rural foraging

🕔Aug 04, 2005

Margaret Edgars gathers close to 100 per cent of her food from Haida Gwaii, the islands where she was born and raised.

She rarely eats meat from the store, but her pantry is full of bounty from the sea: clams, chitons, crab, salmon, seaweed and more. She cans or freezes berries, dries mushrooms and medicines, and enjoys plenty fresh from the harvesting.

Each season is ripe with edible rewards. In spring, the seaweed is ready to be picked off the rocks at low tide. This delicacy, related to the Japanese nori, is usually dried and stored in bags, to be eaten like Indian popcorn, says Edgars. She also uses it in fish soups and sprinkles it on roasted potatoes.

Around the same time of year, razor clams and abalone are ready to be gathered. Both type of shellfish have been impacted by commercialization over the years, but abalone was hit the hardest.

That’s the way I survive, by collecting food

Harvesting peaked at 425 tonnes in the late 1970s when markets to Japan were opened up and the slow growing species hasn’t recovered even with the harvest ban imposed in 1991. Edgars notices the impact this has had on her family’s food supply. “I feel so bad about that. We used to get enough for an entire year, but no more.”

The large, fast-digging razor clams found under the surf-swept northern beaches of Graham Island are still abundant, especially since the commercial harvest is now limited to a communal license held by the Haida. Edgars gathers these from March throughout July.

By late May or early June, the sockeye salmon are running up the Yakoun River. Traditionally, members of her family head to the camps and cabins on the river for days at a time, fishing, smoking, then canning the catch.

When that work is done, it’s time to head back to the villages for berries. Wild strawberries and salmon berries come first, then huckleberries, thimbleberries and finally salal and cranberries later in the fall.

Edgars says good berry patches are getting harder to find due to construction, logging and new animal species. Deer, introduced in the early part of the last century, have wreaked havoc on the forest by munching on many of the plants important to the Haida.

Introduced birds, like starlings, are gobbling up berries before anyone can pick them, says Edgars.

Birds like the elderberries too, also a favourite of Edgars’. Although many think these red clumps found on high shrubs are poisonous, she says the Haida have always eaten them. They are good to mix with other berries, thanks to their high pectin content.

The late fall and winter are the best seasons to gather butter clams and cockles. Edgars remembers the days when she could walk out on the beach in front of the village to get them. Now, because of the sewage outfalls in Masset Inlet, she heads to North Beach.

It’s important to remember stories and instructions from the elders, she says, when gathering food and medicine. Each plant has its time to be picked.

There are other adages to remember too. Her grandma told her that if there are a lot of salmon berries, the salmon fishing will be good.

“I always wondered why they called them salmon berries,” she laughs, finally making the connection.

She has warned people, as she’d been warned, not to open and eat sea urchins in the rivers where they are found.

“You have to take them home and eat them, or it scares the other urchins away,” she says, noting today there are no more urchins in places like the Watun River near Masset.

Her grandmother and her mother taught her most of what she knows about gathering plants and other edibles on the islands, but still she often learns something new.

Edgars’ mother didn’t teach her about mushrooms, for example. Although there are many edible varieties on the islands, her elders did not eat them, she says, but she doesn’t know why.

In the last few years, she’s learned to identify different fungi and she’s even picked chanterelles to sell to the mushroom buyers in the fall.

Bob Crooks also lives on Haida Gwaii. Although he wasn’t born there, he has spent a good 30 years in and around Tlell.

For him, foraging is a fun excuse to spend time outside. He and his partner grow an impressive garden too, so he guesses wild harvesting covers about 30 per cent of their diet. Nonetheless, he’s busy at it.

On a nice day in early July, he was heading out to gather sea asparagus, or glasswort, for pickling. This inter-tidal plant grows in great carpets close to the sea’s edge. According to Nancy Turner’s book, The Plants of Haida Gwaii, sea asparagus wasn’t eaten by Haida in the “old” days. Turner writes that Norwegian settlers may have introduced the use of this plant as a food to indigenous islanders.

They have such strong flavours. You need a 200-years-ago tongue to enjoy them

After using scissors to lop off buckets of the fresh, green shoots, Crooks makes a brine, as he would for pickling cucumbers, and jars this treat to peddle at the Tlell Fall Fair.

