"What is that?" J. asked in astonishment as we turned a corner on the trail, after helping ourselves to ripe huckleberries, harvesting a baggy of them for a sweet n sour supper.
It was an overcast day and the forest was dark and damp. But up ahead an alien sunburst appeared on the side of a rotten hemlock stump and mossy deadfall below it.
"Chicken of the Woods," I said, giving the name I'd always heard growing up, though I've since heard it called Sulphur shelf. It's called one of the "foolproof four" of edible mushrooms, meaning that it's impossible to mistake because of its brilliant coloring.
I asked J. to cut off the outer, tender sections, since in closer to the trunk of the rotten stump it has a woody texture. By only harvesting the tips we could come back to harvest more later. He pointed out the slugs that had climbed the stump to feast on the bright orange fungus, and then searched for tips that hadn't been nibbled on.
Despite Chicken of the Woods being considered edible, some people can have a bad reaction to it. My mom became very sick after eating some that had been sauteed in butter, a treat we grew up on every fall. [One Internet resource notes: "If you are unlucky, or sensitive to whatever unidentified toxin is in these, you may experience vomiting, chills, and perhaps mild hallucinations....Yet there are many (probably over 90% of you) who eat these species with impunity, it's hard to know what to advise, except caution."]
So when J. immediately took a piece he'd cut and popped it into his mouth before I could stop him, I couldn't help flinching. I asked him to not eat anymore and waited anxiously to see how it affected him. For one thing, it's best to eat it fully cooked to avoid stomach issues.
"It tastes like mushrooms," J. said in surprise. He'd been expecting chicken. Fortunately, he proved immune to whatever made some people sick, despite eating it raw.
Next on our shopping list was beach asparagus. We headed out of the woods and onto the gravel beach alongside the stream that we'd dammed up in the woods to get our drinking water from. On the other side of the overflow-stream from the dam was an ancient, wrecked ship's deck that J. felt compelled to explore. He did that while I searched for the best asparagus I could find.
I wanted to harvest the asparagus where it was washed regularly by freshwater since we'd been having red tide issues. (Also known as an "algae bloom." It's a discoloration of seawater caused by a bloom of toxic red dinoflagellates.) There's a health advisory up because of the year-long bloom, apparently caused by higher than usual ocean temperatures, warning locals not to eat any shellfish in the area. When I got home I'd also rinse them in a water and vinegar solution just to be safe.
The beach asparagus was starting to bloom and I had to hunt to find ones that weren't reddish at the tip--they'd be woody and sour tasting. (For more on a description of beach asparagus, complete with recipe ideas, check out the wonderful SE Alaskan blog: www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com in the "Food and Medicine from Nature" category. Also, I found that when you Google "beach asparagus," her thorough entry on the subject is the first to pop up.)
When we got back home I thoroughly cleaned and de-stemmed the berries, asparagus, and "chicken." I added a fresh boiler onion and diced what could be diced in preparation for an Alaskan sweet n sour dinner. Sitting off to one side was the chopped meat (venison, or any game meat is best, but pork, chicken, or any other store bought meat will work) marinating in the brine from "Bubbies" bread and butter pickles.
I sauteed the freshly harvested ingredients (plus the onion) in olive oil and then removed them from the pan and set them aside in order to cook the meat in the skillet in fresh "Bubbies" brine, with an added pinch of red pepper flakes, bringing the liquid to a boil and then simmering the meat until it was cooked and tender.
While the rice was steaming, I made the sweet n sour sauce:
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
As I went to combine the ingredients, I realized I was out of soy sauce. Since the beach asparagus was naturally salty, I thought that might actually be for the best. But the soy sauce provided the dark coloring for the sauce. To make it a little darker I used brown sugar instead of white.
I added the thoroughly mixed sauce to the simmering meat and cooked until the sauce thickened, and then added the sauteed fruit and veggies. By then the rice was done and minutes later I had a delicious, if slightly dangerous, and colorful Southeast Alaskan sweet n sour supper.
"It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here." That was what the T-shirts said that could be bought at the tiny store in the fishing village where my grandparents lived. We lived there, too, for a short time before my parents moved our family of seven to the end of the world.
Where we were going, there would only be us, no other people for miles of trackless wilderness, approachable only by the unpredictable sea. We would have to live without most modern amenities and support ourselves with hard labor, depending on each other for everything.
We had our flloathouse towed several miles away to an abandoned, burned cannery that had operated in the early years of the twentieth century. When we got there the remnants of burnt and rotting buildings were being submerged in the vast, quiet forest. On the beach were the tangled, rusted remains of massive pieces of machinery and the blackened pilings, some with stunted trees growing out of them, of what had once been a pier and dock. The smooth, rounded rocks of the beach were permanently stained by being washed in decades of rust.
