Wild Medicine

I’ve been interested in alternative medicine since taking a microbiology class as an undergraduate and being harangued by the professor about the impending demise of antibiotics as useful remedies for all that ails us. I’ve spooned garlic-infused oil in the ear of my ailing toddler son (after reading about its use by the Germans as an antibiotic in the trenches of World War II), munched zinc tablets for a threatening cold, drunk chamomile tea for stomach ache, used a netti bottle for sinus problems, soaked infected feet in hot salt water, and plastered wounds with Manuka honey—all with various levels of success.
Recently I’ve been following a new line of research which describes a startling decline in nutritional value of domestic vegetables. This is attributed partially to the pressures of farmers’ selection for sweeter more carbohydrate-rich vegetable varieties, and partially to higher growth rates due to elevated carbon dioxide levels associated with global climate change. This increases the value of including wild foraged vegetables such as dandelion greens, nettles, fireweed shoots, twisted stalk, wild celery, devils club shoots, and kelp in our diet. In addition to being highly nutritious, many of these wild vegetables also have medicinal value.
Thus, my interest was piqued recently when I heard of a skunk cabbage (x’aal’) root digging outing organized by Victoria Johnson of the Goldbelt Heritage for the Gruening Park Culture Club. What, I wondered, could skunk cabbage roots be good for? With this question in mind, I joined the Culture Club, a group of parents and their Tlingit children, on a lovely sunny April day to be taught by several Tlingit elders and knowledgeable Tlingit harvesters of local plants. Before heading down the Richard Marriot trail, we adjusted our mood by giving thanks (Gunalcheesh) to the plant people in the area for the skunk cabbage we were about to harvest. Victoria, her husband Johnny, and friend Tommy led us out the trail and we set about digging out several skunk cabbages, roots and all. As you might imagine, it’s quite a muddy affair. About an hour later, we had excavated two skunk cabbage plants from 4-ft diameter, 2-ft deep holes. After carefully filling the holes back in and thanking the skunk cabbages for gifting themselves to us, we washed them in Switzer Creek and brought them back to the parking lot.
There Victoria, Tommy, and Johnny, overseen by several Tlingit elders, explained the medicinal use of skunk cabbage and we each cut ourselves a share of the roots and preserved them in 99% rubbing alcohol in a glass canning jar. Turns out that skunk cabbage root extract is useful as a liniment for arthritic joints and for eczema. I’m grateful to have been included in this outing and looking forward to trying this remedy out on my ailing momma’s sore shoulders and my wimpy knee!
Perhaps the best part of the outing was the bright eyes and earnest efforts of the children as they helped us excavate and wash the skunk cabbage. They truly provide much-needed reason for optimism in our world full of problems.
Upon returning home, I read a little more about internal medicine uses of skunk cabbage. According to Janice Schofield, a tea made of thoroughly dried skunk cabbage can be used for colds and flues. I also read an interesting booklet by Richard Newton and Madonna Moss; in addition to describing historic Tlingit methods of harvest and preservation for fish, shellfish, and plants, it reminds us of the importance of harvesting sustainably.

Additional Resources:

Schofield, J.J. 1989. Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest. Alaska Northwest Books.

Newton, R.G., and M. L. Moss. 1983. Haa Atxaayi Haa Kusteeyix Sitee, Our Food is Our Tlingit Way of Life. Excerpts from Oral Interviews. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Alaska Region, R10-MR-50.

