There is a defining moment to spring’s climax in SE Alaska. It is a growing abundance heralded by the run of hooligan. I feel compelled to build up to it, much as the season builds toward the crescendo.
I admit to being what I like to refer to as a “born-again snowbird.” The winter climate in Haines, Alaska is far milder than New Hampshire or 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains at Telluride, where I have enjoyed the brace of winter, but here, while not so cold, it is dark, dank, and damp, and I enjoy being married, so I dutifully follow my wife south for the winter, and she faithfully follows me north in the spring. What I hope she does not catch on to is the fact that every year I bump up our return time by a week or so. This year we arrived early in the hopes of hunting up some Dall sheep in the Yukon. I will have to come up with something new next year.
Spring is my favorite time of the year. I think it always has been. In New Hampshire, seeing the snow slowly recede and tulip and crocus shoots pushing through the mud to embrace a promise of better days to come gave rise to quiet joy. As I speak to respected friends and long-time sourdoughs here in Haines, there is a consensus that spring is the best time of the year. I love to arrive and see the snow reaching down from 6000 foot peaks to the clear fjords.
The birch look like picked bones with nary a bud yet. The first plant to shake its fist at winter’s tenacious grip is the skunk cabbage, which generates heat to melt its way through frozen ground and icy bogs.
Fiddle head ferns, Devil’s Club, and nettles provide forest foraging that complement the greens laying next to a plate of Dolly Varden (char/trout) caught earlier in the day.
Devil’s Club, while being a rather prickly companion later in the summer, makes a very welcome addition to a dinner’s greens when picked as a bud from the end of its stalk and blanched. This rather succulent looking stage is a bit late for picking. Overall, it is perhaps Alaska’s most medicinal plant if one knows how to pick it properly.
Spring is a progression toward life and its renewal. Days are getting longer, there is warmth to the sun once again, and green starts creeping in around the edges. Most of all, spring in Alaska is time of abundance, and what signals the climax of spring is the herring and eulachon (popularly known as ooligan or hooligan).
The hooligan are also known as candlefish, for they are so rich in oil, you could dry one of these critters and light it and the fish would burn like a candle. The local Chilkat Tlingit people were among the richest and most powerful nations in the Northwest, being the oil barons of their age. They would render the hooligan for its oil and trade the commodity from the interior of Alaska to the northern coasts of California. Being a smolt, the hooligan run up the rivers in the millions. The first sign of their run is the barking bellowing and belching of army’s of sea lions gorging themselves on the abundance.
Behind the sea lions come the whales: Humpback and Orca. Ubiquitous and demanding are the gulls and terns. Rightfully groups of gulls are often referred to as “screech” and/or “squabble” among other collective nouns. Here is a short mockumentary I made of our gull-friends in a frenzy:
And one more mockumentary of the “run”: