The Black Spruce

Black Spruce

For nearly twenty years the first weekend in December was the time we took the families out into the mountains of Southern Oregon. It was a full day of sledding, snowball fights and a cookout in the snow. The day was wrapped up by finding our Christmas Tree, usually a beautiful, tall, and full Douglas Fir. After moving back to the Interior of Alaska, My son Jake and I decided to continue the tradition. We hopped in the truck and drove out of town, spending the day driving the highway and back roads, wading through waist deep snow looking for that perfect Christmas Tree. We would discover that the sparse boughs of the black spruce of interior Alaska are nothing like those of the Douglas fir. Eventually, we would find a satisfactory tree, cut it down, haul it home, and with the help of lots of ornaments and tinsel, we celebrated a wonderful Christmas. Our spruce trees here may not be the most aesthetically pleasing of the fir trees but the spruce has so many other incredible uses that it more than makes up for its looks.

From cabin logs to firewood to food to medicine, Alaskan natives, for generations, have taken advantage of all the black spruce has to offer. Today, it’s still the wood of choice for log cabins and firewood in the Interior Alaska Native Villages. However, for a variety of reasons, the other uses of the spruce seem to be practiced far less. Instead, a cabinet full of over-the-counter medications alleviate the same conditions as this amazing tree.

The spruce’s tips can be brewed into a relaxing tea that is high in vitamin C. Folks often put honey, cinnamon, orange or lemon slices in their spruce tea. A wonderfully light jelly can also be made from the tips. (see recipe below) Spruce’s inner bark has also been used as a survival food. The inner bark can be eaten raw, boiled, or dried and ground up into a flour.

We recently enjoyed a wonderful spring day out collecting spruce tips for our tincture. We walked among the trees, wading through the rapidly melting snow that comes with the mid 40’s temperatures. A welcome change from this year’s harsh winter. The sun was out and the sky was such a bright blue. We moved from tree to tree taking a few of the fresh green tips. It was easy to tell the new growth from the old by the difference in the shades of green. We picked a few from each tree and moved on, careful not to take too much from any one tree. Along the way I also picked up from spruce pitch to have on hand as well. We filled our bags and enjoyed the changing of the seasons, some fresh air, and each other before heading back to the house to prepare our remedy.

Food uses of the Black Spruce:

Tea – relaxing and high in Vitamin C – add lemon or orange slices, cinnamon, cloves, or honey
Inner bark – traditional survival foot – eaten raw or boiled or dried and ground into flour
Jelly – The spruce tips make a very light jelly that many say pares well with meats, cheeses and crackers.

Medicinal uses of the Black Spruce:

Spruce Tips

Tea – Spruce tips have an antiseptic property that helps relieve symptoms related to pneumonia, whooping cough, croup (lung congestion). The tea also a wonderful boost to the immune system.
Steam – Boil the needles and inhale the steam for sinus infections and lung issues.
Syrup/Jelly – Spruce Syrup can be taken to relieve a sore throat. (see recipe below)
Tincture – A couple of droppers full of spruce tip tincture dripped under the tongue can support the immune system when the cold season hits. The tincture can also be applied externally to joints and muscles to ease aches and pains. It has also been shown to reduce inflammation. A few drops of spruce tip tincture in a glass of water can be used as a mouthwash to treat gingivitis.
Salves, Creams, Oils and Poultice – Spruce tips prepared in these manners can be used to treat joint and muscle pain, improve blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and when combined with spruce pitch can treat eczema, boils, and acne.

Inner Bark:

Tea – The tea of the black spruce’s inner bark can be used to treat sore throat, upset stomach, ulcers and mouth sores.

Sap/Pitch:

The spruce pitch has been used as a cough lozenger to relieve the discomfort of a sore throat. Because of the trees antiseptic properties, the sap can also be used to protect wounds, cuts, and abrasions.


Below are our recipes for Spruce tip tincture, syrup and jelly.

Tincture

So what’s the advantage of a tincture over a tea or decoction? The short answer is that a tincture has a very long shelf life, is highly concentrated, easy to apply, and portable.

Spruce Tip Tinctures

Ingredients:
Several handfuls of Spruce tips
80 Proof (minimum) alcohol such as vodka
Honey
Airtight jar

Gather several handfuls of fresh spruce tips and rinse them in cold water to remove any debris.

