On the day my son and I were hiking along an ancient trail in Northern British Columbia, past the Gorge and the ruined cabin, we encountered heavy vegetation choking out the path before us. (Of course this was after he tried out swinging around a big tree on a long rope and scraped up his knuckles.) The path was no longer nicely cut out and so we were bush-wacking our way along, climbing over fallen trees and gingerly pushing thorny rosebushes and devils club out of our way.
Eventually the path widened and the vegetation receded as walked out into a clearing with a high hill on one side that beckoned to be climbed and the rushing waters of the Nakina river on the other side. Along this path were showy Soapberry Bushes with their gleaming, scarlet berries tempting someone to have a taste.
They taste very bitter and nasty to me, but I knew the First Nation tribes used to whip them with an equal part water and then sweeten the froth to form a confection called “Indian Ice Cream” for a sweet treat. Soapberries are much like eggs whites, both in that they can’t come in contact with grease or they won’t foam, and in the consistency they have after whipping—light and airy.
The berries contain saponin, which is considered toxic in large quantities, but isn’t readily absorbed by human bodies, therefore making it consumable within reason for most individuals. It is this saponin content in the berries that give them a viable option for making soap. There are reports that some First Nations tribes used to throw large quantities of the berries in rivers or lakes to “drug” or kill fish, as saponin is readily absorbed by fish and therefore toxic. Which reminds me again that just because it’s natural does not mean it is good in all environments or for all organisms.
I came upon an intriguing bit of information that some people believe that eating the froth or jelly made from the berries repels insects as they believe that mosquitoes and such are far less likely to bite a person who has soapberries in their system. If only I had known that at the time!
Soapberries or buffalo berries like to grow in dry, sandy, sunny spots such as the one we were walking through. Just ahead of us I could see a row of cabins and knew we had reached another camp. I picked out the high tumbled down bluff where I was told the path to the Junction used to be, but now we would have to pick our way through the carnage of a landslide.
My son decided to go up high along the sandy cliff, while I picked my way through the rocks and boulders along the river. Ahead I could see a number of fishermen fishing in a long line. That was our destination, however we had to find the path to get there. It was here on this section of ruined land that I came across the first brilliant, pink, common fireweed blooms of the season.
Fireweed is one of my favorite wildflowers that I’ve easily identified since I discovered it many years ago. And though some consider it a weed, I think it’s a mighty glorious weed, and I’m tempted to plant some in my garden especially after all the amazing facts I’ve just learned about it.
This flower is part of the Evening Primrose family and it is an wholly edible plant. The flowers are often used to make a lovely pink jelly and it’s young leaves—especially the tender red shoots in the spring—are great for adding to salads. As well, the soft, pithy, inner stem is rich in nutrients and tastes similar to a cucumber though sweeter and can even give a sugar buzz. This pith may also be scraped out and dried and then used to sweeten food or drinks or to be used like a talc powder. First Nation’s tribes used the dried powder to rub onto their hands and faces as a protection against harsh exposure in the winter.
Though I can easily recognize this flower and knew it could make a good jelly and that beekeepers highly prize the honey made from bees collecting it’s pollen, I didn’t realize it was very good for your skin and other health problems. Recent research has discovered that fireweed contains anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties that may help with skin irritations and issues such as acne. On top of that parts of the plant can be used to treat burns, gastrointestinal and bronchial problems. The root can be crushed or macerated to form a poultice to suck out infection from boils, bruises or abscesses. And a tea can be made from the crushed root to help with intestinal parasites. No wonder this beautiful plant was so highly prized by so many aboriginal cultures across the north—and not just Canada’s north, but Europe, Russia and Scandinavia too!
Past that stand of fireweed, we came to an old fallen log that blocked our passage along the river and so we turned and scrambled up the steep slope where it looked like others had gone. Immediately we were swallowed up by heavy brush and we fought to find the path amongst the thick tangle of branches and leaves. After a few false starts we found the right path and soon we were close to where we had seen the fisherman.
We left the forest behind and walked out on a rocky, triangular jut of land that had formed at the convergence of two rivers. After an hour’s hike, we had finally made it to the Junction. On my left flowed the clear, greeny-blue waters of the Nakina River and on my right, surged the turquoise, silt-filled, glacier-fed waters of the Sloko. The kid rushed ahead to join our group who had arrived earlier with the boats and were already fishing. I could see one of them had caught a big king salmon and it was flopping in the shallow waters as it was reeled in.
Just beyond the fishermen the two rivers met and converged in a fascinating blend of colors, each holding it’s own for a while before combining completely. Here I noticed that dirty water will always trump clear water, as the river continued towards the Taku the same color as the Sloko and not the Nakina.
And it was here that my son learned that it takes a salmon heart almost fifteen minutes to stop beating after you take it out of the fish. And I learned that hillside I was tempted to climb up, is a sacred burial ground and off limits to us. Good thing I didn’t give in to my urge to climb the hill and see what I could see from up there. Though a part of me is sad that I didn’t because I hadn’t known at the time, and now I would really be in the wrong if in knowing I wasn’t supposed to go there and I went and did it anyway. Kind of like that verse James 4:17 about knowing the good you ought to do and not doing it, only this is the reverse concept. Yep, sometimes, ignorance is bliss. I’m sure the view is spectacular from that hill, and that’s probably why they chose it for their loved ones who had passed along. Forbidden places are intriguing though . . .
Referenced: Wildflowers Along the Alaska Highway, http://www.selfhealdistributing.com/pdf/sundew-moonwort-volume-1-sample-fireweed.pdf, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/expositions-exhibitions/plantes-plants/plant_dir/fireweed.php, http://practicalplants.org/wiki/Shepherdia_canadensis,