Voices from the river

Voices from the River: A meal from the wild

Chicken of the woods mushrooms. Photo by the author.

By Chris Hunt

A little over a year ago, I stood up to my thighs amid a thick run of pink salmon in a remote, rainforest stream on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, trying like hell to tempt one of the few early cohos that were mingling with the humpies to hit my Egg-sucking Leech.

I was at the tail end of a three-month sabbatical—an adventure that I’ll never forget—and I was a bit melancholy. With nothing of substance to complain about, I could only surmise that the blues were brought on by summer coming to an end, and that my long and glorious excursion to the Arctic and back was coming to a close. It was sad satisfaction, I guess. I’d been through the Canadian Rockies, cast over grayling and pike in the Yukon, topped the Brooks Range on my way to the Arctic and now, with scant days left before returning to “real life,” I recognized that time to fish was short.

After all, I’d had my share of “I don’t even know what day it is … and I don’t care” mornings, waking up in the camper parked in some scenic spot overlooking the likes of the Alaska Range or in the shadows of Mount Martha Black while sipping a local lager brewed right there in Haines Junction. Times like these can’t last forever. Seasons change.

As Jon Snow might say, “Winter is coming.”

Silver salmon. Photo by the author.

But I was also in what I’ve come to accept as my favorite place on earth, and winter hadn’t arrived just yet. Fly fishing under the canopy of spruce and cedars, amid rangy black bears and beneath the scolding chirps of bald eagles is perhaps the most primal sort of fishing I know. Protected by state-of-the-art waders, Gortex outer layers and warm fleece on the inside, it’s possible to ward off the bulk of the rain the Tongass National Forest can throw at an angler, leaving just the fishing to behold.

And it’s really good fishing.

But, of course, it’s more than that. I’ve been to this little half-mile stretch of public lands real estate some 2,000 miles from my front door a dozen times or more in the last 15 years, and every time, I learn something new. At first, it was the simple stuff, like don’t touch those beautiful, big-leafed plants that drape the stream banks and turn bright gold near the end of August. They don’t call them devil’s club for nothing.

Then, you learn about the bears, because, sooner or later, you’ll see one at an uncomfortable distance, and knowing how to handle the encounter can literally save your skin. This trip? I was determined to be a forager, and see if I couldn’t produce a few meals from the bounty of the island.

The salmon, of course, was the easy part. And the high-bush blueberries weren’t too tough to find, either. But there was a missing ingredient I was determined to find.

I’d spent the morning at the Coffman Cove Library—it has dependable, somewhat high-speed wifi, and the Americorps Vista staffer who worked there was from Boise, so we had some Idaho connections. I’d gone to the little library a block from the Inside Passage in search of a book on mushrooms, and she was more than happy to oblige. A vegan, she was a fungi fanatic, and she eagerly described to me the edible varieties found on the island, and even surprised me one evening at my camper with a pasta dish featuring chicken of the woods mushrooms in a garlic sauce that was absolutely amazing.

I’d been seeing lots of mushrooms on the journey north, but not knowing the first thing about what’s good and what’s deadly, I had taken to simply admiring them. But on Prince of Wales, there were just too many to ignore. This was my lesson on this trip. What can I eat? Where can I find it? And how do I prepare it?

After carefully reading a book on edible mushrooms and comparing notes with my librarian friend, I set off into the less-visited northern reaches of the island. Accessed by a winding and sometimes-narrow gravel logging road, the northern portion of Prince of Wales is a bit more rustic and wild. Not too many visitors drive past where the pavement ends at the Sarkar River, which is good if you’re a fly fisher … or a newly minted mushroom hunter.

Dolly Varden. Photo by the author.

I arrived at my favorite little salmon stream and started fishing in search of the first ingredient: a bright silver, if I could find one among the throng of pinks. My fall-back was less appealing, mostly because the humpies had been in the creek a while, and weren’t as “fresh” as the cohos, and the Dolly Varden, while plentiful and mighty tasty, don’t compete with silvers in terms of quality or quantity—a good silver can be 10 pounds or more, while the average Dolly in this small stream might push a pound, with some bigger ones chasing streamers now and then.

But I have a thing for Dollies… they never lose perspective like salmon do when they spawn. They’re always hungry. And they’re drop-dead gorgeous. I prefer to release them when I can.

It took a while, but after some spirited battles with some of the stream’s voracious Dollies and a couple of inadvertently hooked humpies, I did latch into a silver that probably pushed six pounds and fought like the devil—cohos might be the world’s most under-appreciated fly-rod fish, in terms of strength and spirit. They rival just about any fish I’ve ever hooked in fresh water, and they are my favorite salmon when it comes to table fare.

I cleaned and gutted the fish, and hopped onto one of the bear trails that wanders along this and just about every salmon stream in Alaska. Now, for blueberries and, if I could find them, mushrooms.

Chicken of the woods. Photo by the author.

The first feat was easy, and I’d filled a small freezer bag of ripe berries in minutes. It took a bit longer, but I found a “shelf” of chicken of the woods fungus growing from a dying cedar. With the knife I used to clean the fish a few minutes earlier, I cut a few pieces from the tree and got back to the car in time to ensure the drive back to the camper would happen before it got too dark.

That evening, as the clouds cleared over the rainforest and the September stars lit up the sky, I lightly fried some “salmon fingers,” sauteed a handful of sliced wild mushrooms with a dose of blueberries in some butter and a bit of cabernet sauvignon wine and sat down to a meal I largely pulled from the woods. It was the best meal I’d eaten in ages, and it was a fitting end to the long journey. I felt somewhat accomplished for being able to get by without opening a can or defrosting a bag of veggies.

A meal to enrich the soul. Photo by the author.

As the seasons start to change again, and a year has passed since that meal, I find myself yearning once again for the rainforest and the loamy fragrances of the moss and the woods, low clouds that tickle the tops of giant trees and the streams that course with life.

Perhaps, making a meal from the wild instills such a place in the soul—it makes as much sense as anything else I can come up with. I won’t get to that little salmon stream this year, at least not in person.

But I think it is in my soul. No. I’m sure of it.

Chris Hunt is the national digital director for Trout Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls.