On the rocks of Cone Island and Hole-in-Wall, due west of Craig, Klawock's Henrietta Kato finds what she's looking for.
Those are good spots for black seaweed - often called laak'ask, wild celery or yanaide. It's a shimmery green in the water, a rich black when dry. It grows in clumpy blades, two inches wide and sometimes 20 inches long. During minus tides, often in early May, it's time to pick.
"You watch how it's growing," Kato said. "If it's too long, then it gets red and it's not good anymore."
"I learned from the way my mom and dad (Connie and Henry McNeil) taught me," she said. "They used to take me out ever since I could remember. They would always say, 'Pick fast, because the tide changes real quick.' My family always said that I always got really good seaweed. I never believed them until I won."
At Celebration 2002, Kato won the first Black Seaweed contest. Her quart-bag was picked from 27 entries by three judges. She earned $500 for the victory.
"I was pretty ectastic, hootin' and hollerin'," said Kato, a Klawock City Council member and a field staff supervisor and family caseworker for Tlingit-Haida Tribal Family and Youth Services. "I heard the story about why they started it, that everybody up north said their seaweed tasted better."
Indeed, suggesting one kind of seaweed tastes better than another seems to be purely subjective. All seaweed gatherers have their own methods for drying and flavoring. Those with seasoned taste buds will say that seaweed has a different taste in Hydaburg and Yakutat.
"It's just a way of life; it's a subsistence thing," Kato said. "I just pick lots for family and relatives and friends. I've heard people have added clam juice and other things, but for me, it's just sun and air."
Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, had the idea to hold the first Black Seaweed contest in 2002.
"Dried black seaweed is a long-time traditional staple of the Native people of Southeast Alaska, and it's something that people have pride in how they prepare it," Sealaska sociolinguist Roy Mitchell said. "Some people say it's better if it's sun-dried, a lot of people will add clam juice so it has an ocean flavor, other people will keep it as is."
In Southeast, black seaweed is most abundant on the Outer Coast. It is hard to find near Juneau. Black seaweed is related to Japanese nori and contains calcium, iodine, iron and vitamins A and C. The Tlingit name is laak'ask. The Tsimshian word is hla-ashg. The Haida call it sgiw. Its scientific name is Porphyra.
In 2002, three seaweed judges picked the winners from 27 entrants. This year's voting will be a different. The seaweed plates will be set up in the elder's room at Centennial Hall. Elders can vote for their favorite varieties if they choose. Votes will be
tallied on Friday morning.
All entries are due to Sealaska Heritage by 4:30 p.m. Thursday, June 3. First place wins $500; second place earns $250 and third brings $100.
Kato dries seaweed on bed sheets in the sun on a deck on her porch. She fills gunnysacks with 35 gallons of seaweed or more.
"Sometimes it takes me a week and a half to dry it when it's raining; on a good sunny day it takes a day," Kato said. "You have to separate it, or it will clump together. It's fluffy when it's wet. If you lay it out just right, then it dries just right, and you can flip it over in sections."
Kato often fries seaweed in a skillet on low heat and serves it alongside fish salad, a combination of mayonnaise, celery, plain-packed salmon, salt, pickles, eggs, onion and rice.
The 2002 victory came in an exceptionally good year for Kato. She also won the Craig/Klawock King Salmon Derby with a 62.45-pound white king she snared near Elitka Island. She was fishing with her husband, Jack, on their 25th anniversary. That was her 13th derby. First place was approximately $1,549.
Sitka's Crystal Duncan, 22, a senior psychology major at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been picking seaweed with her family since she was about 8 years old. Her father's skiff is usually full with up to eight or nine people on their annual May runs to a set of rocks about 30 minutes from Sitka and near the ocean. This is the first year she hasn't gone. Since enrolling at UAF, she's usually gone back to Sitka in time to make it for the annual harvest. This year she had to work in Fairbanks.
"My mom and dad (Pauline and Albert Duncan) have the eye for it, they've been going out for so long," Duncan said. "They just make sure it's a certain length. The longer it is, the easer it is to pick. If it's green, then it's old, and it's not any good."
In 2002, Duncan's mom urged her and her sister, Melonie Boord, to enter the contest. All three did.
"The funny thing is my mom and I both went out picking the same day, and we dried it at the same time, and so for the most part, it should have tasted the same. My sister used jalapeno peppers that year. She mixed them up and ground it up. She didn't know why she didn't win. I guess people like the traditional seaweed."
Albert Duncan made framed boards, raised slightly off the ground, for drying sweaeed. The Duncans place the boards all around their house.
"It's an all-day job, where you're going out there every half-hour to turn the seaweed to make sure the bottom gets as dry as the top," Crystal said. "When it's dry enough, you can grind it. If you grind it up too early, it gets sharp and it hurts to tear it apart."
Traditionally, Duncan gathers about 70 gallons of seaweed. But ironically, she's never eaten seaweed. She doesn't eat anything from the sea.
She sells her seaweed to locals who can't gather their own or who don't know where to go for the best picking.
Tina Martin earned an honorable mention from a harvest near George's Island, on the outer coast.
"You want it before it gets too long, when it's still young, before it starts getting white at the tips," said Martin, a Hoonah resident for 32 years and a site manager for Catholic Community Services. "It's probably about 6-, 7-, 8-inches long. You can tell the seawed from the other, because it glitters on the beach when it's wet."
Like Kato and Duncan, Martin doesn't add anything to her seaweed. She lays it out on sheets, cleaning out any rocks and shells and turning the strips as it dries out. She runs it through a grinder, fine enough to dice it into hamburger-size chunks. Then she lays it out again to dry. With sunny weather, it may take just a day.
Martin usually stores 20 gallons of seaweed or more in Ziploc bags. She often serves boil fish - a stew of cubed fish, potatoes and onions - on her black seaweed.
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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