Kayaking in Seward, Alaska
Bladderwracks and beach greens – edible plant life found along the shores of Resurrection Bay.
By Anne Sanders
At the end of our kayaking trip on Resurrection Bay, in Seward, Alaska, we were asked by our guides, Kelsey and Chelsea (also known as “the Elsies”), to fill out comment cards to evaluate our experience with them. After an amazing trip I wanted to give the best and most honest answers I could. I felt as if I was back in school taking an exam. While everyone else in our group was munching on freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, which our guides had arranged to be waiting for us when we returned to the office, I was still figuring out what to write. My distress came from their first question: “What did you enjoy most about the trip?” A rush of possible answers swarmed through my mind. I sifted through memories of the last four hours searching for moments that stood out, and there were many…
After a bumpy van ride along the coastal road leading to Lowell Point, we arrived at a black sandy beach. My husband Cecil, his cousin, Ethan, and I were with a couple from Quebec along with our two guides. We were given kayaking instructions on the beach, then we entered the water and paddled our kayaks to Tonsina Point. At Tonsina Point we disembarked on another black sand beach where the Elsies served us hot chocolate, tea, and an assortment of snacks to break the chill of being on the ocean water. After our warmup refreshments we went on a short hike along the beach and our guides picked wild edible plants for us to try. First we ate leaves from short bright green plants known as beach greens that grow in clusters at the edge of the beach above high tide. They had a fresh flavor similar to most green lettuces. A few more paces down the beach Chelsea approached us with a slippery plant, wet from the ocean, and introduced us to bladderwracks, an edible seaweed. Our group was more hesitant about trying this yellowish brown plant with slime filled sacks. But we did, and were all shocked to realize that we liked the salty pockets of flavor.
Our taste testing of nature’s edibles didn’t stop with these beach delicacies (I’m using the term loosely). When we entered the woods of tall moss-covered spruce we saw a very familiar plant that thrives in temperate rainforests: devil’s club. It was the predominant plant growing below the tree canopy. These plants are a familiar foe to Alaskan outdoorsmen. At least they’ve never been my favorite flora while hiking. Devil’s club looks just like one might imagine from the name. It has thick spiny stems with large leaves that also have their own set of spines on the underside of the leaf. The thorns on the stem can sometimes be an inch long. Many have discovered how not even jeans will protect you from them. Once you are stuck with a thorn, they are very hard to get out.
After being introduced to bladderwracks and beach greens, I was reminded of a friend who recently told me that devil’s club is edible. I asked Kelsey about eating devil’s club and she confirmed what I had been told. She also told me how devil’s club is not only edible, but used by Native Alaskans and Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest for medicinal purposes by using the inner part of the stem to make teas and salves. Natives also see them as a sacred plant used to ward off evil spirits. I felt rather ignorant being informed about a plant I’ve been familiar with and wary of my entire life. Finding out about the plant’s importance to Native Alaskans, how they are a possible alternative to insulin to help Type 2 diabetes, and are used to treat the same symptoms as aspirin, was an interesting and somewhat humbling revelation.
The edible part of the plant is the early green bud of the leaves, picked before their spines get hard. As our group continued down the trail I searched among the devil’s club for any buds that were still small enough to eat. I eventually found one and confirmed with Kelsey that it was at the right stage for eating. She picked the small green and white bud and split it apart for a few of us who wanted to try it. The bud had an interesting flavor—similar to the earthy flavor of a carrot. Before we set our boats in the water hours earlier I couldn’t have guessed my perspective of a plant I’ve always viewed as a prickly nuisance would be changed to respect.
The time came when we needed to turn around and head back to the beach. As we stepped out of the forest we could see out across Resurrection Bay, with the sunken earth of Tonsina Point in the foreground. Before the 1964 earthquake much of the point was above water. The trees on the point that were flooded with ocean water from the resulting tsunamis are now bare weather-beaten pillars—their exposed roots and large trunks preserved by the salt water. They have remained lifeless, a ghost forest as some people call it. Many of these ghost forests can be seen in coastal areas in Southcentral Alaska. Towns like Seward weren’t left unscathed by the four minute, 9.2 magnitude quake. Some towns, like Valdez, were completely destroyed and needed to be relocated. Seward lost a three quarter mile section of its waterfront when it slid into Resurrection Bay because of an earthquake process called liquefaction. Subsequent tsunamis further devastated the town, especially when petroleum that leaked into the water rushed across the town, and with each new wave started more and more fires. While we were kayaking across the bay and hiking peacefully along the shore, it was hard for me to imagine the chaos and destruction of an event that happened fifty years ago. But the frequent tremors we Alaskans feel are a constant reminder that another quake of equal force is always a possibility.
The Elsies told us how during the excursion just before ours it had been pouring rain and the landscape was hidden by clouds and fog. We were fortunate because just as we launched the kayaks at the beginning of our trip the rain had stopped, and as time passed the skies gradually cleared until we were basking in unimpeded sunshine. Our fortune continued throughout the evening. When the time came for us to leave Tonsina Point it was past nine o’clock and the sun was making its slow descent behind the mountains. On the opposite side of the bay the snow topped mountains were glowing and the skies were clear and blue. We kept a steady pace on the way back and I talked with Kelsey about her experiences before coming to Alaska and what it was like being a guide. We shared stories and eventually fell into a comfortable silence. The water was unusually calm and the scattered clouds were turning different hues of pinks and reds.
Back in the office of Kayak Adventures Worldwide, filling out the ever important evaluation card, my mind finally latched onto what I enjoyed most throughout our trip. Though the scenery, weather, and experience of exploring Resurrection Bay via kayak and on foot was unforgettable, the moments that will stand out the most in my mind are the times of learning and sharing with our guides. Grateful for my revelation, I quickly scribbled down my answers and finally had my chance to indulge in the last chocolate chip cookie the Elsies saved for me—delicious confirmation that I had found the right answer.
This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.