THIS IS THE season we wait for all year when you can walk into almost any patch of woods or meadow and stuff your gullet with free food.
Yes, it’s berry season. It began with the salmonberry. That harbinger of the salmon run that was so thick this year it almost broke the branches. Named for their color that reflects the varied colors of the salmon, the salmonberry is a taste of the woods: sweet, sour and mysterious.
One day, a camper stuffed the body cavity of a summer steelhead with salmonberries, wrapped it in foil and put the mess in the coals. I thought it was weird but it worked. You can’t get that in a restaurant.
The gustatorial connection between fish and berries has a historical perspective.
They are native foods that could be gathered and caught by anyone.
Berry-picking is a ritual practiced since the first people got here. It is a cycle that begins when the salmonberries ripen in the spring and runs until the cranberries freeze in the winter.
Berries were one of the first items traded by the Native Americans to the invading Europeans.
On July 25, 1790, the Spanish Capt. Manuel Quimper met some canoes off the mouth of the Elwha River with whom he traded for berries and salmon of which several weighed 100 pounds apiece.
People have been coming to the Olympic Peninsula searching for berries and salmon ever since.
Quimper was a Spanish Peruvian sea captain who is significant in the history of the Strait of Juan de Fuca for having brought the first potatoes to the Olympic Peninsula when he built his doomed fort, Nunez Gaona, at Neah Bay.
Back then, mariners typically survived on a rationed diet chiefly composed of ship’s biscuits. This was a tooth-breaking bread made with flour and water that might be dissolved in brine or coffee in the morning so you could eat it. Soaking allowed insects infesting the biscuits to float to the top. That is of course, if the bread wasn’t eaten by rats first.
Biscuits, with wine or beer and some salted meat or fish ensured a rate of scurvy among seamen during the Age of Exploration that typically ran from 40 percent to 50 percent of the crew, ultimately killing an estimated 2 million sufferers.
Vasco de Gama’s crew began using citrus fruits to cure scurvy in 1497 but few believed them. The idea did not gain popularity until 1867, when the English Royal Navy required all ships to provide a daily lime ration to sailors to prevent scurvy, which caused the English to be called “limeys” ever since.
Left untreated, which it usually was, scurvy left the sufferer with bleeding gums, madness and ultimately death by bleeding and infection.
The Sequim Dungeness Valley is dotted with mailboxes carrying the names of the descendants of English seamen who jumped ship to live in the woods. A diet of clams and fish was milk and honey compared to the biscuit mash served on British ships at the time.
The berries and the salmon might have saved the lives of Capt. Quimper’s crew. This time of year, these most likely would have been blackberries, black caps, huckleberries, blue and red, and perhaps even the delicate thimbleberry. All of which are available today anywhere they have not been sprayed with herbicides.
Scurvy has not been much of a problem here lately but still you can’t be too careful in this day and age.
Eat berries. Prevent scurvy.
We’ll thank ourselves later if we do the right thing now.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].