Sourdough Rye Bread

The year’s first snow, wetly plopped into Eagle River, turning my head to seek in vain the submerging seal’s head. Slogging under gray skies through the wet stuff I could still see the two wide, flat, brown bread loaves staring malevolently, but smelling lovely, from the kitchen counter. Sourdough rye—-my first bread failure in more than a decade!  It seemed a metaphor for my recent life, good bread requires mindfulness, and strayed attention is immediately obvious in the crust, crumb, and flavor of the loaf. In this case the flavor is nice, a result of days of feeding the sourdough and successive raising of the loaves, but the bread was horribly over-proofed and went into the oven flat, sticky, and lifeless. I noticed but proceeded anyway, absent mindedly denying the failed attempt. So now several cups of nice King Arthur bread flour will feed the Steller’s jays instead of my family. I try again a few days later when I am more present, and—-success! The golden-brown loaves emerge from the oven high, hollow, and sweet smelling; slathered with fancy Irish butter it tastes great. Crust chewy but crisp, just sour enough, hearty from the dark rye flour accented by the caraway seeds, crumb a little close but good. Recent reading reveals an added benefit of this recipe. Unlike wheat, the rye plant is a fixer of nitrogen from the air into the soil, so by using rye flour in your bread recipes you are not only adding great flavor and increased protein levels but helping the farmer who produced your grain improve his soil fertility.  But mostly, this bread is a great accompaniment to fall soups!

Sourdough, for the uninitiated, is a symbiotic combination of yeast and bacteria, the yeast does the work of raising the bread while the bacteria produce either malic (at 70-75° F) or lactic acid (at 60-70° F), ‘pre-digesting’ the flour and producing the sour flavor and texture we love in the process. This also makes the gluten more digestible, produces B vitamins, and liberates other minerals and vitamins, making them more available. For this reason, sourdough bread has a lower glycemic index than normal bread, making it a healthier choice, especially for diabetics. To illustrate the magnitude of the importance of the activities of these microorganisms, consider that on a diet of flour and water alone, a person would starve while bread and water is nutritionally sufficient to sustain human life.

Making bread from a sourdough starter is a somewhat convoluted process. Assuming you have a starter, it entails: removing the stiff starter from the refrigerator and warming it to room temperature, feeding it once, removing a portion and feeding that a second time, feeding it a final time, forming the dough, letting the dough rest, a short kneading period, raising the dough, forming the loaves, refrigerating the loaves overnight (if desired), and finally slashing the loaves and baking them in a pre-heated cast iron Dutch oven with the lid on for the first half of the cooking period. The use of a Dutch oven is crucial as it stores heat, insulating the bread from temperature fluctuations as well as retaining moisture while the lid is on, yielding a chewy crust. Sourdough bread making is best done over a period of several days to assure adequate rising and full sourdough flavor development. The recipe for two loaves follows:


plastic dough raising container with gradations and lid

loaf raising basket or colander lined with kitchen towel

kitchen scale

wooden spoon

Dutch oven with lid

bread slashing knife

cookie rack

good oven mitts (I like leather welding gloves, available at the hardware store!)

Storage starter

100 gm stiff sourdough starter

100 gm bread flour

50 gm lukewarm water

Remove the stiff starter from the refrigerator and feed, let sit covered in a small oiled container for 5 to 8 hours at 75 to 80° F until doubled. This can be done before bed; an overnight period is good to assure doubling of the starter. A portion of this will be used below, the rest can go back into the refrigerator.

First feed of starter

50 gm fed stiff sourdough starter

100 gm bread flour

50 gm room temperature water

Remove 50 gm of the fed starter from above and feed it. Again, let it sit covered in a small oiled container for 6 to 8 hours at 75 to 80° F, until doubled again.

Second feed of starter

200 gm fed stiff sourdough starter

400 gm bread flour

200 gm room temperature water

Feed and expand the above starter from 200 to 800 grams. Again, let it sit covered in a small oiled container for 6 to 8 hours at 75 to 80° F until doubled again. After this feeding you can either refrigerate the starter overnight or mix the dough.

Mix dough and first rise

720 gm of fed starter

1½ cup or 200 gm rye flour

3 cup or 460 gm bread flour

2 cup room temperature water

1 teaspoon sea salt

4 Tablespoons caraway seeds

The starter is now strong enough to raise bread. Add to it the ingredients to form the dough, mix with a wooden spoon until all flour is moistened and let sit for 20 minutes. Then knead bread for 5 to 10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. Put into a straight-sided plastic container with graduated measurements and note the current volume and where the volume will be when the dough has doubled. Set in a warm (65 to 75° F) area and wait until dough raises a little.

