Rhubarb plants swell in weed-like proportion with leaves capable of sheltering small mammals. The spring flowers continue to materialize days short of the summer solstice. Lilacs burst. Skunk Weed pole vaults from most every ditch. Flowering salmon berries promise sweet harvests ahead while the Sitka Spruce hangs with new buds inviting culinary harvesting.
Sitka is not in the part of Alaska where melons grow to the size of hot air balloons, nor where one cabbage is large enough to feed an entire village; however, it is a place where solid growth abounds both in nature and in the people.
Solid. Strong. Steadfast. All describe the prevailing population as well as the plant life of the forty-ninth state. These attributes are captured in the Chinook word, skookum. One deemed skookum is brave, powerful, and reliable. Curiously, it has also been used to describe cautionary tales of large unexplained animals such as Big Foot. Somehow that seems to fit. In Alaska, you may prepare yourself for anything along the path, yet you never know how big that anything might be.
After a few weeks back on the east coast where I soaked up the brilliant colors of the Dogwoods, Azaleas, and Forsythias and sucked in more than my fair share of pollen, I headed back west and then north and then a little east to settle into spring in Alaska. I have returned to Baranof Island and Sitka, Alaska, where the rites of spring strike a cord long after the traditional Memorial Day start of summer.
Sitka is a part of the Tongass National Forest, a rain forest. The month of May proved to be dry with sunshine radiating off the mountain peaks. Locals struggled with the fifty-five degree heat wave and the lengthening hours of light turned even the last hibernating residents into manic machines: gardening, boating, hiking, and every house project considered during the previous dark months got underway. As one sunny day brightened into the next, it became difficult to remember that the average rainfall per month is close to 7 inches. As June blossomed—the rumored driest month of the year—rain greeted the first 13 days. To be fair, the sun—or what locals refer to as “the yellow orb in the sky”— was not entirely absent.
Regardless of rain, the days are long. Today’s length clocked in a 17 hours and 53 minutes. The additional daylight is slowing down as we approach the solstice and then, well then the light-gain party starts clearing out. But I’m not going to the dark side yet!
Instead, I go to the culinary side. The education I garnered this winter had me hooked on naming the types of fish found in this area as well as taste-testing the creations from various friends who dished up fish tacos, curried halibut, thai salmon, poached cod collars, not to mention smoked king salmon and marinated herring. Fishing season is now underway and I joined new friends to see how it is done.
At the local outfitter, Murray Pacific, Joanne—my new friend and personal advocate—supplied me with a license and a gift of sturdy fish-gut cleaning gloves! The license came in a pink carrier which seemed a juxtaposition for the no-sissies-allowed mentality of Alaska. Once out to sea, I took to the reel…with a lot of assistance from my friends…and brought in my first king salmon. The fish was taken from me, gutted and filled with ice within a matter of moments by Celia, my young friend who is no stranger to blood and guts of the fish world. In the northeast, a good Jewish mother would say she has moxie. In the south, a Baptist lady would say—Bless her heart. She handed me the extracted fish heart and I knew she was not only beyond my years of seaworthy knowledge, but she was a solid Alaskan, she was skookum.
As the blooming vegetation abounds, my plant-based diet is salavating, and nothing says eating from nature like plucking fresh spruce tips off the tree. When I discovered them in a friend’s shortbread, I got a little carried away. The next week was a spruce tip splurge: syrup, rice, waffles, brownies, scones, and a salt rub. The local brewery infuses them in a seasonal beer. I’d give a thumbs up for all but the brownies…really, why mess around with good chocolate?
Now the rhubarb is bulging. In the southeast U.S., I’ve been asked, “What is that? Red celery?” But in southeast Alaska, they have a corner on rhubarb. The firm stalks are tart and melt into sauce or are minced into a multitude of creations. As a rhubarb lover, I’m okay that there is more rhubarb around than I can possible cook in one life time. But that has not stopped me from trying. I have baked, simmered, and sautéed those ruby red stalks to equal my weight. There have been scones, crisps, sauce, and a friend just enticed me with a savory rhubarb relish recipe. I may not gut a fish, but when it comes to rhubarb, I feel my skookom unfolds.
I have yet to find a use for skunk weed, although one person apparently took the oversized leaf and some moss to fancy a diaper for their baby out on the trail. I am not sure what I will do with the salmon berries should I beat the bears to them for harvest, but I think they will pair nicely with say…rhubarb!
I have tasted a few greens straight off the beach and did a saute of beach asparagus with garlic and lemon. I remain open to try whatever ripens before me, perhaps this is where my strength prevails. I’m not afraid to try something new in the kitchen and not afraid to fail at it either (spruce tip brownies, case and point!)
But I’m not Alaskan tough…that is proved to me almost daily. I stay in a cottage where the folks commute to work. Not only on the days with sun or clouds, but in rain, hail, and did I mention the wind?! Daily weather reports always include the tide tables and wind gusts, oh, and the latest bear sightings.
A few weeks ago, I joined a few friends for a run along a path at the end of the island. The route is lined with salmon berry bushes and a hatchery sits at the far end.
Here’s an equation: Fish + Berries = BEARS.
This well known spot for bear encounters didn’t deter me as there would be four of us running. I was surprised when the other women showed up carrying bear spray or a horn—one of those piercing horns heard at sporting events.
“But there are four of us. Do we really need bear spray?” They looked at me with that, Oh you have so much to learn look in their eyes.
My eyes didn’t give away the calculation I was working on: Which one of these skookom women could I outrun in the presence of a bear?
We ran and I held my own against the seasoned Alaskan runners who made no complaint of 40 degrees and pelting rain in June. They stopped to test the few berries for ripeness and talk meandered in the usual runner fashion—family issues, job challenges, and solving all the problems of the day.
As we came upon a mounded clump of bear scat, my running partners stopped. Two knelt and put their open palm an inch above. “Not warm, we’re good.”
That’s right, they tested the bear scat for heat. Another offered: If you look close you can probably determine which direction the bear is headed. I’ve never thought such a skill existed. But then again, I’m not so skookum.
The bear thing made me nervous when I first returned in the spring. A two-year old juvenile had apparently lost his mother this winter and was wandering into a busy area of a park. Each day the radio announced a new sighting and reminded residents to keep garbage cans secured, remove bird feeders, fortify chicken coups, and take in pet food.
Alaskans may come into their own skookum fortification, but bears come by it naturally. I have yet to meet a bear face to face on the trail, but it seems everyone I’ve met comes with a bear story. Perhaps that adds to the skookum mentality. If that is so, I am happy to relinquish an desires of skookum stature.
There is one skookum eagle feather I have added to my cap, and it is not running in a hail storm (which I have done). It is not riding shotgun in a float plane and landing on water (which has been done). Nor is it shooting a shotgun, which shockingly, I did do.
The skookum act was a hike up Mt. Edgecumbe. It is completely achievable, especially with a network of solid supporters, but the 14 mile roundtrip hike tricked me in the last six tenths of a mile. So close to the top, yet many sweaty, heart pumping exertions remained to get there as pumice rock and sand worked against my footings. With an elevation gain of almost 3,000 feet, the expansive view, the chilling wind, and the moon like surface secured a memory that is surrounded by the faces of new friends.
As the longest day of the year closes in, Sitka is ripe for the celebration. There will be a concert, a midnight run, 108 sun salutations by a yoga group and a pot luck where I imagine only rhubarb will rival the honored guest of the longest day of light. I may not be Alaskan skookum, but I am sure glad I have found an island where the people can hold their own and still spill forth their brilliant strong light.