Pickling is one of Crooks favourite methods of storing food. He even used to can meadow mushrooms, but since the days of the open range are gone, he finds fewer and fewer of the little white buttons. “No cow poop, no mushrooms,” he says.

Pickled salmon is another of Crook’s specialties. He shares his recipe below.

He doesn’t buy meat from the store, either. “I either shoot it or catch it,” he says, although allowances are made for the ham needed in pea soup.

An avid fisherman, Crooks knows every nook and cranny where the coho hide on the Tlell River and he’s credited with having taught more than one young fishing guide what he knows about tying a lure.

Across the Northwest wild edibles are remarkably similar, but important differences abound.

If you live near the Bulkley Valley and want more information about some of the plants in the area, look for herbalist Jean Christian.

Christian, who now has a home in the relative urbanity of Smithers, once lived a more wilderness lifestyle. For 15 years, she and her partner raised three children in a cabin in the Suskwa Valley, a 10-kilometer walk from the nearest road.

They didn’t hunt, she says, so her family’s diet could not be entirely reliant on what was found in the wild. Although the First Nations in the area ate a diet rich in proteins, she instead grew a large crop of root vegetables to store for the winter.

In the North, there isn’t a carbohydrate-type staple, like a wild yam, but Christian tried to find substitutes. Two of the plants she tried, bracken root and northern rice root (or chocolate lily) were not to her family’s tastes.

“They have such strong flavours. You need a 200-years-ago tongue to enjoy them,” she says.

Christian can identify most of the edible plants and berries in the mountains and woodlands near her home, but she says if you are looking for food to bring home, some are worth the time to gather, while others are not.

Rosehips, which she still gathers and dries, were an important source of vitamin C throughout the winter for her isolated family. She also gathered high bush cranberries and preserved the juice to drink throughout the year. Other berries, like wild raspberries, she would can whole, not having great quantities of sugar for jam.

She especially loves the saskatoon, a prolific berry native across the country. Her mother, who grew up in Saskatchewan called them service berries, because of how useful and abundant they were.

Of course, gathering bounty from the forest or the sea is only as valuable as a person’s knowledge of how to use or store what they’ve got. Without age-old traditions or a family nearby to share the finer points of preserving, trial and error can sometimes lead to disasters.

Christian enthusiastically tried drying saskatoons and made a fruit leather from them, as she’d read in a book, but found the sweetness had disappeared in the final product. Her children didn’t favour this experiment.

She also worried that canning destroyed the valuable vitamin C in the berries she’d found.

Edgars too has had less than successful attempts with some canning. Sometimes razor clams turn dark when canned, which she thinks is related to the time of year they are harvested. Halibut must be canned with fried onions and olive oil if it is to retain its flavour, she says.

Crab meat is too dry for freezing and white spring salmon is best when salted, not smoked she adds.

“Young people better learn how to put that stuff away, because it’s our survival,” says Edgars.

For more information, turn to your local library or book store.

Some of the essential field guides include:
  • Plants of Coastal British Columbia by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon
  • Plants of Northern British Columbia by Andy MacKinnon, Jim Pojar and Ray Coupé.
  • Mushrooms Demystified: a comprehensive guide to the fleshy fungi, by David Arora
Ethnobotany, recipes and more:
  • Plants of Haida Gwaii, by Nancy Turner
  • Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest, by Janice F. Schofield
  • Drink in the Wild: Teas, Cordials, Jams and More, by Hilary Stewart Salmon: The Cookbook edited by Bill Jones
Pickled Salmon a la Bob

salmon fillet
rock salt
4 cups sugar
4 cups vinegar
pickling spice (optional)

  • Leave the skin on a salmon fillet and cover with rock salt. Place it in a Tupperware container for three to four days. Drain the excess liquid off each day and re-salt if necessary.
  • Then wash the fillet well in fresh water to remove salt. You will be left with a firm piece of fish, easy to skin.
  • Remove skin and cut into bit size pieces. Layer fish with onion in a large jar. Add pickling spice if desired.
  • Boil sugar and vinegar together and let cool. Pour over fish mixture. Tighten lid and place in the fridge for 3-4 days. Eat!