Let dough rise again

Once the dough has raised a little, roll it into a rectangle and give it 4 to 5 business folds, re-rolling into a rectangle after each fold. The dough will become increasingly elastic after each fold. Spray or brush loaves with oil, cover with plastic wrap and let rise again for an hour.

Roll the dough out again and give it 2 more business letter turns, then return it to the container and let it rise again approximately 5 hours until almost doubled.

Form loaves

Once the dough has doubled, separate it into two and form the loaves by successively pulling dough to the top and turning the loaf while pinching. Put the formed loaves into a lightly floured basket or colander lined with a dish towel, pinched side down. Spray or brush loaves with oil, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat Dutch oven and warm loaves

Remove the loaves from the refrigerator and allow to come up to room temperature in a warm area, set the oven at 450 °F and put Dutch ovens and their lids into oven to heat.

Slash and bake loaves

Turn loaves onto your hand, blow off flour, and then plop into warmed Dutch oven, pinched side down. Slash four times, twice each direction, roughly perpendicular, cover with lid, and return to oven. Bake covered for 5 minutes, then remove lid, reduce heat to 400 F and bake for another 25 minutes until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when rapped or reach an internal temperature of 190 °F.

Remove loaves from oven

Remove pans from oven, remove loaves from Dutch ovens and allow to cool on rack before cutting.

Suggested Reading

“The Bread Bible,” by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Published in 2003 by W.W. Norton & Company in New York and London. 640 printed pages.

“The Art of Fermentation,” by Sandor Ellix Katz. Published in 2012 by Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, Vermont.  498 printed pages.

“Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza,” by Ken Forkish. Published in 2012 by Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, CA. 272 printed pages.

“Alaska Sourdough,” by Ruth Allman. Published in 1976 by Alaska Northwest Books in Anchorage, Seattle, and Portland. 190 printed pages.

“Cooking Alaskan,” by the Editors and Friends of ALASKA magazine. Published in 1983 by Alaska Northwest Publishing Company in Anchorage, AK. 500 printed pages.

“Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Farmed Salmon” or: 12 Things You Can Do to REALLY Conserve Wild Salmon, “How to be a Salmon Warrior”

I used to have one of these bumper stickers on my bulletin board at work. Eventually though, its meaninglessness led me to take it down. Honestly friends, the issue of Farmed vs. Wild salmon is not one to be resolved by plastering bumper stickers on our cars or sharing Facebook memes describing the nutritional deficits and chemical poisons in farmed salmon. To be straight, this is a battle we are currently losing. The salmon farmers are panting at our collective doors with their beady little eyes at our keyholes and unless we get serious about conservation of wild salmon we’ll be giving them our spare keys and pulling down our knickers.
OK. Enough crudeness and bad metaphors, have I got your attention? We’ve been smart, gutsy and visionary enough to establish regulations prohibiting salmon farming early in the game but now continued maintenance of wild salmon populations in the state of Alaska is going to take the collective will power of all of us. It’s the little things that make the difference friends, our salmon rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, and ditches are currently dying the death of 1,000 cuts in the name of progress and economic growth. As Alaskans, we still think this land is limitless and that we can have our cake and eat it too, and I include myself in this category.
So, if slapping a bumper sticker on our car and sharing Facebook memes isn’t enough what can we do to keep every little Bay or Harbor in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska from sprouting a salmon farm? Here’s a list:
1.) Don’t build houses on salmon rivers, and in Alaska ALL our rivers are salmon rivers, so I amend that to: Don’t build houses along rivers.
2.) Oppose logging forests along salmon streams.
3.) Oppose pollution of salmon rivers with mine tailings.
4.) Don’t poison your driveway or lawn with herbicides like RoundUp or Weed n Feed—it’ll end up in a salmon river or lake somewhere.
5.) Eat organic vegetables and limit your consumption of farmed meat so that you’re not contributing to runoff of excess fertilizer or poop from feed lots into rivers and estuaries where it will create oxygen-deficient zones killing baby salmon and other fishes.
6.) When a public official tells you No (No permit to fill wetlands, No fishing until a stock rebuilds, No permit to build a new salmon hatchery) don’t go running to your Daddy the elected official and tell him how mean they were to you.
7.) Support high density housing to avoid cutting down more forests so that we can all live the American suburban dream.
8.) Oppose increased hatchery releases (unless targeted to rehabilitate a wild stock), particularly adjacent to salmon rivers where hatchery stock are likely to stray into wild rivers.
9.) Oppose hydroelectric projects on salmon rivers.
10.) Donate to environmental organizations if you don’t have the time or inclination to stay on top of these issues yourself.
11.) Teach a child how to conserve wild salmon.
12.) Get out there and catch a salmon and share it with your neighbor!

