Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bog Rubies

Stepping carefully over moss- and lichen-covered slate and granite boulders, I find the first of the cranberries at the muskeg’s edge. Sand spewed from the wheels of passing cars mimics the sand spreaders used by commercial cranberry growers. As a result, the berries grow bigger, and there are more of them here than farther out in the bog. Scanning the spongy ground for berries, my mouth waters as I think about making cranberry muffins. My kids used to take the berries straight from the freezer, suck them until they’re thawed, then bite down until the berry’s chilly tartness burst with a pop.

I work my way along the road’s edge, squatting and picking every few feet, until my neck aches from looking down. I take a break, stand up straight and refocus my vision to a wider vista. I inhale a deep breath of crisp air that tingles my nostrils. I look to mountains across the strait, where new snow was dropped by the last storm. A peak like a vanilla ice cream dome looks like you could ski for hours there, where I bet no one has ever skied before.

A crow’s “caw” catches my attention as it wings to a shore pine near the center of the bog. The pine’s natural growth is distorted so that it looks like it belongs in an Oriental painting. I wonder if the crow is announcing my presence to the critters in the rain forest fringing the muskeg, or if a black bear is lumbering unseen toward me. For a minute, I pretend it’s 200 years ago and I’m a Tlingit girl with a cedar bark skirt and berry basket. She would not have been singing the bears away alone; other women would have been along enjoying being away from the men.

The crow caws again and I realize that, except for the squish of rubber boots in soggy moss, I’ve been too quiet. I get out my keys and jingle them to let any bears that might be around know where I am. The noise makes the crow caw again and fly over me to the woods on the other side of the road.

I’ve picked most of the berries at the edge and, now that I’m rested, move out toward the center of the muskeg, scanning the ground as I go. Water striders, on legs as thin as fiber optics, skim the surface of small ponds. I think about my first trip into the muskeg with my dad and his buddy, Lance, on a day just like this, except we hunted deer instead of cranberries. The men each held one of my hands and swung me over the ponds. Muskeg is tough walking for a five-year-old. In some spots, it sucks at your feet so hard, you walk right out of your boots. As children, my friends and I believed the ponds were bottomless, even though a soft muddy floor is usually visible through the brackish water. But, I once probed the depths of a muskeg stream with my fishing pole, and it never touched so some parts of the bog are definitely deep.

Even though soaked by an average of 85 inches of rain per year—some years more than a hundred—the muskeg looks deceptively like solid ground dotted with ponds. Until you step on it. Any newcomer who sets foot on it quickly learns why locals wear rubber boots. All this rain has to go someplace. Much of it is drained by streams every hundred yards along the coast. The rest collects to create the bogs that grace mountain slopes and surround large lakes. Sometimes it’s a smooth swath through the trees with only a few ponds, in other places, muskeg ponds terrace down steep slopes like rice paddies.

The Forest Service calls it a “wetland complex,” but the rest of us just call it muskeg. These areas of saturated soil are made up of scrub forest interspersed with a variety of plant communities—the exact mix depends on the degree of saturation. I watch where I walk so that I don’t step on any cranberries, avoiding the soggiest sections. Disappearing soon after I take the next step, my footprints are first watery indentations, then the sphagnum moss slowly rises back to obliterate my passage. It’s easier to walk on the small hillocks that occur every few feet. Labrador tea, bog rosemary, and bog Kalmia occasionally dot the centers of these slightly raised areas. The pink cups and bells of the Kalmia and rosemary, as well as the Labrador tea’s white flower balls, bloom in June.

I find some waist-high huckleberry bushes near a copse of cedar trees that have a few juicy nuggets left, overlooked by bears, people and birds, so I pop them into my mouth. The tart-sweet taste tickles the back corners, a perfect complement to the mossy musk smell of the woods. I spot some bunchberries at the base of a cedar tree and eat those too. I think the white foamy centers are wonderful and don’t mind the single small seed in the middle.

This woodier section of the muskeg has cranberries, too. They trail down the bank ruby-red-side-up, pasty white on the bottom where they get no sun. Other low-growing plants intermix with the bog cranberries: delicate fiveleaf bramble, stout bog blueberry, stiff clubmoss, creeping crowberry, and evergreen mountain cranberry. All weave together in and out of the moss in a delicate symbiotic dance of roots, berries, and leaves.

I hunt and pick bog rubies until the sun starts to set. There’s too little daylight this time of year and too many storms to pick as many cranberries as I’d like. Because I have so few, the muffins will taste all the better.