Place the tips in your jar so the jar is full but not crammed. Add approximately 1 tablespoon of honey and fill the jar with alcohol until spruce tips are fully covered. Seal the jar, give it a good shake and place in a location out of direct sunlight for approximately six weeks. You should shake your jars frequently. We try to do this each day.

At the end of the six weeks, open your jars and strain the mixture to remove the solids. Your tincture will now have a dark color to it. While you can leave it in the jar you used to make the tincture in, we have purchased 2 oz green glass bottles with eye droppers for ours. In either case, be sure to label your bottle with date, what’s inside, and the type and proof of the alcohol used.

Spruce Syrup

Ingredients:
Spruce Tips
Sugar

There are two methods for making spruce syrup. The first is the traditional method uses equal parts spruce tips and sugar. These are layered in a jar and then placed in a sunny location for 2-4 weeks. This process extracts water from the spruce tips and creates a syrup. At the end of this process, simply strain and bottle. This has an approximate 5 month life when refrigerated.

Another method, for those that just can’t wait a month for their jelly, is to cook it up.

Chop up approximately 2 cups of freshly picked and rinsed spruce tips. Add these to a pot with 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water. Bring this slowly to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the spruce tips and bring the mixture to a full boil. Pour into sterilized jars and process them in a water bath for 15 minutes for long-term storage. For immediate use, pour into bottles and store in a cool location or your refrigerator.

Spruce Jelly

Ingredients:
3 Cups of Spruce Tips
3 Cups of water
4 Cups of Sugar (or to taste)
1 pkg Pectin
6 Tbsp Lemon Juice

Give your spruce tips a quick wash and remove any debris. Roughly chop the spruce tips before adding them and the water to your pan. Bring to a boil and then remove it from the heat. Allow the tea to steep overnight. The longer your tea steeps the stronger the flavor of your jelly will be. Alternatively, you could simmer for 40 minutes and continue making your jelly.

Strain the tea through a fine sieve or cheesecloth and heat the pot on high heat. Stir in the pectin and lemon juice and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the sugar, whisking to prevent clumping, until it reaches a full boil. Let it boil for two minutes and then remove it from the heat. You can use a spoon to skim off any foam that may develop.

Place a small amount of the jelly on the back of a cool spoon to test. It should have a syrup like consistency. If after cooling on the spoon it is still too thin you can bring it to a boil again and then retest.

Once the jelly has reached your desired consistency, pour it into sterilized jars and then process them in a water bath for five minutes.

Coming Next

This is the first in a series of articles on our foraging. Please subscribe to our blog to get all of our updates and information. You can also subscribe to our podcast here or find us in your favorite podcasting app.

We will be sharing more about the wonderful birch tree including all the details of the birch water that we are collecting right now. Additionally, we will be talking about the cottonwood (balsam poplar), willow, old man’s beard (usnea), Labrador tea, and a plenty more so join us as we continue to take advantage of what our amazing state has to offer us.

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions please don’t hesitate to contact us. You can send us a message from the website. We enjoy hearing from everyone and appreciate the feedback.

We’re Still Here

We're still here.  We had Great intentions of keeping up but fell behind.

Well, we had great intentions of getting out two blogs and two podcasts per month and we were keeping up. And then the world changed seemingly overnight. Because of a direct contact with a positive COVID-19 case, Rachelle and I ended up quarantined for two weeks. We came out just in time for the Stay-at-home orders, school cancellations, and runs on the grocery stores. Thankfully for us, our families, and friends (even those that tested positive) we are all healthy today. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who has contracted the virus and their families along with those that have lost their jobs.

While I may have dropped the ball on getting the podcasts and articles posted during these hectic and uncertain times, we have continued with our trapline, got the garden seeds started, and continued our foraging. Our next blog post will be on the spruce tree. We’ve been able to harvest the fresh spring spruce tips and we will discuss the value of this amazing tree. We will also have a follow-up podcast to include a discussion on the Spruce and catch everyone up on the trapline. (Spoiler Alert: We did catch several more…)

We apologize for the silence over the past few weeks but now that we’re adjusting to our new “normal” we should be able to get back on track so watch out for our article on the spruce, our next podcast and then we have a lot more content coming your way including, seed starting, Labrador Tea, willow, birch, old man’s beard, and lots more.

