I walk along the logging road, searching the roadside for the small red berries I call lowbush cranberries. We pick them after the first frost. My dad and I are prepared, having scoped out this muskeg on a previous expedition for huckleberries, discovering some unripe cranberries. Today is a perfect fall day: cloudy and mild. When wearing rainpants, boots, raincoat and hat, I prefer it not to be sunny.
I stand on the side of the road, figuring out the best path across the small ditch into the muskeg, I remember a story my dad told me about a young doctor, new to Wrangell, who went hiking in the muskeg behind town and never came back. Locals went looking for him, but he had disappeared without a trace. Some of the holes and ponds seem bottomless and have claimed unwary souls.
I step into the bog. I love the wide open spaces of larger muskegs like this one. Oscar, my border collie, jumps across, making his way deftly through the muskeg sniffing everything. My dad remains at the edge picking the cranberries there. I’m harvesting two types of cranberries. Some harvesters differentiate between the two. I call them both lowbush cranberries, despite the fact they’re two different plants that often grow near each other. Bog Cranberries, Vaccinium oxycoccos, are slightly larger and grow along the moss; a single berry connected by a thin threadlike stem. Lingonberries, Vaccinium vitis-idaea, also called Mountain Cranberries, are smaller berries and grow on a tiny, green-leafed plant with as many as five or six berries on one stem. They’re both tarter than store-bought cranberries and they’re high in Vitamin C.
I walk out into the open muskeg. I wear a bright yellow vest as it’s hunting season. In the larger bogs I can keep an eye out for critters who might be curious about me. Hairy rhizomes, creeping stems, twisted tree trunks, drooping cones, scaly and gray-barked trees flourish around me. Muskeg life is wet, mushy, juicy, fleshy, tangy, glabrous, globose and glandular. The bog is prickly and sticky, where plants catch bugs to devour them and deep dark ponds catch humans and animals. Despite its danger, I love it all.
With each step my boots squish down into the bog. Muskeg’s are fragile. Off road vehicles, too many harvesters and even footsteps can scar a landscape. Muskeg remind me of a giant live sponge, or a large blanket or rug. In summer, muskegs are dotted with white and pink flowers, grasses, tea, bull pines draped in moss, and lichen covered stones.
I wind my way around the holes and ponds. My rainpants swish when I walk and I inhale the odorous and delicious scents of muskeg life and head to the spot I had previously located. In the fall, muskegs are dressed in bright red, gold and brown. There is a sense of danger, a mix of continuous life and death that defines the muskeg. There are things that can kill you here. Not only do you have to be careful about stepping into a hole, or meeting a large hairy animal, you need to know the difference between edible Labrador Tea and poisonous Bog Rosemary and Bog Kalmia. These poisonous plants are cousins to the laurel, azalea and rhododendrons, and they all contain toxins.
In the fall, Labrador Tea (Hudson Bay Tea) and the Bog Rosemary and Bog Kalmia look similar, having lost their blossoms and having grown to full height. But if you ingest the poisonous plants you can expect lots of horrid progressive symptoms: Watery eyes, nose and mouth, loss of energy, your pulse slowing, vomiting, your blood pressure will drop, your breathing will become irregular, you’ll get drowsy and lose your coordination. Finally, you’ll become paralyzed and die. Yikes!
I kneel in the squishy muskeg near a small pond. A cold wet sensation seeps in despite wearing rainpants. The pond is so dark I can’t see down into it. It must be deep. Surrounding the pond is a band of black muck where cranberries are growing in the soaked earth. After telling Oscar not to get too close to the pond, he sits down beside me.
Already my feet and knees are leaving an impression in the muskeg. I set my berry bucket next to the hole and start picking, careful not to get too close to the fragile embankment. In my mind I hear another of my dad’s muskeg stories: I was in my late teens going trapping, hiking across the muskeg behind town. I had on my winter clothes, boots, snowshoes and a hundred pounds of traps. In the muskeg I stepped on a pond of ice and started walking. It wasn’t thick enough to hold me in the middle. I went through. I went in up to my chest and my snowshoes locked tight down into the water and muck. There was only a small bull pine nearby and I couldn’t reach it. I had my arms out. I did a side dive and reached down and undid each snowshoe and put the shoes up on the ice surrounding me. I rolled out onto the thicker ice. The pond was about 10 feet across. That was the end of trapping for the day. I learned the hard way.
Oscar gets up and wanders back and forth between my dad and me, checking on our berry picking progress and sniffing game trails. After a bit, the patch is picked, though I leave some berries for the critters. I move to the side on my knees, reaching for the moss, looking for berries that are sometimes hidden. I find another patch on a small knoll of red moss. Oscar plops down right in the middle of the patch. Thanks, Oscar, I say to him. Two rifle shots echo in the distance. Oscar barks. Occasionally he sniffs the air. I listen for his warning growl and occasionally scan the muskeg. Though berry picking is meditative, you must stay aware of your surroundings.
The muskeg is my happy place, my thinking and contemplating place. It’s good medicine. There is something about being down on the wet soggy earth, reaching my hands into it that connects me to the land. The muskeg is one big medicine blanket. My daughter Vivian Mork Yéilk’, a traditional medicines expert, taught me this. Beneath my berry-picking body are treatments for warts, indigestion, rashes, migraines, ulcers, coughs, diabetes, UTIs, fevers and fever blisters, and the blood clotters to stop hemorrhaging, and antibiotics effective against streptococcus, staphylococcus and pneumococcus. Also treatments for anxiety and intestinal worms, not necessarily together.
I think of this when I stand up. My knees are stiff, and my hands ache from the wet cold. My bucket is half full, but that’s enough for the day. Oscar follows me back through the dying cotton grass, around the lichen covered stones and back to the road. Again and again I breathe deep, inhaling the muskeg scent. I turn and look behind me. Impressions of my feet are pressed into the bog as if a ghost has just walked there. I imagine the muskeg slowly, ever so slowly, is rising up to fill my space.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.