Alaskans are navigating these uncertain times with Phase 1, the soft reopening of our economy. The unknown variables are scary for many, and not so scary for others.
What is known gives us comfort, which often means our familiar foods and routines. In my case, it’s Alaska Native traditional foods and the solace of harvesting in the wilderness.
At Planet Alaska, we teach harvesting, so it’s important to give myself and my students “space.” The State of Alaska offers guidelines to move us forward such as continuing to give one another space while in public — still recommending six feet — whether we’re in a grocery store, the woods, or on the beach. A bit of intimacy is lost but it’s not impossible if I’m willing to protect you and you’re willing to protect me.
In addition to an awareness of space, as a forager, it’s important to know where my hands are and to avoid touching my face. Some plants cause rashes, can embed needles and more. I’m also a hand-washer because when processing foods and medicines, it’s a crucial protocol. But dealing with a deadly virus? That’s a whole other way of thinking. The State of Alaska recommends frequent hand washing, avoid touching our face, staying home if we feel even a hint of sickness, and using a face mask in public. Face masks don’t 100% prevent us from getting the coronavirus, not even an N95 mask has that ability.
The Alaska Department of Health says face masks may help to protect others if we happen to be asymptomatic carriers or haven’t developed symptoms yet. Sadly, not everyone will make the choice to protect others in public so we must protect ourselves. Some stores are putting up barriers to protect cashiers. Some stores are requiring both employees and customers wear masks. There are arrows and X’s marking walking spaces. Sure, this is all new but Alaska Native people are adaptable and so when I’m trying to learn new rules and adapt to changes, I think about how we’ve survived. We can do this.
But how can we be sustainable in a pandemic? What’s happening to our food chain? These are things I think about. As a traditional foods and medicine specialist, I have local foods in my freezer and on my shelves. I don’t typically eat beef, pork or chicken, but there are always exceptions, and bacon should be its own food group. I’ve eaten moose bacon, caribou bacon and duck bacon and someday I’ll try bear bacon.
Yes, I have a lot of subsistence foods I rely on. Mostly, though, my concern is Alaskans heavily dependent upon outside processors. Meat processing plants in the U.S. are closing so does this affect us? When I worked as a health educator for Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, I served on food sustainability committees. Harvesting wild foods takes a lifetime of learning, and luckily, we have knowledgeable locals. While managing grants I learned Alaska is a food desert because over 95% of our food is shipped here. But while we don’t have a strong agricultural economy in Alaska, it’s growing, and most Alaskans harvest from the wild instead of farming.
As we ready classes at Planet Alaska I’m reminded there’s a plethora of food. I also realize money and access are barriers, which is why I’m hopeful because we have a sharing economy. Sharing is an important Alaska Native value. Even though Alaska is considered a food desert, you have options. I’ve complied some foods Alaska Native people have been eating for a very long time. Take a look.
When you’re anxious if your store is going to stock something or if the pork plant in Iowa is closing please think about these:
• Birds: Pheasant, duck, goose, a variety of ptarmigans and grouse, cormorant, swan, sandhill cranes, snipe, owl and more.
• Seafood: Scallops, abalone, shrimp, crab varieties, halibut, herring, hooligan, trout varieties, black cod, clams and cockles, sea cucumber, gumboots, sea urchin, mussels, rockfish, needlefish, whitefish, seal, walrus, beluga, salmon, dogfish, flounder, geoduck, oysters, octopus, squid, sea urchin and more.
• Eggs: Duck eggs, gull eggs, goose, murre, cormorant eggs, and more.
• Fish Roe: Herring, salmon, whitefish, tom cod, lingcod, pike, and all sorts of fish eggs.
• Meats: Deer, caribou, moose, black and brown bear, beaver, bison, muskrat, porcupine, squirrel, elk, Dall sheep, mountain goat, rabbit, lynx, fox, and more.
• Alaska Native Vegetables: Sorrel, sourdock, dandelion greens, watermelon berry shoots, lovages, spruce and hemlock tips, beach greens and seaweeds, plus birch leaves, cambium, sap, and catkins, alder and cottonwood catkins. There’s chickweed, cattail, chives, coltsfoot, ferns, potato (Hedysarum alpinum), fireweed greens and stalks, goose tongue, chocolate lily rice, juniper, lamb’s quarters, Mare’s Tail, and mousenuts. There are about 500 species of mushrooms in Alaska, many are edible: shaggy manes, puffballs, chicken of the woods, morels, inky caps. And there’s roseroot, pink plume or knotweed, goosefoot, spiked saxifrage, pineapple weed, violets, wild celery, cow parsnip, willow buds, sallow cambium, winter cress, salmonberry and thimbleberry shoots, horsetail varieties, shepherd’s purse, western bittercress, plantain and lots more.
• Fruit: Crab apples, thimbleberries, red and black huckleberries, all types of blueberries, cloudberries, nagoon berries, juniper, watermelon berries, bristly black currant and a big variety
of other currants. Mountain ash berries, serviceberries, raspberry types, salmonberries, wild and beach strawberries, soap berries, silverberries, rose hips, dogwood berries, cornel berries, crowberries, salal berries, bearberries, kinnikinnick berries, and a half dozen cranberry varieties and red elderberries. I may have missed a few.
• Alaskan Teas: Labrador tea, wild rose, devils club, yarrow, red clover, high bush cranberry, raspberry, chickweed, cleavers, chamomile, bearberry, dandelion, spruce, hemlock tree, chaga, licorice root, wormwood and more.
Remember, depending on where you live in Alaska, there are regulations. So, make sure you know them. Some foods only Alaska Natives can harvest. Lately, communities have applied to harvest out of season so this is something you can get together with your community to implement. Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website as well as the U.S. Forest Service website have details regarding these regulations.
If you can’t decipher the regulations, just ask and make sure you document what agency, when you asked, who you asked and what they said. I also recommend a harvesting notebook, so you can jot down where you went, what was harvested, weather conditions and who you were with. This will help when you harvest the following year.
Harvesting foods during this worldwide pandemic means we can get out of the house. We relieve stress while taking care of ourselves and others. One of the reasons people moved to this beautiful land is for the isolation and large amount of accessible Alaska wilderness so give it respect. The distance mandate hasn’t been hard to adjust to, at least for Alaskans. When I was growing up in Alaska in the ‘70s and ‘80s I loved the amount of respect and space people gave one another when outdoors. As a large family, we’d go to a beach ,and if we saw someone sitting in our favorite spot, we would simply go to the other side of the beach, far enough away so we didn’t interrupt the moment the other people were having. We’d make sure our dogs and children didn’t run up on people.
If we went out berry picking and someone was in our spot, we’d just drive down the road to another location. Occasionally, though, we’d be out in the wilderness and someone would walk up to our group. This was not socially acceptable but if it happened, we’d know they were either in need of help, someone we knew or weren’t from Alaska.
Alaska is huge and we’re fortunate to be living here. Yes, the pandemic is scary and we’re all feeling stressed. I can only imagine what it’s like to live in New York City. So as we continue to navigate this new world, let’s make sure we don’t needlessly harm or even kill our fellow Alaskans. Not just because of our state mandates it, but give each other some distance, give space while we’re in the grocery store and also while we’re in the wilderness.
Many of us go outside to get away from people and the stress of our daily lives. There’s lot of Alaska for Alaskans to enjoy.
Enjoy your harvesting and your precious space.
• 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.