THIS IS THE season wild creatures wait all year for — when we can walk in the woods and meadows stuffing our gullets with free food.
It’s berry season. It begins with the salmonberry. It’s a taste of the woods — sweet, sour and mysterious. Berry picking is a ritual practiced since the first people got here. It’s a cycle that begins with the salmonberries and blackberries in summer and lasts until the blue huckleberries and cranberries in the fall.
Berries were one of the first items traded by the Native Americans to the invading Europeans. In July 1790, the Spanish Captain Manuel Quimper met some Elwha canoes off the mouth of the Elwha River, with whom he traded for berries and the legendary 100-pound salmon.
This would’ve saved Quimper’s crew from scurvy, but doomed the 100-pound salmon to extinction.
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, where they were considered additional protein.
A diet of biscuits, with wine or beer, salted meat or fish, dried peas and cheese produced a rate of scurvy among seamen during the Age of Exploration that typically ran from 40 to 50 percent of the crew.
Left untreated, which it usually was, scurvy left the sufferer with bleeding gums, madness and ultimately death by bleeding and infection — while ultimately killing an estimated 2 million sufferers. All of which could have been avoided by eating berries.
Salmonberries were named for the salmon. Salmonberries are the first berries that ripen before all the others.
In the old days, the blossom of the salmonberry signaled the beginning of the salmon migration up the rivers. When the salmonberries first mature, they are the same color as salmon flesh and they look kind of like salmon eggs.
The crop was early this year and especially heavy, with big orange berries that ripened to a crimson purple.
Many rainforest creatures depend on the salmonberries as a welcome spring tonic after a winter of semi-hibernation and television. We gorge our way through the river bottom lands, reaching for the highest berries with the best flavor. We follow the crop of ripening salmonberries as far upstream as they grow, almost clear to timberline.
The first ripe salmonberry of the year has an unusual flavor of sugar and wild spice that demands you eat more and more until you try to think up other things to do with them all.
Many people have suggested making salmonberry jam, but if you’ll notice that with the many species of jams available at this season, the salmon berry is not included.
There could be many reasons for this. Not the least of which is the tremendous variance in flavor from one berry to another.
Some salmonberries taste like an acidic cucumber. It is not a flavor you would associate with a berry. It is more like some of the bitter herbs used in cooking. Salmon stuffed with salmonberries is a culinary triumph of my own invention that employs a seasonal strategy to gather the necessary ingredients.
While I would never use this valuable print space to spread fear, innuendo and conspiracy theories, it is my duty as a wilderness gossip columnist to warn the reader about the dangers of scurvy and other maladies that might be treated if you eat your berries.
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 email@example.com.