Waterfalls rush down the hillside as we drive around the bluffs. My dad and I and my dog, Kéet, are in my dad’s truck heading out the logging roads to pick stink currants. We pass a truck-sized boulder on the side of the road at 8-Mile Beach and I ask “Isn’t this where the slide came down that almost got you?”
He looks in his review mirror as if to remind himself. “Yeah,” he says, “back there a bit. My friend and I were heading out hunting one morning in the fall. We were driving along near here. Up ahead we saw a waterfall suddenly turn muddy. We knew something was going on up there. Twigs and rocks started churning through the water. I asked my friend if we should continue and he said Hit it! so I floored it and drove through rushing dirty water. I looked in the mirror behind us and there was a gush of brown water, and then a big log burst out and covered the whole highway, both lanes. If we’d been right there we would’ve been squished. It was something to see a log shoot right out of that waterfall about 20 feet high!”
I’m cautious since we’re heading to an old avalanche basin to pick stink currants and it’s been raining for a while now. “It’s landslide weather” is a common local saying in a rainy year, so we’ve been hesitant to pick berries. But it’s been dry for a couple of days in a row so we decided we’d better get out.
Stink currants, also known as gray currants, blue currants, or stinking black currants, love our rainforest: the wet bluff areas, streams edges, old landslides, and hillsides. Living in Southeast, both of us have seen the blue-gray berries in the woods. My dad’s never picked them before but I ate them as a kid, whenever I happened upon them. Stink currants taste like a combo of a small grape and a currant. They’re tart and not too sweet. My dad said he didn’t know they were edible. I learned more about them in Sitka when I harvested with a few locals who said they were a favorite.
My dad and I drive a couple miles out the logging road until we turn and drive up a hill to where the road forks and gets even bumpier. Bushes scratch the side of the truck. “There!,” I say, spotting the place we’d scoped out before. Last year we’d missed the opportunity to pick currants because they’d already dropped off the branches. Now, they hung like grapes and there were lots of them. We park in a pull off area and get out and grab our buckets from the back of the truck. Kéet sniffs the grass and I can already smell the currants.
How do I describe the scent of skink currants? It’s vanilla-like, earthy, with a tinge of medicine. Some would describe it as “skunky.” I know people who don’t like the smell so they avoid the berries, but I love it. I step down into the ditch where the berries hang around me like small gray/blue grapes. The interesting scent comes from yellow glands dotting the plant. I sniff the leaves and inhale memory: childhood hillsides near my home, playing in creeks, picnics on beaches.
Stink currants grow in Southeast Alaska and down along the Northwest Coast to as far as Northern California. They can grow up to 9 feet tall. Their leaves are fairly big and look hairy. Stink currants have both male and female organs and are pollinated by insects like dragonflies and butterflies. They bloom in May and June and the berries start to ripen in late summer, anywhere from August to September, and you can even find a few stink currants hanging on the bushes in October if the wind hasn’t blown them off.
My dad leans on his cane and steps down into the wet ditch. A red plastic Folgers coffee can, serving as a homemade berry bucket, hangs around his neck. He picks berries from the bunches in front of him. “These are easy to pick,” he says.
“Shaax,” I say remembering the Lingít name for the berry. My dad repeats the word.
According to Tlingit oral tradition Raven created shaax by throwing a blanket onto the sea and letting it float to shore where he tossed it on the bushes. The berries grew from his blanket. Ribes bracteosum in Latin and they’re related to other currants and gooseberries.
Many northwest coast Indigenous peoples—the Tsimshian, Salish, and Tlingit, among others—use stink currants for a variety of things. The berries, leaves, roots and stems are used for laxative medicine, treating colds, and skin disorders. Food uses are plenty. Stink currants can be made into cakes and breads, and jams, jellies and pies. Some people make meat or salmon sauces with the berries. However, if you’re going to eat large quantities of the fresh berries, though, it can cause an upset stomach. An old recipe suggests mixing stink currants with other berries and adding salmon eggs, then dip them in hooligan grease and press them into cakes and dry them. Some people make a pudding with oats and berries. They can be frozen for use all year long. Sounds good to me!
Now, as I’m encircled in that sweet odd scent, I consider the bare hillside, and the mountain ridge above me. A large avalanche once came down and snow, trees and rocks tumbled down here transforming this landscape. The stink currants sure love this area. Finding a root to press my foot against, I grasp a strong branch and heave myself up. I’m up above my dad, now and start picking. As we pick, we listen for growls, and birds squawking their warnings, and rumbles and snaps and rushing water. But we also tell stories. Stories and berry picking go together like a father and daughter filling buckets with stink currants.
“Tell me Grandpa Pressy’s landslide story,” I say. “The one when he was out fishing.”
My dad picks berries and plops them into the bucket:
“He was fishing Back Channel on the Mercedes, his troller. It was in the 1960s and this time of year. It had been storming and raining. He decided to go to Ham Island, which is really named Blake Island, to fish and he started down the channel. He got half way there and on the mainland shore there were two or three slides that’d come all way down to the water. It happened before he’d gotten there. Logs were piled up on the channel in from of him and he couldn’t get the boat through. It took days before the landslide broke up enough for a passage again. You can see the landslide area today. It slid from about 2,000 feet up all the way down to the water. It must’ve been something to see.”
“Wow,” I say. “I’ll bet there are stink currants growing there now.”
My dad considers this. “I’d guess there would be.”
After our three buckets are full, our fingers stained purple, and our minds rich with stories, we pile our soggy selves and the wet dog into the truck. With the scent of vanilla and leaves and earth on our clothes and hair, we drive away from the avalanche basin, down the hill, over bumps and rocks, on the lookout for more locations where Raven has tossed his blanket into the bushes. We will be back again next season to pick berries and fill the forest again with our stories.
• 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.