-David & Rachelle

Collecting Labrador Tea

Labrador Tea

Sometimes you just get lucky and stumble onto something. This was the case when Rachelle and I were out checking the trapline. I had walked into the treeline the previous day to set a couple of snares in the trees. When Rachelle and I went to check them I spotted Labrador Tea under the snow along the trail. We took advantage of the opportunity and collected a handful of the very fragrant plant.

Labrador Tea grows throughout most of Alaska in boggy areas. Though some prefer to pick the leaves and flowers in the summer, it can be picked year around. If you are picking be aware that the poisonous Bog-Rosemary looks very similar to Labrador Tea. The difference is that the bottom of the Labrador Tea leaf is orange or rusty, Bog-Rosemary leaves on the other hand are white underneath and and are missing that very distinctive fragrance that Labrador Tea has.

Alaskan Natives have used Labrador Tea for generations. The leaves are broken up into pieces to release the oils and then boiling water is poured over them and allowed to steep. The tea can be drank as is or sweetened with honey. The teas medicinal properties are used for a variety of ailments to include stomach aches, colds, coughs, sleeping problems, heartburn, and arthritis. Labrador tea can help reduce pain and inflammation.

In addition to using it as a drink, you can also make it into a tincture, oil, or poultice. Labrador Tea can also be used for culinary purposes in place of bay leaves for your stews, sauces, and soups.

We’ll be sharing our recipes, uses, and experiences with Labrador Tea soon so be sure to subscribe to our blog for those updates. You can also follow our adventures on our podcast which you can find in your favorite Podcast app on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Spotify, and TuneIn. You can also listen right from our website.

It’s STILL Winter….

The calendar is telling us that spring is near. We just adjusted our clocks to “spring” forward but this year I don’t think Mother Nature is listening. This has been reported to be the coldest winter for the interior of Alaska in 44 years and while it WAS cold, the temperatures didn’t fall to levels of even just a couple of years ago where we had nearly 70 degrees below zero in Minto. However, normally, it gets cold for a few days and then warms up for awhile, then gets cold and we see an ebb and flow throughout the winter. This year it got cold and just stayed cold and then to top it off, it just kept snowing.

For the record, I love the snow. I love being out in it. I love seeing the way everything contrasts against it. It can be absolutely beautiful. However, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve shoveled the roof of the camp trailer, the deck, the driveway or cleared the work area around my saws this year. I have definitely been getting plenty of exercise shoveling this winter. Rachelle keeps showing me ads for snowblowers and I keep thinking, “It’s just got to be over now.” I’m sure as soon as I commit to the snowblower it will be….

In the meantime we will continue to take advantage of the snow by keeping the trapline going. We finished fox season without catching a single one. Rachelle was pretty disappointed but we did get an opportunity to really observe the behavior of the fox in our area throughout the two months we were out there. I feel strongly that next season we will be able to close the deal. The last week of the season we really noticed a lot of their tracks around our sets so some of the new bait that I put together at the end was certainly enticing them.

We ate or shared all of the rabbit meat that we had caught early on and were fortunate enough to have just caught two more this week. Now that we’ve found where they’ve moved to we put out several more sets to try to increase our catch while there is still time. We did post a video on the website and on Instagram of me checking the line.


I spend every other week in the village of Minto for work. Minto is an Alaska Native village approximately 135 miles northwest of Fairbanks. This is the village that Rachelle is from and that I lived in for a couple of years. During my time there I was given permission to trap and hunt on their land.

This past week I was asked to work a couple of my days off in the village and Rachelle was able to travel with me. During my downtime, I showed her my old trapline and we were both amazed by the amount of activity. I had brought the remainder of our trapping gear just in case the opportunity presented, and IT DID! We set out nearly a dozen sets in the hopes of closing out the season strong.

Wolf print next to David's foot
One big pup

On my return to the village this week I spotted tracks in the middle of the road just a few miles from the village and stopped to check them out. I knew there were wolf in the area but was surprised to see the size of this one. I think next season we will pick up some snares and see if we can get few of these guys. There are a lot of them in the area and they have been decimating the moose population. We’ll have to step up our game if we’re going to go after wolf though.

