By Janelle Eklund
Vast rolling alpine meadows create a kaleidoscope of colorful plants during summers reign. The Copper Basin is like a gigantic basin with four mountain ranges making up its sides - Alaska, Wrangell, Chugach, and Talkeetna. The high alpine slopes of these mountains are painted with a summer collage that can take your breath away. Standing in one of these meadows affords one a most joyful experience. Many colors, many different plants, all with exuberant cheerful faces.
Cassiope tetragona grows low to the ground, appearing like a mat on the tundra floor with its thick sturdy leaf stems somewhat resembling scales. Close to the top of each scaly leaf branch emerge at least two red to yellow stems with white bell shaped bonnets on the end. Nodding in the breeze they seem to be singing the Hallelujah chorus.
One summer we drove the Dempster Highway to Inuvik in Canada's Northwest Territories. This area is part of the circumpolar region and houses many of the same plants we see here in our alpine areas. While there we visited the Inuvialuit Arts and Crafts Shop where I found a wonderful book - Inuvialuit Nautchiangit Relationships Between People and Plants. It says that these native people have used Cassiope tetragona for several different comforts. They usually use driftwood for their fires but if they walk inland where there are no trees, Cassiope has been utilized. It has a high content of resin making it a dry plant and therefore excellent 'firewood'. Because of this high resin content it still burns in wet conditions. In early times these natives have even dug under the snow to access it in winter. They were careful to cut the stems only, leaving the roots for more to grow.
Long ago they used this plant for heating their homes and cooking meals. If driftwood was not available they used it to smoke their meat or fish - mainly to keep the flies away as it doesn't add any flavor. They have harvested the plant on the open tundra for flooring and bedding. It made a soft mattress with the addition of a sealskin on top or as stuffing in-between two seal skins sewn together, providing a layer of insulation and warmth with an added bonus of a pleasant scent.
The stems of Cassiope were placed on a hot stove surface to emit a nice incense that helped take the odor out of tents and snow houses. Smoldering small pieces of dried stem can deter insects. The plant will also give a pleasant scent in its fresh state rubbed between the palms of the hands.
Immerse yourself in the splendor and joy of plants.
From my light to yours-
References: Inuvialuit Nautchiangit relationships between people and plants, by Inuvialuit elders with Robert W. Bandringa
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.