Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pine Nuts

Investigating a Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana)
Today Katrina and I hit the road again and drove down to San Diego to spend New Year’s Eve with her Grandparents.  We stopped at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve on the way.  The Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana) is one of the many pines that produce nuts large enough to be worth eating.  Torrey Pine nuts formed an important part of the Kumeyaay tribe diet and are 19-20 mm long, which is larger than most other pine nuts.  Torrey Pine distribution is limited to Santa Rosa Island and the mouth of the Soledad River near San Diego, making it the rarest pine tree in North America.  Development appears to be the major threat as all the trees I saw in the reserve were thriving.   I put together a table of all the ethnobotanically significant pine nuts found in North America for those as curious as I was.

Scrub Oak (Quercus dumosa)
We also found Scrub Oak (Quercus dumosa) growing on the hillsides but didn’t notice any acorns.  Evidently, they were not as preferred for acorn collecting as the larger oak trees to the east.
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Friday, December 30, 2011

Road trip- to The Land of Little Rain

For the last several years my family has migrated south to California for the Holidays to take advantage of the warmer weather and visit the more fecund family members who have difficulty traveling with small children.  Traditionally we all loaded into the “Odious Whaler,” Mom’s red minivan so named for our normal coastal route paralleling the Grey Whale migration and the repugnant odors that result when a van full of car camping siblings eats too many Odwalla bars.  Trips in the Odious Whaler where characterized by Rambo camping (discovering hidden and free places to camp) and screeching halts in Big Sur to identify shore birds, photograph elephant seals, race up coastal trails, and to answer the whaler’s cry with raised binoculars. 

This year, complex family schedules and Mom’s reluctance to allow the aged “Oddie” her former freedom, forced Katrina and to drive ourselves to our rendezvous in Ventura, CA.  Our independence allowed us to extend our trip considerably in order to take in the natural bounty of California.  My primary goal was to harvest as many types of acorns as possible, and Katrina—who has been more obsessed with salt lately—was keen to collect some salt from some of the region's many natural deposits.  We packed our camping gear, binoculars, collecting bags, a back roads atlas, and a few of our favorite ID books and planned a route that included the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree National Park, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Yosemite.

Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) silhouette
We left Seattle on a frosty clear morning driving hard for the potentially snowy Siskiyous in Southern Oregon.  We hoped to cross the pass before dark and camp somewhere in Northern California.  I wanted to explore the north end of the Sacramento Valley for Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) because I have seen pictures of Valley Oak acorns so large that it only took three to fill a hand.  We started seeing bare branched oak silhouettes in the fading light as we passed through Redding and by the time we got to the small town of Cottonwood, I couldn’t bear the thought of missing a collecting opportunity, so we pulled off the highway on a lonesome exit and drove down a quiet dirt road until we found a nice oak to sleep under.  The stars were twinkling brightly and the crescent moon had already set so we didn’t set up the tent in order to enjoy the stars.  The next morning we were up at first light eager to stomp around and warm up our cold bones (I thought we were in California!).  

Variations in Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii) leaves
Insect damaged Blue Oak Acorns
Yuck! There isn't much left to eat.
The oak we had slept under didn’t have any acorns, but it didn’t  take me long to find places with a heavy mast of acorns lying on the ground.  They were about the size and shape of Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) acorns with warty caps but the leaves were shallowly lobed or entire.  I think they may have been Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii).  Almost all of the acorns were damaged by weevils so I did not collect any.  One of the reasons that Native Americans burned oak savannahs was to kill the weevil larva, which spend 1-2 years buried in the leaf duff before pupating, and searching out an acorn crib.  Infected acorns fall early, so a burn after they have fallen would serve the dual purpose of limiting weevil reproduction, and clearing the vegetation below an oak so that good acorns were easier to collect.  Klamath River Jack summarized this practice in a 1916 letter to the California Fish and Wildlife Commission, “Fire burn up old acorn that fall on ground.  Old acorn on ground have lots worm; no burn old acorn, no burn old bark, old leaves, bug and worms come more every year…. Indian burn every year just same, so keep all ground clean, no bark, no dead leaf, no old wood on ground, no old wood on brush, so no bug can stay to eat leaf and no worm can stay to eat berry and acorn.  Not much on ground to make hot fire so never hurt big trees, where fire burn (In Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, 2005, p. 146).”

