Today, we’re out with our pack of three dogs and berry buckets in the wilderness to check out the cranberry crop and harvest the last of the berries, plus pick some s’ikshaldéen (Labrador tea) too. And later today, we’re going to experiment with making flavored water.
Drinking naturally flavored water is one of the best things about living in Lingit Aani. We are surrounded by water in Southeast Alaska: rivers flow, waterfalls rush down bluffs, creeks babble, lakes speckle the landscape, and rain infuses our bogs.
Héen (noun), is the Lingít word for water.
We park on the narrow pullout along one of the roads on Wrangell’s logging road system and get out of the truck. We climb up the hillside with our buckets tied by string around our necks. Even though it’s sunny today, we’ve put on rubber boots, rainpants, and light raincoats. We watch our footing on the slick mossy logs. Everything is saturated. We spot a large patch of blueberries with the leaves off. The last windstorm must’ve blown away the leaves, but the big blueberries remain on the bushes. Gunalchéesh, kanat’á (blueberries).
If you live in Southeast Alaska, you’re surrounded by water. You are water. Our bodies are filled with water. It’s what keeps us alive. All around us, water touches the shore, trickles down tree branches, seeps beneath glaciers. It was only natural that, twenty or more years ago, when our family was first learning the Lingit language, one of the first things we learned to communicate to each other was, “Heen ge i tuwáa sigóo?” Do you want water? “Héen ax tuwáa sigóo?” I want water.
After we fill our buckets of blueberries, we start working on finding red huckleberries, tleikatánk. Fortunately, the bright red berries grow nearby, and we fill another half a bucket. By the time we’re ready to leave the wet bushes, we’re tired of hanging onto the branches on a sloped hillside. We drive a couple miles down the logging road, past the squawking blue jays flying in and out of the alder, past the mossy stump that looks like an old woman, and the weathered root wad with a big owl face. It’s easier this time of year to spot the red huckleberries with their bright read leaves, so we stop along the way to pick a few small bushes.
We pull the truck over at the muskeg and let the dogs out. We walk into the muskeg and our boots squish down into the bog. There’s been a lot of rain lately, so the muskeg is soggy, even though the last few days have been sunny. We’re scouting for cranberries for future harvesting adventures and we’re here in one of our favorite muskegs.
Many harvesters don’t go out for cranberries until after the first frost. Soon, down on our hands and knees, we are pawing through the moss with our fingers. We discover some ripe cranberries and quite a few unripe ones. Gunalchéesh k’eishkaháagu, cranberry.
Sooḵ kahéeni—brackish water on moss.
Fall is one of the favorite times to harvest the pungent leaves of s’ikshaldéen, Labrador tea, also called Hudson Bay tea. We pick a handful of tea leaves and move to the next area, picking only a few leaves from each plant. After our buckets are full of blueberries and red
huckleberries, and we have baggies full of tea, and we’ve picked some cranberries, it’s time to head home. At the end of the afternoon, we’re tired. Our fingers are stained with berry juice, and our sleeves are wet. The dogs’ fur is soaked and dotted with leaves and muskeg muck, and we can hardly wait to experiment with making flavored water.
But isn’t water just water? We recommend filtering local water or finding a good spring source that’s been tested. Goonhéeni is the Lingít word for spring-water. There are many choices of bottled water, but we avoid those unless there’s a local bottling company and we can recycle the bottles. Otherwise, we reuse mason jars or other jars we’ve washed and sanitized. In many of our Alaskan communities, we must boil, and or filter, our water first before drinking. Some people get individual filters for designed for their water bottles. In Wrangell, our local tribe (Wrangell Cooperative Association) conducts regular tests on our local spring.
Making flavored water is a family activity. We can go out harvesting together and then bring the berries and leaves back and make our own flavor combinations. Kids are more likely to drink it if they’ve been involved in the harvesting and creating their own combinations. You can practice water dialogue in the Lingít language.
Xat shawakúx. I’m thirsty.
Daa sawé a yáx ishaawakúx? What are you thirsty for?
Heen yáx xat shawakúx. I’m thirsty for water.
Some of our favorite naturally flavored waters: blueberry/spruce tip/salmonberry water; clover/spruce tip water; fireweed/Labrador tea water; salmonberry/Labrador tea water. We don’t drink commercially packaged and bottled teas and not bottled water either, and we seldom buy juice.
Another way to flavor your water is to make specialty ice cubes. After berries are juiced for jelly, you can freeze the pulp in small portions then add it to water later when you’re making flavored water. You can also make ice cubes from the pulp. One of our favorite water blends is blueberry, raspberry, lemon ginger, and any flavored iced cubes.
Heen haa tuwáa sigóo! We want water!
It’s hard to pick a favorite flavor, but you can’t beat the taste of spruce trees. In your flavored water you can use spruce tips that you’ve packaged up and frozen, but you can also use the tree branches. You can do this simple recipe year-round, even when the spruce tips aren’t ripe: Cut off two, six-inch spruce tree branches and put them in a pitcher of cold water and let that infuse for twelve hours. It’s a fantastic flavor and full of Vitamin C. Spruce water is likoodzí! (Amazing!). You can cold-soak your spruce tips or infuse them with water in a low heat or a boil. Strain and sugar or honey to taste. You can also put it in a soda machine and make yourself a spruce tip soda.
Héen shú: end, edge of body of standing water.
Some more of the exotic flavors we’ve incorporated into our water: lilac, rose, dandelion, Labrador tea, pineapple weed, fireweed, clovers, honeysuckle, spruce tip, hemlock, strawberry, rose hip, blueberry, red huckleberry, salmonberries, red and gray currants, service berry, raspberry and chaga.
So, this fall when you’re resting up from your busy summer, or you need energy for taking an Alaska Native language class, or caring for the kids, or you’re dreading another workday, remember to look in your freezer for berries or the dried leaves you’ve harvested. In a glass jar, add a few blueberries, and some spruce tips, and sprig of Labrador tea. Pour in some
filtered water and steep for a few minutes. Let the essence of the rainforest invigorate you and keep you healthy through the fall season: Just add water and be well.
• Lingit language assistance from the Tlingit Dictionary, a living dictionary project from Goldbelt Heritage Foundation and the University of Alaska Southeast. X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell, editor and the Lingít X’éin’ax Sá, Say it in Tlingit: A Tlingit Phrase Book, Sealaska Heritage Institute. Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.