In spite of the fact that it continues to snow we are preparing for our spring gardening. We’ll be discussing our planting selection beginning with the herb garden. We are planting multi-use (culinary/medicinal) herbs and will be discussing their uses and our plans for them next time. We also talk about collecting and using birch water, so please don’t forget to subscribe to our blog to ensure you get all of our updates.

Also, join us on our podcast and listen to our adventures as well. You can find us in your favorite Podcast app on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Spotify, and TuneIn. You can also listen right from our website.

A Day on the Trapline

Check out this short video of me out for a day on the trapline. We’re working on a few more videos of both Rachelle and I as well as one detailing the building of the cubby sets we used.

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Also, subscribe to our podcast via your favorite app and listen to our adventures. We are posting a episode about once every other week so join us.

40 Below Adventures

COLD!!

And the cold just won’t go away…. It’s now the end of January, which IS typically cold but it has been sub thirty below now for what seems like the whole month. It did warm up into the negative teens and Rachelle commented about how nice it was to be able to take off her mitts on the trapline without instantly freezing.

Rachelle's Snare

I love Alaska and I love winter but when it’s this cold outside, getting things down takes more effort and more time and that includes just getting ready to go outside. Once outside you find yourself in one of two situations. One, you have a packed snow that is as hard as concrete and slick as ice or two, a very fine powdery snow that is equally as difficult to walk through. While I have been shoveling snow from the driveway and around the house all winter in the hopes of minimizing the amount to water near the house come spring, I definitely couldn’t keep up with the snowfall. I should still be able to remove the snow from the area around the sides and back of the house which little traffic to compact it but the driveway area is solid and there to stay until breakup.

Our Moose


Speaking of the driveway, I walked out of the house recently and found myself staring at moose who had decided the willows in the driveway would make a nice late morning snack. I’d say we had a lengthy conversation but it was really just me talking and her standing there munching away and occasionally glancing my way. After about 15 minutes, she finally decided to head down the hill behind the house and I went about my day. A couple days later, I opened the front door and spotted a fox running down the driveway. While many may consider all the wildlife in the yard a nuisance, we see it as a blessing. The opportunity to witness so much beauty right from our front door, is one of the things we love about living here.

On the subject of wildlife, we have had a pretty successful couple of weeks on the trapline. We’ve bagged five rabbits already in spite of the temperatures. One of the fox sets has tracks all around it but it’s being extremely cautious. After skinning and processing the meat from the rabbits, we added a few leftover parts to the back of this fox set to help entice it into the trap. Hopefully, in our next posting we’ll be able to tell you that it worked.

As I mentioned, we skinned and processed four of the rabbits. The pelts are nice and full. We went ahead and put them in a bucket with our tanning solution. We have a total of eight hides in the solution and in the next couple of weeks should have enough ready so that Rachelle can start working on the mittens she’s been planning. You’ll have to make sure to come back to hear all about that project.

We did make a big pot of rabbit stew and shared it with Rachelle’s 88 year old uncle. He said he grew up eating rabbit but hadn’t had any in years so he was really excited about getting some now. We have shared much of the remaining rabbit with others as well. We strongly believe in sharing our bounty and believe it comes back many times over.

Rachelle got a chance to skin her first rabbit just in the last couple of days. She has watched me do it numerous times but with me out of town for work, she took it on and now has a nice pelt on the stretcher. She’s a fast learner and you wouldn’t be able to tell it was her first time skinning by looking at the hide. She did an amazing job on it and I couldn’t be more proud.

So next week is FINALLY supposed to warm back up with highs nearing zero and we are planning to get out and extend our trapline. We still have a number of traps and snares and with fox season closing at the end of February we need to get busy. Rachelle’s primary goal of the season was to catch her first fox and we’re running out of time to make that happen.

Since you are reading this, you obviously know we recently launched our website and blog but you might not know that we also launched our Roaming Alaska podcast. It took some time with the technical stuff but it’s live and on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn, so please subscribe to follow along on the adventure. You can also find out latest episodes on our website.

