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Harvesting Wild Foods

From Alaska to the Lower-48 Our Community Forages for Wild Foods

    Fireweed blossoms can be made into jelly, syrup, and even beer. Photo by Emma Bruhl.
    Sitka Seafood Market Vice President Marsh Skeele and Maury Hackett pick berries. Photo by Emma Bruhl.


    Although most of us still do our hunting and gathering at the supermarket, a significant number of our Salmonsharsians look forward to foraging for wild foods throughout the year. Whether you have a sense of adventure or have cultural roots tied to wild foods, several members reached out to share their connection to these ingredients. With spring in full bloom and summer approaching, let’s take a look at how our community connects to their landscape through foraging.

    A springtime salmonberry blossom in Sitka, Alaska. Photo by Emma Bruhl.


    What is the first sign of life as the days grow longer and the land wakes from its winter slumber in your backyard?

    Multiple members shared that wild onions, more commonly known as “ramps,” signal the start of the spring foraging season. So many species of wild garlic and onion litter the North American landscape that Euell Gibbons dedicated an entire chapter to them in his 1962 foraging classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Gibbons turned to foraging as a means of survival during the Dust Bowl era of his youth. As a half-starved teenager, Gibbons saved his family when he returned home with a cache of puffball mushrooms, piñon nuts, and cactus fruit, which his family subsisted on until they secured provisions. “It was a means of salvation,” Gibbons told fellow writer John McPhee, “a way to keep from dying.” Born of necessity, these foraging lessons inspired generations of Americans looking to reconnect to wild foods.

    Salmonberries emerge in early summer, usually around mid-June. Photo by Emma Bruhl.

    As spring gives way to summer, look to the trees and bushes for fruit. Mulberries and blackberries are the scents of summer. The summer surplus demands skills such as canning or making preserves as the forest provides far more than you will be able to consume fresh. For me, the rank, sweet fragrance of mulberries baking on a sidewalk signals the height of summer in the Great Lakes and the approach of autumn and the final, extravagant blush of forage before the winter slumber.

    In September, the orange-yellow explosions of the Laetiporus sulphureus fungus, more commonly known as “chicken of the woods" grows in Sitka. Photo by Emma Bruhl.

    Each ecosystem offers up forage at different times of the year, knowledge so critical to the survival of indigenous peoples that they built their calendars around food. The Anishinaabeg people follow a lunar calendar, designating moons to the presence of blooms, berries, and wild rice.

    Heather Evoy, the indigenous engagement lead with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), turned to the foraging tradition of her Tsimshian heritage to overcome the disconnection wrought by the pandemic. “It’s important to realize how plants can bring people together, outside, to safely connect with the environment and to harvest together,” Evoy says.

    Elliot and Lisa Bruhl hold up a pot full of spring herring eggs harvested in the traditional way, on hemlock boughs. Photo by Emma Bruhl.


    Member Kate Hemple lives a few hours to my south in Appalachia. “Morels and ramps are the big excitement of early spring,” she says. Kate has mapped a few reliable spots and returns to them each year, though she admits that fellow foragers compete for the same resources.

    Foragers have developed an ethical code to protect and sustain wild foods. Although each community tailors their efforts to their particular ecosystem, in general it boils down to two rules of thumb:

    • Take only what you need
    • Leave enough for the plant to replenish itself and for other foragers, including wild animals, to have their fill
    Ravens, eagles, and gulls feed on salmon spawning in Kaasda Héen. Photo by Emma Bruhl.

    Member Dan Bird moved to Minnesota 15 years ago and chose to learn about his new home through foraging. “You can often find me crawling under buckthorn looking for ramps, morels, or fiddleheads,” Dan says. Dan admits foraging has an element of danger to it. “One time when I was foraging in a public location, dressed head to toe in camo, a lady spotted me and asked me what I was doing,” Dan says. When he told her he was foraging she warned him to “Be careful and don’t die,” Dan remembers with a laugh. “I promised her I wouldn’t.”

    Foraging does present hazards to the untrained eye. We’ve all heard the aphorism, “There are old mushroom hunters and bold mushroom hunters but no old, bold mushroom hunters.” In a recent study, the CDC found that poison control centers annually received approximately 7,500 calls related to the accidental consumption of poisonous mushrooms, resulting in just over 1,300 emergency room visits with 100 cases requiring hospitalization. Would-be foragers should also be alert for dangerous lookalikes beyond the mushroom world. To the untrained eye, ramps and lily of the valley look similar, although the latter are toxic. With a little research, or help from a seasoned forager, these distinctions are easy to spot.

    Foragers like Dan are keen to share their knowledge with others so everyone can hunt for wild foods safely. Ensuring the safety of others is an important part of the forager’s creed. “I have found great joy in sharing this knowledge with other people,” Dan says. Although he admits, “I also keep my ‘spots’ a closely guarded secret.”

    Alpine blueberries grow in Sitka in early September. Photo by Emma Bruhl.


    Our industrial food system has provided us with a measure of abundance and convenience unimaginable to our forebears, but it has also come with a set of costs that we struggle to mitigate. Although polluted waterways and soaring diabetes rates grab the headlines, the sense of disconnection we have with our food and the people who grow, catch, and harvest it is more difficult to measure.

    Kevin Vargas holds up a troll-caught king salmon. Photo by Emma Bruhl.

    Sitka Seafood Market was founded on the premise that people crave connection to the people and environments that produce their food. Reducing what we eat to mere commodities robs food of its ability to provide us with a sense of place in the world. Walk into any supermarket and there are precious few clues as to where you are on the continent. Walk into your backyard, and place has meaning again. This is why Sitka Seafood Market goes to such lengths to trace our seafood to the source and tell the story of these wild places and the people who live and work in them.

    Wild foods provide us with a sense of connection that every forager feels when they tromp through a muddy field in search of mustard greens or peek under a tuft of leaves for mushrooms. Knowing a food in four dimensions—how it lives in nature over time—reconnects us to the world in a way that supermarkets have yet to accomplish. For foragers and small-boat fishermen alike, that difference is everything.