northwest Passage in Southeast Alaska. Nonetheless, they left a permanent mark on the landscape with names echoing the mariners’ British origins. The land and ocean provided spruce tips, fish, timber and fresh water for the explorers plus knowledge from the occasional generosity of the Alaska Native people. All of these things helped the Englishmen survive their explorations. Today people in the region harvest this bounty, and share it in cans and bottles and jars.

• Contact Laurie Craig at laurie.craig@juneauempire.com

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