A hefty brass bell hangs from a rafter in the middle of the Pioneer Bar. The P Bar, as everyone calls this down-home dive on Baranof Island about 90 miles southwest of Juneau, is a smokey haven for locals and fishermen.
And it could be worth your while to linger over your beer at the P Bar if you show up in March. That, more or less, is when the herring return to spawn in Sitka Sound.
In a few hours, a single commercial ship can score a catch worth $10,000 or more, and if you’re lucky, later that day a flush fisherman will stride up to that brass bell (or stagger from his seat at the bar), grab the knotted rope that dangles down and snap it to send a ringing tone across the room. Happy hell will break loose.
All bars here have bells and the rule is firmly upheld — a rung bell means everyone’s next drink is free — courtesy of the bell ringer, who could easily pick up a $500-plus tab.
While the free brew is a matter of chance, the herring are not. Each spring the ocean turns milky blue and green during the mass spawning. Minuscule yellow herring eggs are everywhere — clinging to driftwood and boats, washing up in lines along the shore, and eventually ending up in someone’s freezer.
With a bit of planning and a place to do some cooking, you can sample several of the native foods of Alaska’s Inside Passage and the main ingredients won’t cost you a dime. Timing is everything, so here are some monthly tips.
Herring eggs (mid March-early April)
"The first indication is you’ll see lots of whales and lots of sea lions, jumping in and out, and lots of birds sitting on the water," said Tammy Young, cultural resource coordinator at the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
The herring produce millions of eggs. Members of the Tlingit tribe secure hemlock branches to buoys to gather them in volume, but the tiny yellow globules stick to everything, including seaweed that washes up on the beach. (Technically, you need a free permit, but that’s up to you.)
Carefully pull them off and blanche them in hot water. Mix them with chopped onions, green pepper, cabbage and a mayonnaise or sour cream sauce of your choosing. Dollop on top of a salad or spread on bread, then follow the Tlingit’s lead and thank the herring.
Black seaweed (May)
Many kinds of seaweed fill the tidal waters around Sitka. Porphyra, a long, broad, brown leafy variety, is easy to spot and can be eaten fresh or dried. Walk out to a rock at low tide and cut off a few blades about a foot or more above the point where the main body anchors to the rock. Back in the kitchen, chop it and add to a salad, throw it in a vinegar-oil marinade or add it to a stir-fry.
Sea, beach asparagus (mid June-July)
This bright green vegetable adds a crunch to any dish. It grows at the top of ocean beaches, often in small patches, but locals can point you to places where it spreads out like a lawn. Bring a bag and a good cutting knife and cut the stalks about an inch above the ground.
Think of it as a thinner version of asparagus. If you catch it before it flowers, it’s tender enough to be eaten raw, but you can just as well steam or stir-fry it by itself, or throw it in with any dish where you might use celery, asparagus or green pepper.
The clams are large and plentiful, but it’s important to check with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s biotoxin lab. Harmful algal blooms can contaminate shellfish, and the lab provides weekly updates on safe locations to harvest.
That said, grab a shovel and a bucket and head out at low tide to dig for clams. Enjoy the amazing view of the waters around Sitka. Bring the clams back in water from the ocean where you found them, put a colander in the bucket and let them sit for a day to filter out the sand. Give a final rinse in freshwater and steam them right away.
Serve with garlic and butter or olive oil over linguine. Simple and exceptional.
(Follow the same drill for mussels, except leave the shovel behind.)
Salmon berries (July-August)
You can’t walk down a street in Sitka or very far along one of the trails that ring the town without seeing red and orange berries that look very much like raspberries. The plump ones are your best bet for a sweet pop of pleasure.
Sitka sits in a temperate rainforest, and on top of salmon berries, you’ll find blueberries, huckleberries and elderberries. Mixed berry desserts, fruit drinks, berries with yogurt, it’s your choice.
Jon Greenberg is a staff writer for PolitiFact. His daughter Amelia Greenberg works with the Sitka Tribe Association as an AmeriCorps volunteer.