Foraging in Alaska may seem impossible to those who haven’t been here long. Long, cold, dark winters with seemingly no life make it a tough landscape. But underneath all that snow, Alaska is an amazing food source for those who know what they are looking for.
But be prepared. With the abundance of food in the Spring, you’re not the only one out looking for goodies. The bears are waking up and the nights are still cold. Be sure to have some sort of bear protection with you and make sure you get home after a day of foraging. An impromptu night of camping can still be deadly with these cold nights.
Cottonwood or Balsam Poplar buds are in abundance this time of year. These buds were (and are) used by Alaska Natives for sores, rashes, and even frostbite. These buds are picked throughout the winter and into the Spring before they leaf out. Many people today make balm of Gilead salves with these buds. I’ve heard it’s great for your hands after a day of gardening!
It’s just about time to start tapping the birch trees for sap. Much like maple tree sap, birch sap can be boiled down to make a delicious syrup. The main difference however, is how much sap it takes. Whereas 40 gallons of maple sap with give you 1 gallon of syrup, it takes around 100 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup. That doesn’t keep Alaskans from gathering this tasty sweetener! The sap is also good to drink straight- no syrup involved. We just bought our first taps and I’m hoping to get out and make some of our own very, very soon!
While you’re out tapping birch trees, keep an eye out for chaga growing on the birch. Chaga is actually a parasitic growth on live birch trees, but has been used for many medicinal purposes for many years, such as a cancer fighter, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumor, immune stimulating, and liver supporting. When dried and ground, it makes a very pleasant drink much like a black tea. Other popular uses include tinctures too. Grow Forage Cook Ferment has an awesome chaga chai recipe!
Alder trees grow abundantly in Alaska, especially around water. The little green catkins are popping out this time of year and are great sources of protein. They’re great in soups and stews after drying them. My hubby loves smoking fish with alder chips. It’s one of his favorite uses!
Be VERY sure you know exactly what you are looking for whenever foraging wild mushrooms. There are such things as “false morels.” True morels, however, are delicious and I’m not even a fan of mushrooms. These little treats start popping up on May and can be tough to find. My dad swears by going out right after it has rained and then the sun has been out for a day. He and my mom collect morels, dry them, and then use them in all sorts of dishes.
Fiddlehead ferns are a delicacy for many people. Every Spring Alaskans seen an influx of travelers from Asia who come specifically to pick the fiddleheads by the pound and take them back home. I’ve heard the favored preparation there is fried in butter with garlic. But then again, I think just about anything is delicious fried in butter with garlic. In New England, fiddleheads are pickled. But for me, I love just grabbing a few nice and fresh to snack on when out on a hike. They are tasty greens that would be great in a salad too. Traditionally the local Natives boiled them.
Spruce tips are some of my favorite foraging. Snack on them fresh for a lemony-zing when small, dry them for tea, make tinctures or balms… So many uses that I wrote a full post on them! Read it HERE. I really want to try these spruce tip shortbread cookies!
No matter what you’re out foraging in Alaska for, please remember the basic rules:
What you pack in, pack out. The winter winds spread enough trash around our beautiful State and we don’t need anyone leaving more.
Don’t pick every last one. Make sure the trees will thrive and grow, the mushrooms will spread, the ferns will grow and come back next year. A good rule of thumb is never take more than 5% from one area or one tree. (Only take 50% of chagas.)
Be 100% sure of what you are picking and eating. There are a lot of dangerous look alikes in Alaska that if handled incorrectly, could be fatal. I have a whole stack of books (the Amazon ads in this post are all books that I have and use) that I use faithfully when foraging in Alaska. But don’t let the dangers keep you from getting out and learning more!