So to those of you who have stuck with this tirade, I’m sorry to ruin your day but if you really want to be a Salmon Warrior its just not that easy. But its oh so worthwhile when we come home from a days fishing or the grocery store with a beautiful wild salmon for dinner!

Additional Resources:



The Dilemma of Excess Frozen Rhubarb!

One of the first signs of spring around my house is the lovely red buds that come nosing up out of newly thawed soil in my rhubarb beds. This year however, this sight aroused mild anxiety in me as I’ve been remiss in using up the rhubarb in my freezer. I have two highly productive rhubarb beds and pick and freeze their bounty religiously throughout the season. However, with no kids in the house and a slowing metabolism, I’m not making as much jam and pie and cake as I used to. I have an antidote to this problem however: rhubarb wine! I first made rhubarb wine last year and was pleasantly surprised at my success right off the bat. I hadn’t drunk any homemade wine since a memorable ski trip when I was a freshman in college and my roommate’s father brought along a heavenly bottle of homemade cherry wine. I’d vowed then to learn how to make wine myself but forgotten that vow until faced with a daunting spring freezer full of rhubarb.
Wine-making harnesses the power of fermentation, and requires attention, equipment, and a bit of intuition. So it is best to make your first attempt when you have some time. It requires sugar, yeast, water, and flavor. Making traditional wine, from grapes, the sugar is in the grape, wild yeast of the correct variety live on the grape, and flavor comes from the grape skin and fruit. When making wine from other fruits, or vegetables (rhubarb is a vegetable) it is necessary to add sugar and the correct variety of yeast. The wine-making process is simple: you add the correct amount of sugar to the fruit, add a pectin-dissolving enzyme so the wine doesn’t jell, kill any wild yeast, add a little food for the domestic yeast, and then add the yeast. The yeast grow and multiply, metabolizing the sugar into alcohol and other byproducts (such as B vitamins) in the process and dying when the alcohol content gets too high. It is your job as winemaker to keep the yeast happy. The difficulty of this process depends on what fruit you are trying to make into wine. Some fruits are more hospitable than others to yeast. Yeast are kept happy initially through: regular stirring of the must to keep them suspended, and maintaining a room temperature of 70 to 75° F. Once the fruit is removed from the must, it is necessary to maintain an oxygen-free environment for the yeast to flourish, this is accomplished by moving the young wine into a secondary fermentation vessel (a carboy) with minimal air space at the top, fitted with an air lock. The carboy can be occasionally shaken or stirred to resuspend the yeast, particularly if it appears that fermentation is slowing. In some instances, it is necessary to give the yeast some additional nutrients to encourage them to metabolize all the suspended sugar. After the sugar has been mostly converted to alcohol, the next step is to clarify the wine by allowing the remaining suspended solids or ‘lees’ to settle and siphoning the wine off them. Finally, the yeast is killed, either by cold shock or chemical means, to prevent their disastrous re-awakening after being bottled. Throughout winemaking, the taste and specific gravity (SG) or potential alcohol (PA) of the must or wine should be monitored regularly and ideally careful notes taken. This tells the winemaker how fast fermentation is proceeding, which can vary a lot depending on the room temperature, type of fruit, and yeast variety.
I’ve also made delicious blueberry, salmonberry, and red huckleberry wines. If you get overzealous in your winemaking, as I tend to, these make great Christmas or birthday gifts. A cautionary note: use the right yeast, and don’t get lazy and let your yeast die early, leaving you nearly undrinkably sweet Boone’s Farm instead of beautifully crisp but lightly fruity homemade Rhubarb wine. There are many great home brewing forums and blogs with recipes and help with common problems available online. Reading through them regularly during brewing will help your confidence and improve the quality of your final product. Ultimately though, you are fermenting for yourself, so taste regularly and enjoy! This is an overview, see below for specific directions and recipe.

