story and photos by Craig Scott
The Boreal forest that surrounds Yellowknife is part of one of the largest intact wilderness areas left on the planet. It holds 700 species of mammals, 500 species of birds, and more than 500 species of plants – some too prickly to pick, or too bitter to bite, and a few might poison you.
But dozens are downright delicious. So where do you start the hunt for a lunch that tastes good and is good for you?
When I first moved to Yellowknife nine years ago, I was disappointed with the variety of wild foods available. Where were the fiddleheads and wild leeks I savoured in the Ontario spring? As I became more at home in the Boreal forest I realized that we are surrounded by wild foods. You just have to look at the forest a little differently.
Many Boreal wild edibles are recognizable to southern transplants, such as dandelion leaves, or raspberries. Others you might not have thought of as food items: spruce tip birch trees, Labrador tea and cloudberries.
The Boreal harvester’s season begins in earnest when the snow melts in April.
Some plants that keep their leaves green (like Labrador tea) can be harvested as they appear from the snow. But my favourite, and you must be pretty ambitious to target these, is the northern cranberry (or lingonberry to some). A few berries survive the fall pickers, the birds, and mice and stay hidden under the snow slowly fermenting like a fine wine. When they are released from their snowy blanket they are a deep burgundy, slightly wrinkled and fragile. They have a tremendously tart flavour and make a great addition to salads or deserts.
A few weeks after the snow is gone, the season really gets under way with the dripping of sap from the many birch trees common around Yellowknife.
Birch sap is a delicious tonic. When taken cold and refreshing from the tree, no other drink compares. My friend Mike and I have been collecting birch sap and turning it into syrup for the past two years. You may have seen it around town, the mysterious black liquid with the ‘Sapsucker Birch Syrup’ label.
Making birch syrup is tricky and laborious, but the ambitious few who want some sap for drinking might try to harvest the Dene way, in a large birch tree, make a horizontal cut around waist level with a hatchet. Several inches below this gash, use a knife and cut a downward pointing arrow right through the bark. Lift the flap of bark made by the arrow out so that it creates a drip spout which directs the sap from the gash into a bucket sitting below. This really works and will get you plenty of refreshing sap over the two to three week harvest season. Try a little sap on ice with a slice of lemon on a warm May day.
When birch season winds down in late May, a host of young tender edibles is sprouting from the warming earth.
Young fireweed shoots look and taste like purple asparagus. The flowers, and young leaves of raspberry, birch, nettles, wild mint and Labrador tea can be steeped in hot water to make mild and delightful teas.
Vibrant green spruce tips appear at the end of winter-weary branches in early June. They are ready when the brown paper-like sheathes fall off. They have a refreshing, tangy-citrus flavour, and are good in salads, teas, syrups, even cookies or ice cream.
When summer heat takes the sheen off the new growth of spring, there is a new crop of plants like the flower petals of wild roses and fireweed, which make good teas, and syrups, and wild chives that put store-bought onions to shame.
As summer deepens, berries ripen. Watch for the little patches of bright reds and purples that give away the raspberry bushes and gooseberries in rocky and waste areas. Wild strawberries are a rare treat. Saskatoon bushes, and black currants like the wetter forest edges. Red currants and highbush cranberries hide deeper in the forest. All these berries can be eaten fresh, blended in smoothies, cooked in pies, turned into jams, or frozen and saved for the long winter months.
Fall is the traditional harvest season down south, and it’s no different in the Boreal forest.
The biggest prize and the delicious cranberries that grow in abundance. People are often very secretive when they go to their favourite patch, and cars parked on the side of the highway in September often indicate a good patch is nearby. Wait for the first frost to bring out the sugars and the deep red colour that is so distinctive.
And let’s not forget about the rosehips that seem to grow just about everywhere in Yellowknife. The big red fruits are tasty fresh, but really sparkle when turned into jellies, wine, or juice. Just don’t eat the seeds or you’ll know why local kids refer to rosehips as ‘itchybum.’
This is just a sampling of what awaits if you have the time and energy to get out in the forest and be a little adventurous with your tastebuds. Get a good guidebook to edible plants and go browsing. You may be surprised how many good foods you are able to collect. If you can’t make it out into the Boreal, you can always impress your spouse by weeding the lawn and mixing up a delicious dandelion leaf salad for dinner.
Inside the new Sapsucker Birch Syrup Co-operative
by Laurie Sarkadi
During spring melt, when the black, muddy earth of the forest reveals itself like chocolate sauce under snow-cone mounds, I sloshed my way toward a sugar shack on the outskirts of Yellowknife for a workshop on how to tap birch trees. As a resident of Ingraham Trail, I was invited to join the First Annual Sapsucker Birch Syrup Co-operative – a way for the big-time operators, Yellowknifers Craig Scott and Mike Mitchell, to augment their sap volumes; and a compelling reason for me to spend time in the stately grace of a birch stand near my home, learning the inner workings of my favourite tree. They had me at “Hello,” in their email invite.
The sugar shack is as simple as can be, a tin-roofed wood structure protecting their apparatus, surrounded by magnificent birch shimmering against a backdrop of cliffs. A 1910 black and white photo of Charlotte Jones from Fort Resolution tapping a tree the traditional Dene way (see paragraph nine of Craig’s story) hangs at the entrance. Craig and Mike camp here throughout May, tapping some 400 trees. They dump their sap buckets into a fiberglass tank where it cycles through a reverse osmosis unit to reduce its water content before it’s piped up to another tank sitting in what looks like a tree house. From there it’s gravity-fed down to a long stainless steel trough, the evaporator, which heats more water out of the sap.
Mike explains that birch syrup requires a much slower, more delicate processing than maple syrup. Maple sap is mostly sucrose, which can be boiled with abandon to reduce its water content. But the 40 per cent fructose content of birch sap is simpler, less complex, demanding lower heat over longer periods to avoid burning. It takes 100 litres of birch sap to make one litre of syrup, compared to 40 litres of maple sap for the same amount. No wonder they want our help.
Funding from the territorial government allowed their company, Arctic Harvest, to buy us plastic buckets, 7/16-inch drill bits, spigots, strainers and corks. We supply our own drill, hammer, hydrogen peroxide to keep things clean, and elbow grease. In exchange for collecting as much sap as we can (sap MUST be emptied daily – morning is better – and always kept cool to keep it from spoiling) and dropping it off at their collection point just off the highway, they turn it into syrup and give us some.
Members who tap 10 trees for two weeks will bring in about 280 litres of sap. This will produce 2.8 litres of syrup, of which we get 35 per cent, or 1 litre.
As much as I adore the eclectic flavour of birch syrup – a spicy combo of honey, caramel, licorice, molasses, wintergreen and a hint of balsamic – I’m in this more for the experience. In Thoreau-like fashion, I’m taking to the woods, living my life deliberately, even though it pains me to wound my arboreal neighbours with 1.5-inch holes.
I am not often found with a cordless electric drill in hand (I have to admit, it’s a bit empowering), and it went against all my conservationist instincts to bore it into the most robust birch on our property; but I did, piercing the paper thin epidermal layer of bark, stuttering against the amazingly dense inner core. And when the crystal clear sap sprayed out, I felt immensely satisfied, and grateful. I drop some sage at the base of every tree before I drill, and give thanks. Craig and Mike didn’t teach us to do that, but I’m pretty sure Charlotte Jones would approve.