Planet Alaska: Picking currants and riding currents

By Vivian Mork Yeilk’ and Vivian Faith Prescott

In Southeast Alaska we are surrounded by a living, flowing and berried world. The Inside Passage rises and falls, wispy cirrus clouds drift, sandpipers migrate, and red currants drop into our buckets and bowls. Lingít Aaní is a land of currents and currants and we’re a part of this moving planet without even going far to pick berries.

Currant berries (Ribes) are some of our favorites and in North America there are 80 varieties of currants. Raven gifted currants to humans. On a windy day, Raven was traveling on an ocean current when he tossed his blanket into the sea where it floated onshore. Later, after he found his blanket again, he convinced his wife to toss the blanket on some branches. Gray currants grew from beneath the blanket. From current to currant.

Mainly, we pick red, black, and gray currants. In the Lingít language, xaaheiwú (black currant), kanalchaan/keitl tléigu (trailing black currant), kadooheix̲.aa (red currant) and shaàx̣ (gray currant). Our Tlingit values of respect, balance and sharing are embedded in our berry harvesting. We share with elders and with others at our ceremonies as a part of our Tlingit gift economy. Southeast Alaska’s berries provide vitamins and minerals and give balance to our subsistence diet.

This photo shows red currant syrup in Juneau. (Vivian Mork Yeilk’ / For the Capital City Weekly)

This photo shows red currant syrup in Juneau. (Vivian Mork Yeilk’ / For the Capital City Weekly)

Our subsistence life includes understanding the connections to all things, knowing the role our migratory birds have in pollinating flowers that turn into our berries. 470 species of birds call Alaska their home. That’s a lot of interconnections. This time of year, we give respect and thanks to the berries and the birds as we harvest the last of the berries.

Being respectful is acknowledging that everything has a spirit and there’s a current we’re a part of. Scientists have known for decades that Earth’s magnetic field plays a role in bird migration. We often pay attention to the spring migrations, but not particularly to fall migrations, yet all around us, fall berries are ripening and a current of birds is riding the Pacific Flyway overhead. The Pacific Flyway is one of four major pathways for migratory birds, traveling from Alaska down along the Americas. Every year, the birds fly this incredible distance back-and-forth for food, breeding, and overwintering somewhere else.

For us fall berry pickers, though, it’s not such a long journey to drive to a favorite red currant patch, because locals have red currants growing in their gardens. Currants are in the gooseberry family, and red currants are easily cultivated in southeast Alaska. Red and black currants love moist Southeast Alaska’s forest, shorelines, meadows, ravines, and especially our yards. The leaves are maple shaped and red and black currant bushes grow about three feet tall.

Red currant berries grow in Juneau. (Vivian Mork Yeilk’ / For the Capital City Weekly)

Red currant berries grow in Juneau. (Vivian Mork Yeilk’ / For the Capital City Weekly)

The berries grow in bunches and the red and black currants are small, the size of a small pea. Gray currants can grow to the size of a blueberry and the bushes are taller than red and black currants.

We don’t mind eating the currant varieties raw, but we prefer to eat them cooked with other berries. We make syrups, jellies and sodas. When mixed, black, red and gray currants have a complex and delicious currant flavor. For a drink without much sugar, make a simple syrup first then use a soda stream to fizz your drink. Currants also have a lot of natural pectin so you can mix them with other berries for thickening and make a jam without using a bunch of sugar.

The black currants we’ve picked in the Juneau area are a smaller variety. There are at least three black currant varieties, though one type doesn’t grow in this area. We find them mostly along shorelines. There are thorns on the black currant bushes so that can be problematic. We avoid picking a lot of black currants because migrating birds need them for energy.

We especially like gray currants. When there’s only a few blueberries left on the bushes, it’s time to pick gray currants. Gray currants are the fall season’s treats. They’re bigger than other currant varieties so they’re easier to pick. Often, we pick gray currants and high bush cranberries on the same excursion. They ripen in early fall, so for southeast Alaska that’s August and September, though some currant varieties start to ripen in late July.

Currants keep us healthy through the winter. Frozen currants can be stored up to two years in the freezer. Currants are high in antioxidants, Vitamin C, fiber, manganese, and potassium. We pick red, black, and gray currants to make jelly and use them in baked goods and for sauces.

Vivian Mork Yeilk’ makes red currant jelly. (Vivian Mork Yeilk’ / For the Capital City Weekly)

Vivian Mork Yeilk’ makes red currant jelly. (Vivian Mork Yeilk’ / For the Capital City Weekly)

This year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the delta variant, it’s been hard to focus on the good things when there’s been so much stress and tragedy. Sometimes our days have an undercurrent of doom. We need to feel connected. The simple act of picking berries can help lessen our stress.

Currant leaves make good tea also. Drinking currant leaf tea can boost your immune system. It’s a kidney cleanser and good for UTIs, spleen health and helps with digestion. If you make a salve with the leaves, it’s good for inflammation, general aches and pains, and as a bug bite ointment. All three currant varies have these properties, but in different amounts. Typically, we dry leaves whole and then when we want to make tea, we crush them. You can crush the leaves first and package them dried that way. Use about 1-2 teaspoons of leaves to make a cup of tea.

As you pick currants, think about the flyways, the air currents, the magnetic currents and the ocean currents: Everything is interdependent. The fall season brings big tides, big storms and big migrations and we’re a part of this. Visitors, snowbirds, and seasonal workers leave Alaska. Our fishermen friends, Tele and Joel on the FV Nerka, have left the fishing grounds in Alaska and headed to Bellingham for the winter. Even our family migrates. Our brother (son) and his family recently traveled from their summer fishing grounds in Wrangell back home to Sitka, navigating currents, stopping to beachcomb and camp and pick berries.

Black currants and red currants mix to make a currant jelly blend. (Vivian Mork Yeilk’ / For the Capital City Weekly)

Black currants and red currants mix to make a currant jelly blend. (Vivian Mork Yeilk’ / For the Capital City Weekly)

We were raised in a commercial fishing family, and spent our lives on the water, so we know about ocean currents and traveling the Inside Passage. Tidal currents in Southeast Alaska can be quite treacherous. To live here, we respect the currents around us. Fall is a season a season of currents, of comings and goings, picking the last of our berries, of getting ready and preparing for winter. It’s an active season.

Like the grouse, the owls, and the woodpeckers, we’ll be overwintering in Alaska. This winter, we’ll be sipping currant leaf tea, trying our best to stay healthy in mind and body. And later, we’ll make red currant syrup and black currant jelly. We’ll ride the current of time into spring again when we’ll welcome back the sandhills, the hummingbirds, and godwits, and especially the first berries.

Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska appears twice monthly in the Capital City Weekly.

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