Rhubarb wine
New food grade plastic 5-gallon bucket with lid
Paint strainer bag
Clean 6-ft 4×4 or other pounding implement
2 4-gallon glass carboys
2 S-shaped air locks
Long stirring spoon
8 ft length of 5/8-in plastic tubing

Wine thief
Wine bottles
Wine corks
Measuring spoons

6 lb frozen chopped rhubarb
5 lb sugar
2 gal water
¼ t tannin
2 t pectic enzyme
2 t yeast nutrient
2 Campden tablets
2 packages ‘Cotes de Blancs’ yeast


Stirring pectic enzyme, yeast nutrient, and Campden into rhubarb/sugar water solution.


Remove rhubarb from freezer, put in strainer bag in 5-gallon bucket, and pound to crush. (It is important that the rhubarb have been frozen for at least several days to break down cell walls so that it can be metabolized well by the yeast.)
Put water and sugar in large stock pot and bring to boil.
Pour hot sugar water over crushed rhubarb.
Let must cool.
Add tannin, yeast nutrient, and crushed Campden tablet to cooled rhubarb must. The tannin adjusts flavor and acidity, the yeast nutrient feeds the yeast to keep them healthy, the Campden tablet kills any wild yeast that might otherwise outcompete domestic yeast, creating an off flavor.
After approximately 12 hours add pectic enzyme to must. (fruit/sugar/water/yeast slurry) to dissolve any fruit pectin to prevent a gelatinous wine.
24 hours later, add the yeast to the prepared must.
Stir daily for 3-10 days at 70 to 75° F.
Remove paint bag full of rhubarb, allowing bag to drain into sterilized glass carboy.


Draining rhubarb into carboy.

Siphon raw wine into glass carboy, making sure not to leave sediment (containing yeast) behind, close with rubber stopper and air lock filled with Campden-treated water, continue fermentation at temperature of 60 to 65° F.



Transferring wine from primary fermentation in bucket to secondary fermentation in carboy.

Continue to monitor fermentation process daily until all bubbling ceases, after about two weeks. Rack wine off lees (sediment which has dropped to the bottom of the carboy) into second carboy taking care to minimize exposure to oxygen in process.
Close with rubber stopper and air lock filled with Campden-treated water

Secondary fermentation commences. Notice the rather large air space in right hand carboy, this is not ideal.

Continue to monitor wine, racking approximately every month or as lees develop. The settling process for rhubarb wine is somewhat extended and can be helped by cold-treatment or by several chemical means if desired. Or you can simply serve a slightly cloudy wine if the flavor is not too yeasty.



Secondary fermentation is beginning to slow. Note the wine is beginning to clear and lees are accumulating at bottom of carboy. Wine should probably be racked off lees fairly soon. 

When desired clarity is reached, kill yeast either by cold treatment or by using potassium sorbate.
Bottle wine, let settle for several days and then store on its side. This wine can be drunk at an age of about 6 months. I have heard varying things about the effectiveness of further ageing, but the consensus seems to be that fruit wines don’t generally improve much with age. You might let a few bottles go and see what happens, drinking at various intervals and taking notes.



Online forums:

Garey, T. 1996. The Joy of Home Winemaking. Harper. New York, NY.
Katz, S. 2013. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Marine Protected Areas

I spent several years of my career managing fisheries. I worked hard at it but honestly, I wasn’t that great. It wasn’t for lack of trying, or lack of knowing what I was talking about it was lack of being convincing to fishermen that resulted in my decisions being regularly overturned. This was a frustrating situation for everybody and I was eventually relieved of my management responsibilities. I bring this subject up not out of some masochistic need for self-flagellation but to highlight a point. Managing fisheries is hard. It is part science, part communication, part diplomacy, and honestly part magic I think. The portion of management which consists of science shrinks or expands depending upon the nature of the fishery. At any rate, it often leads to over fishing.
Another really difficult part of fisheries management is preventing the gear involved from damaging the habitat. This is particularly problematic for fisheries on hard bottoms or in areas with sensitive, long-lived, habitat-creating species like corals and sponges. Surprisingly, these species are not just in tropical areas, but are quite common in Southeast Alaska, and other areas of the State as well. When fisheries are young, and effort is low it is easy for fishermen to avoid these sensitive areas. Invariably, however, the dance of intensification begins with the implementation of limited entry creating a wave of increased vessels entering the fishery resulting in managers shortening seasons to limit catch and fishermen fishing harder with more gear. Eventually it becomes next to impossible to avoid sensitive habitat.
Since my time at Glacier Bay I have been interested in the role of Marine Protected Areas (but fully protected, not just protected from commercial fishing) in providing for sustainable fisheries. Correctly designed, these protected areas can act as ‘insurance policies’ for fisheries in several ways. First, they preserve the intact ecosystem for study, so biologists can continue to improve their understanding of the species. Without such areas it is hard to say if observed changes in a species (such as declining size in king salmon and sablefish) are a result of the fishery, or the environment, making design of an appropriate response difficult. Second, they act as nurseries, exporting larvae and adults to adjacent areas. In New Zealand and the Canary Islands marine protected areas which were initially fought tooth and nail are providing such benefits that they are now advocated for by both commercial and recreational fishermen. Third, marine protected areas protect habitat too vulnerable to be exploited without destruction. Fourth, they prevent the ‘sliding baseline’ syndrome wherein each new generation of biologists and fishermen become accustomed to and accept a new lower level of ecosystem productivity. Finally, Alaska is currently reeling from global climate change effects which are predicted to hit high latitude areas harder than elsewhere in the world. Alaska’s fisheries developed later than the lower 48 and we have been able to implement policy to avoid many mistakes, making us a leader in sustainable fisheries in the nation and worldwide. Let’s continue that leadership by establishing a network of small, highly targeted marine protected areas throughout State and Federal waters of Alaska!