Our Trapping Season begins

It’s January here in the interior of Alaska. It’s been hovering between -30 and -40 for more than a week making everything just a little more challenging. Rachelle remembered to plug her car in but unfortunately the extension cord was plugged into a GFI outlet that had tripped and we hadn’t realized it. Needless to say, her car was frozen and wouldn’t start and I was out in the village for work. So once we worked through the issue, reset the outlet and gave the car a few hours to thaw all was well again. Once I made it home I did replace the extension cord she was using with one that has a glowing connector so there is a visual indicator that there is power. First lesson learned in 2020……

Trapping season is in full swing but our line isn’t out yet. We had been living just outside of North Pole until we purchased our house mid-year. This meant finding a new place to trap. Rachelle and I did some preliminary scouting in the fall and identified what we thought would be a great place. We had plans to get out early in the season to maximize the time we had to fill our traps with fur. It just didn’t happen and so here we are, late in the season, playing catch-up.

On the trapline
Rachelle and I on the trapline

Let me stop for a minute and explain a few things. First, along with our website/blog we are launching our podcast where we are also sharing all of these adventures. We’ll talk about our plans, successes, challenges, and even our failures. Since it’s trapping season that’s where we’ve decided to start but we’ll also be talking about other activities we are doing which include hunting, fishing, rockhounding, foraging, camping, and hiking. We’ll discuss stuff related to all of these things we love doing as well, such as the tanning of the furs and what Rachelle will be making with them, the uses of the plants and berries that we’ll collect to include soap and candle making. We want to show off all the resources that nature has to offer here in Alaska. So we hope that you hit our website (www.roamingalaska.com) and subscribe to both our blog and our podcast.

So back to trapping now. We don’t do it for the money. We both have full time jobs and only take what we can reasonably use. We respect the land and the animals and believe that the way we put out our sets and how we treat and use what we catch reflects this.

It’s -40 degrees and I’ve got a week to get our line out before I leave for the village again. With less than five hours between sunrise and sunset, most of the trapping will done in the dark by headlamp over the next month. We lay out our clothing and start layering. We’re inside the 75 degree house and now it’s a race to finish getting dressed before we overheat. We rarely ever win that race but we try anyway.

Rachelle beats me and races outside where it’s literally 115 degrees cooler but I’m just a minutes or so behind her. We load up the gear; traps, snares, wire, etc. and head out. I find our trail that we had cut on a recent outing and began looking. As we moved along the trail there are signs of rabbit and an occasional fox. I stopped several times considering sets but decided to push in further. About a half mile later, the trail turns south for a short distance before turning back to the west so I’m now nearly parallel the first part of the trail. Almost instantly, the tracks of rabbit, fox, squirrel, and moose are everywhere. I stand there looking around at all of the activity trying to decide where to place our first set. The options are almost overwhelming.

Setting Snares

A short distance off the trail I find a spot where a rabbit trail runs underneath a young black spruce that, under the weight of the snow, has laid over creating an archway just big enough for the rabbits to go under. Afraid of knocking the snow off of the spruce, I opt to set a leghold trap right in the archway. I anchor it to another tree a foot away. As I turn to head back to the path I spot another heavily use rabbit trail just a couple feet away. This trail passes between a group of small spruce trees that provides me a perfect funnel to set a snare and I make quick work of the set before continuing further down our trail. We set a few more snares before coming into an open area where one or more fox have been moving back and forth. The tracks are everywhere and at least one of them is a male who has taking the opportunity to mark his territory. I locate a spot under a leaning tree where the fox had passed recently and set a trap. Above the trap I hang a piece of bait to entice and distract our little red friend.

Night on the trapline
A beautiful but cold afternoon on the trapline.

Rachelle and I continue on and set several more sets for both rabbit and fox before finally calling it a day and heading back home to a hot cup of Tang.

(By the way, if you haven’t tried Tang hot, ESPECIALLY, after coming in from the cold, you’re missing out. I was skeptical when Rachelle introduced me to it. I had grown up drinking Tang (cold) and honesty had been happy not drinking it for at least the past 30 years but give it a shot sometime.)

Come back soon for more. Not only do we need to check our line but we’ve got plenty more sets to get out. It’s going to be a great season. Make sure you subscribe to our Blog and podcasts.