My young uncle Lance on a visit, with an artist's eye, took one look at the large rusty gears, levers, and corroded machinery and designed an automobile of sorts out of these parts and assembled it down on the beach. We admired it and played in and around it until the tides and storms scattered it.
Out on a rock lookout that had a spectacular view of the bay was an enormous fuel drum. I used to dance there on the old concrete pad it sat on with my headphones on, rocking out to Bruce Springsteen as a sunset filled the sky and water. I was the last human being on earth.
That feeling came over me so many times, wandering through the ruins. I was particularly drawn to a set of blackened steps that led up to the foundation beams of an invisible building. I would climb up them and stand there, wondering about the past, about the future, wondering where those steps were supposed to lead me.
The five of us kids dug around in the forest and discovered what must have been where the cookhouse had burned to nothing. We found all sorts of dishes and cutlery, pots and pans, and metal plates to stock our forts and play with. We also found odd, Asian looking cups and saucers, most of them broken. When I did a school report looking into the background of the old cannery, I learned that many of the workers were from the Philippines.
Near the creek, where the bears fished for salmon and ignored us, lay a giant steel ring with a heavy, round door flung open. It was the door to the enormous cannery retort. I used to stand on the lip of the ring and stare at the rocks inside it and imagine that it was a portal into the past, to when the cannery was full of life and movement and men working long hours on the edge of nowhere to send wages to their loved ones on the other side of the Pacific.
We found, in a lonely place overlooking the bay, a bleached grave marker, half buried in tall grass above the driftwood. There was no way of knowing who it was that was buried there. If the marker had borne a name the years and weather had wiped it away.
Everywhere I looked, everywhere I wandered in the woods and on the beaches, I was accompanied by a sense of wonder and mystery, an awareness of a past civilization, of long ago people who had stepped where I walked. They had thoughts and dreams and hopes that I sometimes thought they hadn't taken with them when they left. They were still here, in whispers and glimpses.
These ruins were home; the end of the world was the most beautiful, wild, and free place on earth. I never tired of wandering though that old, destroyed and abandoned world.
Years later my whole family flew to Ketchikan, the nearest city, for dental appointments. Coming directly from years in the wilderness, the city was exciting, so full of people and motion and alien noises. We stayed in a hotel and were amazed and delighted with everything, particularly the TV and the indoor bathroom. Being able to order food in the restaurant from a menu was an exhilarating experience. That first night was filled with lights and the sound of music, fireworks, and reveling people. More by accident than by design we had wound up in the city on New Year's Eve.
The next morning we got up at our usual early hour and ran downstairs to the street to absorb more of this fantastic, lively world.
But when we got to the street it was empty. Overnight the city had died. No traffic, no people, no life. We wandered down the deserted streets under an overcast sky, past the silent, tall buildings. The stores were closed and dark--nothing was lit. A dog trotted down the middle of the street. It was the only sign of life.
We had gone from an old post apocalypse to a much more recent one, I thought. We were the last human beings on earth again, this time in a city that had housed thousands instead of a hundred. We were the only survivors; the abandoned city belonged to us. It was a familiar sensation, not frightening. We belonged.
When we finally returned to the wilderness, that was the memory that stayed with me. And when, years later, we left the ruins of the cannery, I partially filled a canning jar with rust-stained rocks from the beach so I could take the post-apocalypse with me wherever I wandered.
With two kids, a boy and a girl, staying with us we found we needed to make another grocery run across the strait. We were informed by the Little Girl that we were running out of peanut butter and jelly, which struck fear into all our hearts. All the same, my dad wanted to make sure we had a good day to cross, so I took a walk through the woods to get a view of Clarence Strait.
We didn't want a repeat of our last trip. On our way home from Thorne Bay the driver's seat broke just as we got out into heavy seas. My dad tried to steer while sitting on the broken seat's mount but found that impossible--he could barely reach the throttle on the tiller handle of the outboard engine, for one thing. For another, the position was killing his bad leg and sciatica.
Fortunately, we had a five gallon bucket in the skiff with us. I turned it upside down and used it for the seat. On the plus side I could reach the throttle. On the down side, the bucket had no grip and slid around in the heavy seas. It was also too low, so I couldn't see over the bow very well. My dad directed me where to steer to get in the trough. It was a pretty harrowing ride and not one either of us wanted to repeat--with or without the broken seat issue.
When I checked the strait I saw a tide rip on this side, but it looked all right on the other side, glittering in the strong sunshine. It looked fine to the north and south as well. I took pictures and had my dad take a look. He decided we were good to go and we headed out.
