Whenever I need some peace, I head to the beach with my dogs. This morning is perfect because a spring storm has just dissipated. The repetitive motion of looking down and around, of cold seaweed between my fingers, of walking carefully over slick rocks, absorbs me into the beach world. Today, I’m looking for red seaweed, Palmaria mollis, also called ribbon seaweed or dulse, and is from the Rhodophyta family. There are thousands of red algae species found around the world. It grows in the lower intertidal zone in bays and exposed coastlines. It’s a reddish brown color which makes it stand out from other seaweeds. The fronds are narrow and grow up to 10 inches long. They typically feel leathery to the touch or papery if it’s newer growth.
I bite off a piece—it’s tender and salty. As I gather the red seaweed I think about how spring is arriving in fits and starts this year. One day there’s a flock of robins in the grass and then next day, or even the same day, there’s a snow squall. It’s as if Mother Nature can’t decide if it’s winter or spring. In Sámi culture, though, this undecidedness is a season unto itself, because we have eight seasons, not four, and we’re currently enjoying Spring-winter, or gidádálvve, which is March/April. Gidádálvve brings both the sun and more light plus snow dripping from the trees while robins chirp from the woods. The seasonal shift is not abrupt— it’s a gradual and hopeful awakening, like a bear yawning or a robin testing the mud for warmth.
Gathering seaweed is one way to enjoy this season. This type of red seaweed typically grows in the lower intertidal zone, but it’s not abundant on my beach. Here, it washes up. Normally, you’d harvest by cutting the seaweed from the hold fast or tearing it gently with your fingers, without dislodging the holdfast. Dolly Garza in Common Edible Seaweeds in the Gulf of Alaska tells us to only harvest in small area, not to take too much, and leave some for the smaller tidal creatures who use the seaweed for their sheltering place.
Now, Kéet sniffs my basket, curious, hoping for a snack. This past year, my border collies have been my only harvesting companions since I haven’t hung out with my grandchildren because of COVID-19. Missing my grandchildren has been the hardest thing about dealing with this virus. A new T’akdeintaan grandson named Liam arrived recently in what the Tlingit’s call the Underwater-plants-bloom-month—and near the Budding-moon-of-plants-and-shrubs—Héentáanáx Kayaan’i Dís and X’eigaa Kayaaní Dís (March and April). Someday, I might tell Grandson Liam we found him in a pile of seaweed, or maybe swirl a tide tale about how his mom and I were walking the shoreline in the spring one day, and we lifted some popweed on a rock and discovered him there just like a gumboot. I told similar stories to my children too. Stories like Raven tricking Tide Woman, and the yellow cedar log that was carved into the first killer whales, connected them to their ocean culture and tideline worlds.
Depending on the tides and storms, red seaweed can be harvested from spring into summer. We’ve had some pretty strong spring storms and storms make for good seaweed gathering. There’s always something delicious washed up. Well, maybe not. I push the popweed aside and uncover a fat worm. This type of sand worm, Nereis vexillosa, also called a sea nymph, likes to eat seaweed too. Without touching the strange worm, I look it over, and consider maybe it was their egg mass I saw at the lowest tide recently. I had briefly examined mass of gelatinize eggs at the tideline not knowing what it was. Turns out, in the Pacific Northwest, sand worm mating swarms occur at midnight in late winter or spring. They leave behind gelatinous egg blobs, too.
I stand up and continue gathering. I walk along the seaweed patch and not 20 feet from the worm, there’s a doughnut-shaped egg mass, and I realize it could be moon snail eggs that’re normally protected inside a sand nest. The eggs were probably dislodged by the storm. Worms and eggs — it’s proving to be an interesting Zen walk.
My basket is about half full now and I decide that’s enough seaweed. If you must rinse red seaweed, only rinse it in sea water while you’re down on the beach. Don’t use fresh water or it’ll ruin your seaweed. Later, I’ll dry the seaweed in the oven on low, because the weather most likely won’t cooperate with dryer sunny days.
Red seaweed is a great source of vitamins and minerals. I use fresh seaweed chopped in spring rolls, in stir fry, and with fish recipes and in soups. Cooks use red seaweed in potato and rice dishes, casseroles and in egg and vegetable dishes. It goes great chopped up in herring egg salad and in homemade pesto. I use the dried and chopped seaweed in and on almost anything I can. I store dried seaweed in mason jars with lids.
I head across the beach with Kéet herding me home. My cedar basket is damp with seaweed, and I have relaxed. My worries have sluffed off me and right now they’re sifting through sand. As I walk up the stone stairs to my cabin, I consider that one night, when I checked the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website for COVID-19 statistics, sand worms were swarming in mating delight, moon snail eggs were swept away from sand nests, red seaweed rolled on waves toward my cabin, and Grandson Liam was being born. Life happens despite our worrying. There’ll be a day, some day, when a grandson toddles on the beach with his Mummo. We can discover sand worms and fill our buckets with red seaweed. And it might happen in a season when Mother Nature can’t decide if it’s winter or spring.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.