Alaskans go to the forest and beaches not only to harvest but to find therapy, to find solitude and to heal. Part of that enjoyment is to inhale the scent of skunk cabbage, the wild celery and walk among the fireweed.
But I’m certain I’m not the only avid harvester who feels like this summer got 2020’d. It’s been raining a lot! And it feels like we’ve been cheated out of summer.
Sure, in Southeast Alaska we’re used to rain and we’re used to not waiting for nice weather in order to go out and do the things we love. But this spring and summer there’s been too much rain, not only for us, but the foods and medicines we typically harvest have been affected too.
Here in Juneau, as we all eagerly waited for spring weather to transform into summer, we experienced the wettest June since 1949. Heading into July we saw the results of the rain in the foliage on the trails. The plants that’re normally a vibrant green started turning yellow. The yaana.eit, (wild celery) and x’áal’ (skunk cabbage) turned yellow early on. When there’s too much rain for skunk cabbage you know it’s been raining a lot. It’s kind of discouraging when most of us assumed enjoying the summer weather would help get us through sheltering in place and our limited social interactions. We could tell ourselves: at least we can get outside! That’s what I mean by “summer got 2020’d.” The weather has made harvesting and getting outside more difficult.
For a couple of weeks, I waited for the weather to get better before I went into full-on harvest mode. Also, having s’áxt (devil’s club) embedded under my finger nail influenced that choice as well. But a few friends reached out when they heard I was injured and helped draw me out into the rain again. Rain or not, I sure needed that. Yes, we’d been conducting physical distancing harvesting with Planet Alaska’s Hike, Harvest and Heal program since February in small groups, but sometimes I still need motivation. Sometimes I need people to assure me that things will get better, especially, when there’s a pandemic going on outside your door and the weather forecast is for rain, rain, rain, rain.
The stark contrast between Juneau’s weather last year to this year is significant. We went from a summer with almost no rain to a summer with almost no sun. This makes it hard to plan plant harvesting. Actually, this year’s spring greens were harvested quickly so we didn’t get enough. But the plant that’s making me feel the pressure of the harvesting season right now is the lóol, (fireweed). Most Alaskans know what fireweed is and in the Lingít language it’s called lóol.
Lóol is considered the harbinger of the seasons. When it first pops up out of the ground, I consider it officially spring and it’s time to harvest the new shoots to eat fresh or to pickle. This year, I didn’t get as many as I would’ve liked because of the short growing season due to the cooler, wetter weather. The lóol told me we weren’t going to have a warm summer: The lóol always knows. As it grows, I harvest the leaves to eat fresh in salads. As a rule, I don’t want the fireweed to bloom too soon, but at the same time I eagerly await its arrival. ‘
I love lóol. I love fireweed syrup, fireweed/clover syrup, fireweed honey, fireweed-infused honey, fireweed jelly, fireweed/spruce tip jelly, fireweed vinaigrette, fireweed tea and pretty much fireweed anything. Every year, my newsfeed on Facebook fills with pictures of friends and family making beautiful and interesting things with fireweed. I even have a friend who’s planning on making fireweed cordage this year. I look forward to learning about all the things they’ll make with the cordage this winter.
The one thing I’ve learned is listen to the lóol. This summer, fireweed has been telling us to prepare for winter. It’s been telling us the season is off kilter, too. Here in Juneau we’ve had fireweed plants that’re blooming halfway up the stalk growing next to fireweed with barely any buds. And the normally full fields are noticeably sparse. It’s been what harvesters call a schizophrenic harvesting season. Most of the berries are affected, too. This year, it’s strange to be harvesting salmonberries and gray currants at the same time. Salmonberries are among the first berries we harvest in the early summer and gray currants are usually among the last berries in the early fall. Whatever is happening this year because of the weather, we’re trying to adapt. I think we Alaskans are getting pretty good at being resilient. We’ve been adapting to keeping our distance, adapting to new social media, adapting to wearing masks, and adapting to rain. We can do this. Like the lóol, fireweed, we grow in adversity, we are adaptable, and of course, like lóol, we can brighten up any rainy day. Be like lóol.
Here is a recipe for you to try:
Fireweed Simple Syrup
— 1 cup of fireweed juice or tea
— 1 cup of sugar (Use 2 cups of sugar instead for a thicker syrup and it’ll last a few months longer in the refrigerator. It’s a lot sweeter so simply use less when eating later.)
— 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
Bring fireweed tea, lemon juice and sugar to a boil. Stir gently and slowly until sugar dissolves. Stirring gently and slowly in the beginning as not stirring very much helps the syrup to not crystallize. Bring to a boil and turn down to simmer until desired thickness (Too long and it will harden. Too many sugar crystals from the spoon and pot will cause crystals in your syrup. Turn off when done and put a lid on it. This will help melt the crystals on the edge of the pot.) Simmer 1-10 minutes. Pour into jars. Let cool on the counter and then refrigerate. Let it sit in the refrigerator a few days and it’ll continue to thicken. Or you can boil in a water bath to seal so you can enjoy the syrup this winter. The syrup goes great with cocktails, and it pairs well with wild game.
To make fireweed tea simply infuse fireweed petals in water. Some people use a ratio of 1 cup of packed petals to 1 cup of water or 2 cups of packed petals to 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil and stir. Turn it down and simmer until the color is gone from the petals. Strain out the petals when it’s done. You can use it right away to make the syrup, or you can freeze the tea in zip-close bags to make later.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.