It was marginal to the halfway mark, then Clarence Strait struck back. In minutes we were taking constant spray, getting hammered by growing and confused seas. The wind direction appeared to be switching around on us. Trying to avoid some waves, we hit others from another direction and our teeth clicked together and our spines got slammed as we came down hard. Repeatedly, even going at a slower speed. This was particularly hard on my dad's leg. But at least the seat was fixed and solid despite the abuse.
It reminded me of a skiff ride in my teen years when my dad was working on the community waterline in the nearby village and my sister and I had been hired to clean and pack up a house for someone who was leaving. After a day of work, on the ride home we got into heavy weather, launched off a particularly big wave, and smashed down hard.
My dad tapped the bottom of the skiff with his foot. "Yeah," he said bleakly, "there went the bottom."
I felt the bottom with my foot and could feel the unnatural movement as the hull flexed independently of the rest of the skiff. The bottom had separated.
We made it safely home, but that skiff--a thirteen foot Boston Whaler that had seen years of hard service--had to be put out to pasture. My dad built a sixteen foot wooden skiff, with lumber from his own sawmill, that we used for years afterwards. It was the one I used to drive my younger brothers and sister to school when I was sixteen, in all sorts of weather.
We made it across the strait and were relieved to get inside the protected passage that led to Thorne Bay, but both of us were thinking about how fast we could get fuel and groceries and cross the strait again before it got worse. At least, we thought, even if it was as bad out there as when we crossed, we'd be going with it on the way home and be able to get in the trough with a quartering sea on our stern to push us. Assuming the wind direction didn't switch yet again.
The Port, where we got fuel, still hadn't been able to replace the malfunctioning pump down at the dock. The last time we were there I'd had to carry a jerry jug up to the street level pump and fill it there. This time they'd run a very long hose from the street pummp to the dock. I just had to go up and switch it on. My dad fueled up just as another boat arrived. When my dad finished I turned off the pump, then, at the newcomer's request, turned it back on for him, saving him a trip up to the street and back down.
As I paid at the counter I noticed that there was a new woman on duty and she had an accent. She revealed that she was from the Ukraine as she handed me back the credit card.
"Spasibo," I thanked her, and she did a double-take.
"Nazashto. Have you been to Ukraine?" she asked, surprised.
"No, but my family on my mother's side is from there. My great grandmother's family was from Odessa." I would have loved to have talked with her more and used some of my limited Russian, but we had to get going. Maybe next time.
We had one stop to make before the grocery store. I knew that the Beachcomber who writes a wonderful blog (www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com) of her travels and experiences in my part of Alaska was in Thorne Bay on a live-aboard boat moored at the city float. I wanted to stop by and say hi. I knew she'd understand that I couldn't linger as I would have liked--she's well-acquainted with Clarence Strait and its mercurial ways.
Unfortunately, when I knocked on the side of the boat and called out to see if anyone was home, there was no answer. I got back in the skiff, but as we were pulling away a man called out to us and told us that we'd just missed them--they'd taken off in their camper just two hours earlier. I asked him to tell her that I'd stopped by, that I was from across the strait. He gave us a disbelieving look.
"You came across the strait in that?"
"Yes, and it wasn't nice," I said ruefully.
He asked if I was the post mistress for the village on the other side of the strait and I said no, though I've known the post mistress most of my life. He said that when he was preparing to move up to Alaska, someone he'd met in passing asked him to tell the post mistress at our small village hi from her sister. He apparently hadn't thought it was likely he'd bump into her, but I'm sure he will at some point, just like he bumped into someone who knows her well.
Our next stop was the store. My mom had called in most of her order and it was already shopped and boxed. When I stepped inside I snagged a young man named Daniel and asked if he'd deliver her groceries down to the skiff, below the parking lot, while I did my own shopping and a few extra items my mom had thought of. I went as fast as I could. It was flat calm inside Thorne Bay, but that was never an indication of what was happening out on the strait.
After finishing shopping, Daniel again helped with the boxes. He did most of the work--I stayed in the bow of the skiff as he trudged up and down the steep gravel incline for box after box, handing them off to me. I asked if they'd ever found out if it was possible to put a dock here to make loading groceries easier.
He said the Army Corps of Engineers had come and looked at it and told them that they'd have to put in thirty feet of fill and pay over $300,000 for a thirty year rental. And that didn't include the cost of building the actual dock! Obviously, we'll be trudging up and down that gravel incline for years to come.
Once we'd arranged the boxes around the jugs of fuel and lashed the boxes in place for a bumpy ride home, we noticed that it was blowing inside the protected bay, now. But, to our relief, when we made it back onto the strait we saw that it had actually laid down. It was still rough, but it got nicer as we crossed until it was frankly friendly as we reached home.
It's always such a relief to put another corssing behind us. Best of all, we were stocked up again on PB&J!
Tara Neilson (ADOW)