Spring is a hungry time in Southeast Alaska. In the late 1980s my dad and I were in Haines, working on a project to help minimize and mitigate impacts of the airport expansion on Sawmill Creek, a salmon creek which runs through the Haines airport wetlands. Sawmill Creek is a tributary of the Chilkat River, a large braided glacial river which winds through the Chilkat Valley. I was studying the rearing salmonids in the area by trapping them in Sawmill Creek and the bank of the Chilkat River bordering the airport. Besides salmonids, the Chilkat River boasts a substantial eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) population as well and it was also my job to describe its timing. To do this, I interviewed locals who gave me a general idea of its timing (run begins about mid-April) and indicated that more precise timing could be determined by observing the behavior and abundance of gulls, sea lions, and seals on the Chilkat River delta. A Juneau resident, I hired a local Haines resident to make observations for me, and when the abundance appeared to be peaking, travelled to Haines to sample eulachon. Eulachon are caught with dip nets in areas where rock outcroppings create deep back eddy’s just downstream. Their run timing varies each year and depends on when the river warms up. Eulachon enter the river at high tide and the bird and mammal activity at the peak of the run is intense. It was great to share in their joy at this important first spring wealth of feed.
Eulachon return to large glacial rivers to spawn mostly as 3 or 4 year-olds. Like salmon, most eulachon spawn only once and then die. The baby eulachon (larvae) drift back out to salt water to grow up after an in-river incubation period of about a month.
Eulachon (saak) also have an important cultural significance to Tlingit people in Southeast Alaska. Besides being a vital food source, they were historically rendered for oil (saak eexi) in canoes filled with hot rocks. This oil (Eulachon have a fat content of 18 to 20% of wet mass, higher than sand lance, capelin or herring. Their fat is unusual in that it is more similar to sharks than to other bony fishes.) became a stable source of nutrition and an important trade item with interior native peoples and the well-known Chilkoot trail used by miners in the 1800s to access interior gold deposits was first developed as a ‘grease trail’ by Tlingit peoples.
Because the Haines area eulachon fishery has always been for subsistence use only, many of the traditional Tlingit taboos (ligaas) designed to assure eulachon sustainability have survived to modern times. These taboos are still followed by some but not all harvesters and include: harvesting only after the run has made it a certain distance upriver, not throwing rocks into or swimming in the river, not wearing bright colors, making loud noises, or allowing garbage, dishwater, pots and pans, dogs, and even hands or feet in the water. Taboo also requires clean fishing areas and prohibits menstruating women from harvesting.
We are fortunate in Alaska to have eulachon runs in Southeast, Yakutat forelands, South Central, and Western Alaska areas. In Southeast Alaska we have eulachon runs in 27 rivers (in the Adams Inlet (Glacier Bay), Excursion R., Endicott R., Chilkat R., Chilkoot R., Ferebee R. (Lutak Inlet), Taiya R., Skagway R., Katzehin R., Berners R., Lace R., Antler R. (Berners Bay), Eagle R., Mendenhall R., Taku R., Speel R., Whiting R. (Port Snettisham), Bradfield R., Hulakon R., Grant Cr. (Bradfield Canal), Stikine R., Unuk R., Klahini R., Eulachon R. (Burroughs Bay), Chickamin R., Wilson R., Blossom R. (Smeaton Bay)). Eulachon runs have declined in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California rivers. The declines are probably a result of combined effects of overharvest, habitat degradation, and changes in oceanic conditions resulting from global climate change.
Besides Eulachon, there are also several other species of smelt (Family Osmeridae) which spawn in Alaskan rivers and beaches. In the 1980s, when I was working counting out-migrating sockeye salmon smolts on a tributary of the Speel River in Snettisham Inlet, I found the carcass of a longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) on the bank of the Speel River. There were wolves working the river mouth about the same time and I speculated that these smelt might be providing an important spring feed for them. Capelin (Mallotus villosus) are known to spawn on the beaches of the Yakutat forelands.
Since I last investigated eulachon, the declines in Lower 48 populations have resulted in a surge of interest in the populations and biology of Alaskan eulachon. Studies in the Haines/Skagway area have been ongoing since 2010. In the Haines area studies are spearheaded by the Takshanuk Watershed Council in cooperation with the Chilkoot Indian Association, and Oregon State University, while in the Skagway area the Gold Rush National Historic Park is taking the lead. The objective of these studies is to index or estimate adult spawning population size. Three different methods are being used: marking and recapturing adult eulachon, sampling environmental DNA, and sampling larval (baby eulachon) outmigration. In the Berners Bay area, eulachon have been studied from the standpoint of their importance as a forage fish, and interesting cooperative feeding behavior of Steller Sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) targeting eulachon has been described.
I did not render my eulachon for oil but, after sampling a sufficient quantity, brined and smoked some. I also pan fried a few after dipping them in seasoned flour. The pan-fried eulachon were a little oily even for me but brined and smoked they were delicious! It’s been years since I dip-netted eulachon, but every spring I think about them and one of these years I’m going to go over and try my luck in Berners Bay where the Lace River has a nice spring eulachon run. I’ve tried to recreate my recipe here. Give it a try if you’re fortunate enough to get your hands on some eulachon!

Smoked Eulachon

5-gal stock pot
Little chief smoker

24 eulachon, heads and tails on, cleaned
4 c warm water
1 c soy sauce
¾ c brown sugar
¼ c sea salt
¾ T garlic

Combine brine ingredients, stir to dissolve and then leave until cool. Immerse whole eulachon in brine and refrigerate for 6 to 10 hours. Remove fish from brine, pat dry, and let air dry on racks of smoker at room temperature until glaze forms on fish surface. Smoke for approximately 4 hours until fish skin feels leathery but not crispy. Eat whole, crunching down bones and all—a great source of calcium as well as Omega 3 fatty acid.


