As a world traveler, I’ve come to accept that every beautiful place has a certain degree of danger that coexists with its wonders. An ordinary camping trip or backcountry adventure in the Pacific Northwest could easily turn into a battle between life and death because of the simple act of picking and eating the wrong berry, mushroom or flower.
For years, I’ve been frustrated by bad or misleading references for identifying trees and plants. Photos of plants, berries, flowers and trees are sometimes inaccurate or of poor quality. Sketches from old books show the bark of a tree but not the leaves— or the leaves but not the bark, which is useless in fall and winter, when leaves are scarce. Some books and field guides have only one photo of the tree, plant or flower in full bloom during their showiest time of the year. However, as a person studying plant and tree identification to aid in foraging, this can go beyond frustrating and approach dangerous. My journey down this path has become—like anything else I aspire to master—a lifelong study, with no graduation day!
The information here is the smallest drop in the ocean of data on plant, tree and berry identification, but it’s a good drop. It pertains to the most common, easy-to-identify, yet useful, items found in the Pacific Northwest, as well as many parts of the northern forests of Scandinavia and Russia. Most of this information will pertain to materials that can be used for fire, shelter and camp crafts because, for me, food is the lowest priority in a survival situation.
That said, there are many natural “snacks” on the vine that don’t require hunting or trapping and can supplement your supplies and onboard reserves.
Black cottonwood in the wild usually grows in groups and soars to 150 feet tall. These trees are most readily identified by their deeply scored bark and the cotton that emerges from their seed pods in the summer. Sometimes, enough of the cotton takes flight that the ground looks like it has been dusted with fresh snow. The bark of this particular tree gets so hard that it can cause sparks when cut with a chainsaw.
I first became familiar with this tree through one of my favorite bushcraft books by famed boreal forest guru, Mors Kochanski: Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival. It is commonly known as black poplar, but it is very different from the tulip poplar, found on the U.S. East Coast.
I remember walking around Skagway, Alaska, when there was a certain white wispiness in the air. The trails and walkways were full of this white, cotton-like fluff. Naturally, I gathered up a handful and put it in a dry place to test it later with a ferrocerium rod. Not surprisingly, it ignited with a spark. Cottonwood is not only soft enough to carve, it also has the ability to aid in fire-making. However, like most tinders in a wet environment, it is at its worst when wet. Much like cattail fluff, cottonwood fluff is a flash burn, so if used as the only tinder available, be prepared and have your fire lay set up beforehand.
In my opinion, when it comes to a multi-use tree, birch takes the cake. From building canoes, knife sheaths, knife handles, bowls, cups and utensils to making birch oil, the birch’s wood and bark have proven to be highly useful.
Birch wood is considered a hardwood—but on the soft side of the scale. Leaves are triangular to broadly oval and doubly toothed, with shiny, dark-green tops and light-yellowish-green with tiny dots underneath. It is deciduous and most recognized for its white, flaky bark that often peels in large, paper-like strips. The wood makes an excellent heating source, and the bark will readily burn, even when wet.
From a camping or survival position, the gem of this tree is the bark. It truly is the best type of tinder one could ask for in a wet or dry environment. I have used wet birch bark to slowly feed a fire, as well as to catch the initial spark of a ferrocerium rod. It peels like thin paper; and, the thinner the bark, the better it is for tinder. The wood is clean burning and fairly easy to split. However, I don’t think I have ever needed to do so in Alaska.
Yet another multi-use tree, alder is used to smoke salmon in Alaska and is a good wood for making camp. Much like willow, alder can be used for making cooking utensils and anything requiring stout, green wood. I have made stakes, digging sticks and tongs for flipping and rescuing food that falls into the fire. I made two Burtonsville Rigs for heating up water over a campfire with alder wood.
From the birch family, alders are found in California up to Canada and Alaska. Alders are deciduous, and the leaves are alternate, simple and serrated. In the Pacific Northwest, white alders are commonly found near streams, rivers and wetlands.
Novices often mistake alders for birch trees due to their similar catkins (seed clusters). Like all green wood, alder resists heat well and is easy to carve. When alder wood is dry, it is one of the best woods for kindling and is soft enough to shave down to thin fuzz sticks to use as tinder for a ferrocerium rod. As fuel, it remains the top wood for smoking meat in Alaska.
These cone-bearing seed plants are mostly trees (although some are shrubs). Typical examples include cedars, cypresses, firs, junipers, kauris, larches, pines, redwoods, spruces and yews. Alaska has most of these. These standout trees are easy to identify, are abundant and very useful in wilderness applications.
For shelter-building and fire-making, hemlock yields many resources. The large, panel-like boughs provide a lot of coverage, like an umbrella. For a shelter, unlike pines and spruce, hemlocks have flat needles that shed water much easier and with less material than other trees. The coverage that hemlock provides leaves a nice, dry spot underneath the tree’s canopy—devoid of water and snow. This is a good place to take emergency refuge. Also, it blocks sun from the lower, smaller branches; they die yet stay on the tree—a perfect example of “standing deadwood.” In addition, these thin, dry twigs are the perfect materials for kindling.
Spruce trees include white, black and Sitka. All of these, along with the hemlock (not to be confused with poison hemlock, which is an invasive plant), can be used to make a tea high in vitamin C. I favor the taste of spruce and pine tea more than hemlock.
The wood from conifers is great for kindling to start a fire; however, because all of it is very low on the BTU scale, it takes a lot and is considered “spit-fire wood.” This can be dangerous and harmful to us—and the forest—because the embers shoot out at great distances and get carried in the wind.