Continuing southward and downstream, we soon left the savannah and entered the immense central valley grassland. What John Muir once described as a “scene of peerless beauty” and an “ocean of flowers” confronted us in half flooded rectangles of brown dirt rimmed with patches of invasive Giant Reed Grass (Phragmites sp.)   Irrigation projects using Sacramento River water have made this region a large producer of wild rice (Zizania palustris), a grain native to the Great Lakes region.  While I am a fan of wild rice, it is sad to see native ecosystems destroyed to grow a crop that flourishes with minimal management in its own native habitat.  We pulled off the highway to investigate a paddy further and found ourselves on a road to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

Northern Pintail

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge hosts 40 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s fleet of winter waterfowl.  We followed the safari style automobile loop through a portion of the 35,000 acre refuge and got good views of Cinnamon Teal, Northern Pintail, Ruddy Ducks, White-fronted Geese, thousands of Snow Geese, a Coomon Moorehen, and about 40 other species.

That evening we arrived at Jeremy’s house and I met my new nephew who is still the size of a loaf of bread.  Everybody else showed up the next day and I spent the next few days on the beach teaching Christian how to build sand castles and play bocce rock.  The birding was pretty good and I saw a Long-billed Curlew, several Marbled Godwits, and learned to ID Black-bellied Plover in non-breading plumage and California Towhees.  We all went to the Griffith Observatory one evening and learned a lot about space.  I was really intrigued by a Foucault Pendulum replica that is on display near the main door.  It slowly turns clockwise relative to the floor as it swings back and forth and in 1851, it was the first direct proof that the earth is rotating on its axis (the earth rotates beneath the swinging pendulum).
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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Galiano Island Oyster Feast

Katrina and I took a ferry to Galiano Island on Thursday to meet our good friends Shin and Andra.  Galiano Island is conveniently located half way between Victoria and Bellingham, and Shin was able to host us in the fabulous house of a UVic Professor that he is house sitting for.  I was fascinated by the post and beam construction of the home and the use of enormous local sandstone slabs in the landscaping, and custom Douglas Fir cabinetry.  Most of the hours that we spent indoors not cooking, eating, or playing Settlers of Cattan, I spent daydreaming about a similar but smaller version of the home that I would like to build someday.  Fortunately, I didn’t waste too much time in idle dreaming, because we spent much of our time outside.

Seaside Juniper growing at Porlier Pass on Galiano Island
We hike through Dionisio Provincial Park on the north end of Galiano.  We investigated the ruins of an old light keepers home at Porlier Pass and the modern solar powered light and fog-horn that put the light keeper out of business.  Porlier Pass provides a shortcut for north bound mariners trying to get to Nanaimo, but the narrow passage, strong currents, and frequent fogs make it dangerous.  Donald Graham has written a chapter dedicated to the history of this particular lighthouse in his book Lights of the Inside Passage.

Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) still fruiting in December
Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) bark
The vegetation of the Island’s Coastal Douglas Fir Ecosystem thrives during the winter as many of the tree and shrub species are evergreen, and special suite of groundcovers have adapted to thrive in our relatively mild and wet winters.  We spotted Evergreen Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) that still had a few ripe berries, but repeated rainfall and age had leached most of the flavor out of the berries.  We also saw a number of Pacific Yew trees (Taxus brevifolia), which are currently grown industrially to produce the chemotherapy medication Taxol from the bark.  Taxol is used for treating breast, lung, and ovarian cancers.  Pacific Northwest Indigenous Peoples also used Yew bark medicinally and constructed hunting bows, digging sticks, and splitting wedges from the dense and flexible wood of the Yew tree.

Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) and Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Further down the trail we found the tasty winter annuals Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) and Chickweed (Stellaria media) growing luxuriantly on a mossy sandstone cliff under a Blue Heron rookery.  Had they leaves not been speckled with white-wash, I would have had a hard time resisting my impulse to immediately stuff them in my mouth.  Licorice Ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) were also thriving on the rock face on account of the more open, wintertime, tree canopy, and ample moisture.  Unlike most plants, these Licorice Ferns will go dormant during the summer because the rocks are too dry to support photosythensis.  Licorice Ferns persist these annual droughts as a rhizome.  The green colored rhizomes can be dried and used to make a nice sweet tea with trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus) leaves and Grand Fir (Abies grandis) needles, which were also abundant on Galiano Island.

Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii) bark scar
After we rounded the point we came to a series of small bays with shell beaches.  Park signage informed us of the historical Salish use of the site as a seasonal village and harvesting ground for shellfish, roots, and berries.  A few fallen trees revealed the salt and pepper soil of black “human earth” and white shell fragments.  I also noticed that some of the larger Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii) trees were scarred from the removal of thick chunks of bark that were probably used for fire wood.

Shin cooking Pacific Oysters
An Oyster ready to be devoured
The low tide was at 9:40 pm, so we returned to the shore with flashlights to hunt for Pacific Oysters (Crassostrea gigas).  Also called Japanese Oysters, these large oysters were introduced to the coast by Taylor Shellfish Farm (here in Bellingham) in the early 20th Century.  Since then they have spread to brackish estuaries from Baha to Alaska.  Now they are much more common than the native Olympia Oyster (Ostreola conchaphila).  We rustled about the sea lettuce and rocks in the dark until we had 12 large oysters.  The next day we baked them until they opened and served them on the half shell in their own juices with a healthy slathering of herbed garlic butter.  They were divine!
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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gardening with Nature

Katrina and Mom planting Garry Oak acorns
Today Katrina and I planted a number of excellent wild foods with Mom.  I have been collecting seeds from a number of different species over the last few years and now I finally have a place to plant them.  We planted Giant Camas (Camassia leichtlinii), Common Camas (Camassia quamash), Northern Riceroot (Fritillaria camschatcensis), Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria lanceolata), Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), and transplanted root cuttings of Salal (Gaultheria shallon).

By planting native plants we not only garden with natural elements, but we also work in collaboration with nature, and so the title "gardening with nature" has a double meaning I quite enjoy.

Sprouted Garry Oak Acorns (Quercus garryana)

The small black seeds of Giant Camas (Camassia leichtlinii)

The roots of Salal (Gaultheria shallon) ready to be planted

Trays of native plants seeds ready to propagate

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Chuckanut Bay Silverweed

The frosty leaves of Silverweed (Argentina egedii)
Yesterday Katrina and I went to Chuckanut Bay to harvest Pacific Silverweed (Argentina egedii).  We packed our yew wood digging stick and binoculars, and set out on the cloudless day for Mud Bay.  Mud Bay is on the North end of Chuckanut Bay and has marshland where Chuckanut Creek and a smaller, nameless creek that drains Chuckanut Village enter the bay. 

Five years ago Nancy Turner got me excited about Silverweed while discussing a potential research project for my Master’s Degree that would involve close work with Kwaxsistalla, a Kwakwaka’wakw elder and Clan Chief.  Before moving to Victoria, I searched around Bellingham for a place to experiment with Silverweed and found it growing in the Chuckanut Village salt marsh.

Silverweed roots resting on my digging stick
The roots of Silverweed might not seem like the best candidate for a food plant: they are only about as thick as a pencil, are difficult to harvest because they often grow entangled with the woody rhizomes of rushes, and have a bitter flavor.  However, those observations are based on “wild” Silverweed.  Native Americans living on the coast between Washington and Alaska carefully cultivated and weeded garden patches every year to increase the size and abundance of Silverweed and other root vegetables like Spring Bank Clover (Trifolium wormskioldii).  Flavor was also improved by harvesting the roots in the fall, and storing them until the winter when they were an important feast food.

