By Vivian Faith Prescott
For the Capital City Weekly
Fog surrounds me as I walk with Oscar and Kéet to our favorite thimbleberry spot a mile away. We pass a few straggling thimbleberries. Thimbleberries blossom in Southeast Alaska between May and July, depending on the weather, and the berries ripen anywhere from mid-to-late summer. Today is the last time we’ll be picking thimbleberries as the crop is wilting fast with the oncoming fall season.
Ch’éix’is the Lingít name for thimbleberries. Rubus parviflorus is the scientific name. Thimbleberries can be found from Alaska to California and all the way east to the Great Lakes. These tart and sweet berries resemble a small red thimble. As kids we’d eat them by putting them on the tips of our fingers. Thimbleberries are similar to raspberries, though less firm and with smaller seeds. The fuzzy leaves are as big as your hand and the large white blossoms that bloom in the spring remind me of wild roses. Thimbleberries are in the rose family and the same genus as raspberries and blackberries.
The morning fog whorls across the strait, then settles down like a blanket of cotton. You can feel fall in the air and see our breath puffing out this morning. My dogs and I reach the edge of the walking path near Institute Beach as mountain tops protrude, and the fog unwraps a blue sky. A fogbow arches north toward Shoemaker Harbor.
We stop at the guard rail to watch the fogbow when a bald eagle appears out of the thinning fog, flying toward us with a wiggling fish in his talons. The eagle flies so low I say to Oscar and Kéet, “Stay. Stay.” Oscar has been known to jump up when a bald eagle flies too close. I lean my head back and watch the underside of the eagle, the salmon in its talons, carrying the fish to the nearest utility pole.
We walk toward the utility pole but stop short. Atop the pole, the eagle eats her breakfast as the fog thins to sheer gauze. Apparently, this morning is perfect for catching salmon and perfect cool weather for picking thimbleberries because it’s not too hot. Thimbleberries grow well with the right amount of sun, rain, and shade. They love overcast days. If you pick them when it’s too hot, they’ll be mushy. If you pick them when it’s raining, they’ll be mushy.
I tug the leashes and lead the dogs down the path toward a creek where we have to cross a small bridge. On the way, I note new thimbleberry growth. The older bushes have been pruned by nature, knocked down by wind and rain, so we won’t be picking here. We’re heading beyond the creek. Institute (Shoemaker) Creek runs down from Rainbow Falls and there’s a lot of dog salmon running in the stream this year. My dogs and I cross the stream, pausing to watch salmon wiggle up the slick rocks and into the next pool.
Thimbleberries bushes cascade downhill to the stream. The thimbleberry bushes especially love shady areas like this where it’s moist and cool, and thrive along forest edges, roadsides, and creeks, areas that have been disturbed. Downstream, seagulls and ravens are feeding on the salmon. Thimbleberries and salmon and birds have a relationship. The dying salmon provide nutrients for bushes growing near the streams and birds help spread the nutrients. In turn, the berry bushes provide just the right amount of shade for spawning salmon.
We walk a bit farther heading to our berry patch. A branch of the same creek meanders next to the walking path. I hear splashing so I walk over to the stream. Two salmon splash their way along and there’s a couple of dead salmon caught in a tangle of grass and branches.
We walk on, arriving at our favorite berry spot another few hundred yards away. I stop and unleash the dogs. A salmon carcass lies on the ground near the bushes. I look around, listen and sniff. The dogs aren’t on alert so I decide to stay.
I consider the eagle who’d just flown right over our heads. Maybe an eagle dropped this fish here. The salmon’s soft belly parts are gone but the bones, head, and tail, remain.
I reason that a bear would’ve eaten the whole thing. Maybe, I consider the fish is a gift from the eagle to the berry bushes. I recall a story my son Mitch told me about a time he and his wife Kim were hiking when they heard a crashing sound. They thought it might be a bear and prepared themselves, but the sound came from high up in the trees. They were unsure where to find shelter but moved to the side anyway. A large salmon thunked to the ground beside them just missing Kim.
I can still hear the disbelief in Mitch’s voice as he was telling me: “We looked down, stunned at the sight of a large sliver fish on the trail that’d just fallen out of the sky.”
The sky is eagle- and salmon-free above me and I turn to my dogs. “Stay with me,” I say and they both sit. I turn sideways and head into the bushes. I have my rainpants on to protect me from getting poked with the stiff branches.
“Haagú,” I say in Lingít and the dogs follow behind me. The thicket is dense and hard to maneuver around in. The bushes are 6 feet tall, way above my head. I love being surrounded by the scent of thimbleberry leaves. You can smell their good medicine. Like many wild plants with an astringent smell, I’ll bet the leaves could be used for cuts and burns and even made into soap. I’ve heard thimbleberry leaves were once used for acne. In the old days, a thimbleberry leaf infusion was used to treat tuberculosis and brewed into tea to treat nausea and diarrhea.
I lift the big leaves and discover hidden berries. I pick, resisting the urge to eat them, because thimbleberries are one of my favorites and if I start eating them, I might not stop. It’s a favorite berry of birds, deer and bears, and other humans too. The berries contain Vitamin A, C, potassium, calcium and iron. It’s an immune boosting berry.
After an hour of picking, the bucket string is getting heavy on my neck, though my bucket is only half full. I’m pretty sure this patch is done and the thimbleberry season here is finished. Wrangell, fortunately, is an island full of thimbleberries and I’ve picked enough to make jam to last me all winter, plus I love baking with thimbleberries. My daughter freezes the berries individually on a tray, and then puts them up. I scoop my berries by the cupful into freezer safe baggies, though they are mushier that way when you thaw them for baking and other recipes.
I put the lid on the berry bucket and make my way out of the bushes. On the edge of the patch, I leash up the dogs, and start our journey back home. We cross the large parking lot next to Shoemaker Harbor. I’m thinking of all the things I can make with thimbleberries.
Thimbleberry jam, thimbleberry jelly, thimbleberry fish sauce, thimbleberry tarts, thimbleberry ice cream, thimbleberry smoothies, thimbleberry hand pies.
The fog has sunk low to the water again like a thick sponge, and another fogbow is arching toward the harbor. Fall is on its way. I can see my breath this morning and the berry leaves are curling under, turning red and brown, and the salmon are being snatched up by eagles and dropped from the sky. Fogbows are arching across our morning horizons and I’m thinking of thimbleberry tarts.
• 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.