Balsam fir is another great “fire tree.” This means that it yields resinous blisters that aid in fire acceleration (and it also acts as an antiseptic for cuts and burns). I use lichen to soak up the resin and wrap both in a leaf. Resin dries hard and is easily added to a fire to really give it more burn time. It can also be added to cotton fluff from a cottonwood tree, which is usually not too far away in late July and August.
To tell spruce and fir trees apart, it helps to know that spruce needles are sharply pointed, square and easy to roll between your fingers. Fir needles, on the other hand, are softer, flat and cannot be rolled between your fingers. The easiest way to tell them apart from a distance would be that spruce cones hang down from branches, while fir cones sit on them, pointing upward.
Blueberries and salmonberries are plentiful during the later summer months. Black velvet gooseberries are also good but not as common. Salmonberries are often found on the sides of trails, roads and walkways, as well as moist coastal forests, stream sides, bogs and shorelines. They form large thickets in open areas and thrive in open spaces. The berry resembles a large, shiny-yellow/orange-red blackberry and is easy to identify by its flower, which features five pinkish-purple petals. Even when not completely ripe, they have a good taste. Blueberries are low-growing shrubs that grow in tundra, open woods, old burn areas, above the timberline and in low-lying bogs.
The Alaska berry-picking season is anywhere from July to late September. Salmon- and blueberries are safe and easy to identify. A few more berries to mention are cloudberries, bunchberries, currant and wild raspberries. However, the aforementioned berries are more plentiful and easier to identify.
I think only of tinder for a fire when collecting lichen. Old-man’s beard and horsehair lichen are easy to find—with zero effort. Green and dark-brownish to black, lichen hangs from branches and can easily be harvested and stored in a dry place to catch a spark for a fire.
Lichen is often combined with resin to assure getting a fire burning fast. When using it as tinder, lichen can be further dried out by rolling it between your hands: The friction will help heat up and dry out the thin material if it is slightly damp. As with most natural tinder, lichen is at its worst when wet, which seems to be when we need it most!
“An ordinary camping trip or backcountry adventure in the Pacific Northwest could easily turn into a battle between life and death because of the simple act of picking and eating the wrong berry, mushroom or flower.”
Beautiful things catch our attention. There is a natural curiosity that draws us to bright, colorful things. It is natural to want to venture toward a blue waterfall, colorful patch of flowers, berries and fruit on a tree. We want to reach for them—and we often do.
While not all amanitas are toxic, several are notably so. The genus the amanita mushrooms (or “Death Cap”) belong to is responsible for 95 percent of mushroom poisonings. In fact, experts avoid eating any of them, because identification is so difficult. Even if consumption is followed by immediate hospitalization afterward, someone who eats some amanita mushrooms stands about a 10 percent chance of perishing and might require an organ transplant. If a person waits more than 60 hours, the possibility of mortality jumps significantly to approximately 90 percent and, even if they survive, they are often disabled for the remainder of their lives. (Still, amanita is, by far, the most attractive mushroom I have seen in the forest.)
With visual appeal similar to attractive mushrooms, berries require a few rules to go by—and some rules that contradict them as well. This makes it risky business when it comes to sampling.
A few years ago, while in Skagway, I felt I was getting a good grasp on my tree, plant and berry identification. The months of July and August are when everything has “come to the table,” so to speak. Enjoying wild blueberries, salmonberries and black velvet gooseberries gave me a feeling as if I were on a roll.
“ … there are many natural ‘snacks’ on the vine that don’t require hunting or trapping and can supplement your supplies and onboard reserves.”
Then, I came across a red berry that, surprisingly, was still on the branches when most of the “good berries” were becoming scarce because of harvesting by hikers and local wildlife. I picked a small amount and decided to just try one before changing my mind. But, after further investigating, they turned out to be red baneberries—the most infamous poisonous berry in Alaska. And, because they taste so bitter, people often spit baneberries out before swallowing them. Nevertheless, if they are ingested, symptoms include stomach cramps, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, delirium and circulatory failure. In fact, eating six or more berries can result in respiratory distress and cardiac arrest.
Trial and Error
Getting into plant and tree identification is a good way to spend time in the forest. Many small, waterproof field guides and phone apps are available for identifying plants and trees in the wild. Take pictures to compare what you find to other sources, and you will be more likely to recognize useful—and deadly—species more accurately.
In Alaska, two types of moss really shine for our purposes: Sphagnum and caribou moss seem to be the most useful for wilderness camp and survival needs. Sphagnum moss can be peeled off large boulders easily. It forms a cushiony “bog mat” that even floats. It can be used as insulation and bedding for a pole bed or on the ground. In its green, damp stage, it is an amazing way to steam veggies by wrapping them up in the moss and placing the assembly over hot coals. The moisture rises and cooks (even hard carrots) thoroughly. Its absorbent qualities make it ideal to clean and dry camp cookware.
Caribou moss is soft and fluffy but dries fast when plucked from the ground. It makes an excellent scouring pad for cleaning cookware. When it dries out, it catches a good spark for fire-making. It is also known as reindeer moss in other parts of the North American forests as far south as Alabama.
Uses for resin taken from conifer trees are numerous. You’ll often see trees ooze resin when they get damaged, much like a scab. The resin has antibacterial properties that prevent the damaged tree from getting infected. The same goes for humans, because resin can be used on cuts and burns in the field. Additionally, pitch glue can be made to provide strong waterproofing for crafts, shoes and tools. The waxy resin can even be used as a temporary filling for a tooth.
Resin, in its hard state, can be added to a flame to accelerate and prolong a fire. When it is gummy and more on the liquid side, it can be collected, along with other combustible materials (such as lichen, cottonwood fluff and shredded cedar bark), and wrapped in any leaf that will keep the resin from getting on everything in your kit. When needed, it can be added to a small flame to really take your fire to the next level.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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