At work in an estuarine salt marsh
Returning to the marsh now and harvesting Silverweed, I realize how much Kwaxsistalla has taught me, and how much more there is to learn.  My thesis experiments only tested the effect of tilling and weeding on Silverweed abundance over a very short time period.  I didn’t have time to explore how long-term harvesting alone may be enough to eliminate less disturbance-adapted vegetation.  Before leaving the Chuckanut Village salt marsh, I couldn’t help but drive a few stakes in the ground that I tended so that I can return and monitor the ecological impact of my meal from the marsh.

I wanted to show Katrina one of the places that Garry Oaks (Quercus garryana) still grow so we went further around Mud Bay to Woodstock Farm.  A few Garry Oaks cling, desperate for sunlight, to the rocky shore of the bay.  I recalled how I recently learned from a Lummi woman that their word for the Chuckanut Mountains means “fires in a line.”  Perhaps the name is an indication of an Aboriginal fire history that would have favored Garry Oaks over the now dominant Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).  A few pit house depressions and a shell midden exposure around the root ball of a wind-thrown Fir were further evidence of the previous productivity of Mud Bay.  It is easy to see the destructive nature of clear-cut logging, but what of the destructive nature of human inactivity….  Fire suppression and fallow gardens choke the biodiversity of this place.
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Chehalis River Coho Fishing

Dad had been away for two weeks visiting little brother Christian in Mexico (see Christian's blog here), and I didn't get any fishing done without him.  He is back now, and today was his birthday so we decided to go on a father-son outing to explore the Chehalis River in British Columbia.  It was still dark when I left my house (yes, finally moved in!) and the wipers pushed slush off of the windshield making me happy that I packed gloves and plenty of layers.  At Dad's we quickly loaded the tools of the trade and were soon on the road with his boat in tow.  The Trumpeter Swans were plentiful as we passed Wiser Lake and many farm fields were filled with Canadian Geese.  The low hanging clouds lifted briefly as we passed through Sumas to reveal snow near the bottom of the foothills, but for the rest of the drive the weather looked glum.  As we followed the Fraser upstream Dad easily spotted salmon carcases and although I didn't see them, their presence was confirmed for me by the Bald Eagles in the trees, which increased in numbers as we neared our boat launch on the Harrison River.  I started counting Eagles once we were on the water.  On one stretch that was less than a mile long, I counted 125 eagles on just one side of the river.  I actually gave up because they were getting so thick that I couldn't count them; some trees had more than 20 eagles on them!  The carcass abundance was equally impressive.  They lay hollow eyed on the banks, could be spotted in underwater heaps that looked like miniature logjams, and drifted belly up and nose down in the river- tracing lines in the sand with their gnarled snouts as the current pushed them towards the sea.

Were we too late?  No fish were jumping and the only ones we saw were Chum that looked like zombies.  We were also having trouble finding the mouth of the Chehalis.  It empties into the Harrison through several channels in a large tidally influenced (freshwater) estuary.  We had already motored up one channel as far as we could go and were forced back by shallow water.  In the distance we saw two fish biologists that were counting salmon carcases and we motored over to ask for direction.  Half way there the signs improved: we saw our first Coho jump and two seals in the water.  The mouth of the main channel was just up ahead around the corner, and so off we went.  It wasn't exactly as easy to find as they made it out to be, and we ended up parking the boat and walking for about half a mile, but at last we came to the crystal clear water of the Chehalis.  The Coho were thick in the deep slow moving water.  As we walked along the bank to scout out a good place to fish, they spooked easily and moved off shore even further.  I rigged up quickly and cast a pink colored weighted fly over a small school of fish... they all spooked.  We tried drifting flies, setting them on the bottom, and Dad put on several different patterns, but nothing would entice them.  They were onto us and all we could do was watch and delight at the splendid display of life (and death) around us.

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