Black Cod

It was in the late 1980s before limited entry, when 2 to 3-day ‘derby’ longline fisheries were still the norm in Southeast Alaska. We were three miles offshore Yakobi Island in a 100-year-old wooden troller, the F/V Delores, pulling black cod (also known as sablefish, species name Anoplopoma fimbria, not really a cod at all but a deep-water cod-like fish, very fatty and tasty) longline gear in building seas, when the diesel engine sputtered and died. My then-boyfriend, Tom had purchased the Delores for a song several years previously after her second sinking and repowered and resurrected her. She was 32-feet long at the waterline, but with her small cabin and double-ended hull design with gentle shear, she handled seas like a vessel twice her size. We had been baiting up in nearby Pelican for several days and had miles of longline gear out. Our work was paying off as the fishing was good: nearly every other hook had a large, beautiful black cod on it and our hold was filling fast.
Tom took one look below and announced that the engine room was full of water. We still had nearly a mile of longline gear out and it was a pitch-black night. As Tom disappeared below deck, I found myself alone in the darkened wheel house, wondering how long until the battery was submerged, killing the Loran-C and marine VHF radio. Near panic, I grabbed the VHF radio microphone and put out the call: “May Day, May Day, this is the F/V Delores,” giving our loran coordinates. This is the universally-accepted distress call for a vessel at sea. I later learned that numerous nearby commercial fishing boats, upon hearing our call, stopped pulling and began steaming towards us, losing precious fishing time. However, just then Tom emerged from below and the diesel sputtered to life as the bilge pumps cleared the engine room—hearing me, he turned off the VHF in horror. We buoyed off the longline gear, and quietly steamed for Pelican to offload our catch. I’ve always been grateful for the help we almost needed and embarrassed that I didn’t turn the radio back on and grab the microphone to let the fleet know we were alright. But under the circumstances I was happy to be underway, and quiet acquiescence seemed the best path. Probably the thing I missed most when my commercial fishing career abruptly ended after Tom and I split up was the sense of community on the water. The Coast Guard is great if they can get to you in time when you need them (and I am extremely grateful for the two times I have been rescued by them), but it’s more likely that another fisherman will help you out.
My culinary education on black cod had begun several years earlier in Japan. It is probably the tastiest beer-drinking food of the Japanese “salary man”. It is most commonly eaten marinated for a day in various combinations of sake-kasu (the solids leftover after fermenting rice into sake), miso, ginger, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar and then broiled or roasted, although it is also excellent raw, as sashimi. I recently revived a version of what I remember eating in Tokyo, after an extensive hunt for the sake-kasu. Here is the recipe, however, if it as difficult for you as it was for me to find sake-kasu (I finally located an artisanal sake maker in Vancouver who shipped me some!) you can eliminate it and just use miso and the fish will still be delicious! Honestly, if you are a lover of rich, oily fish it is hard to ruin black cod. The oiliness of this fish also means its extremely high in Omega 3 fatty acids making it a very heart healthy food.
Sake kasu and Miso-marinated Broiled Black cod
Broiler pan
Gallon ziplock bag
2 lbs black cod filets or steaks
⅓ c sake-kasu
⅓ c yellow miso
⅓ c soy sauce
3 T sugar
⅓ c rice wine vinegar
3 T grated fresh ginger
Combine sake-kasu, miso, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine vinegar, and grated fresh ginger in bowl, whisk until smooth and put in gallon ziplock bag. Add black cod filets to ziplock bag, close and marinate in refrigerator for 40 minutes to 12 hours.
Turn broiler to high, preheat broiler pan for 5 minutes. Remove black cod from refrigerator, put on preheated broiler pan, return to oven with rack on second highest rung. Broil for 7 minutes until top of fish is just beginning to blacken. Turn oven to bake and set at 400 F. Finish cooking fish for another approximately 7 minutes (depending upon filet thickness) until fish is cooked through. This recipe serves 4, I like to serve it with short-grain brown rice.