Seth Kantner: Tinnik berries, 'tundra caviar,' are hard to find but worth the search

Around AlaskaOctober 11, 2013 

KOTZEBUE -- I've been sitting at our table, pulling stems off tinnik berries, pouring small handfuls out of my palm into jars of rendered bear fat. I have meat to dry and tons of other work to do, but I don't want to do any of it and can't take my hands off these beautiful berries.

Outside, it's gray and windy, rain slopping down, melting the ice that has formed across the lagoon. Inside my head is pretty much all gray, too. I'm grumpy and unsettled, restless as hell, swearing at everything. Beside me this godforsaken iPhone is no substitute for anything. I knew I wasn't done with the tundra when I came downriver; I'd had way too few days being with caribou. I'd waited a month and got lonely for them, hungry for them -- a strange combination, I know, but what can I say? For some of us tundra offspring, these animals are both meals and lifelong companions.

It's never easy to let go of summer and fall, all that sun and water, floating sea ice and salmon fishing, all the trails followed, rivers boated and tundra roamed, followed by the intense colors and smells of autumn, herds of caribou pouring down from the mountains, big brown bears out there roaming -- and me near them. It's always hard for me to put my boots away and let go of a season.

Soon, travel on the ice will be great too, and by late May I won't want to come back downriver again, or say goodbye to snow or my snowgo either. But that season is not quite here yet.

The phone rings and a friend asks what I'm doing. I flick to speakerphone. I'm in a bad mood and uncaring of modern English innuendo. "Frigging stuck in town," I growl, "fondling my berries."

In my palm the berries are plump and dry, cold out of the freezer, perfect reddish-orange beads. I love these bitter, starchy little berries that taste unpleasant before they've spent time in oil; I recognize in my hands a smaller version of that same indescribable connection -- the one I feel for caribou. To understand this addiction, maybe you have to know tinniks and some of my history.

Out on this land, they are hard to find. Often I walk five or 10 miles per dozen berries -- if I'm lucky. I've found a few along the Noatak (notice how vague I am about exactly where?) and a handful on the flanks of Knap Creek mountains. I've found two or three of these red berries along Paungaqtaugruk bluff on the Kobuk and five or six in the sand blowouts across from Hunt River. Why I search so relentlessly is beyond explanation or rational accounting; nothing in my life is more inefficient, nothing so much work for so little -- except writing, of course.

These past decades are a kaleidoscope; I remember only flashes from most days. But I remember my first tinnik. I was 4 or 5 years old, and my family was eating lunch with Minnie Gray in Ambler, I think; eating quaq fish and seal oil. In the bottom of the jar of yellow seal oil were the tired ropes of rendered blubber, and brown things like sections of miniature firewood, little roots called "masru" (Eskimo potato). I always liked masru and I remember my mom tilting the jar, peering in and poking one with a knife. Along came a tiny, reddish-brown, dilapidated berry. I popped the oily thing in my mouth. It was small and seedy but distantly sweet -- and so good. I haven't ever forgotten that berry.

At some point I remember eating Eskimo food with Keith and Anore Jones and Keith explaining that tinniks were valuable because they were good and so hard to find. After that it made sense why my family never had them. We ate dried fish and seal oil every day for lunch but we didn't bother with food so hard to come by.

Later, Merrill Morena told me the best place to find tinniks was at the sand dunes. He had been raised around where I grew up and taught by Billy Strong to fish and trap muskrat across south to Ahnewetut Lake and toward the dunes.

I remember when I was a teenager, Minnie and some of the Ambler ladies used to charter by Cessna with Dan Denslow and Dave Rue to land on the dunes and pick those berries in the trees along the edges of the sand.

In my early 20s, one fall after the ice was running huge pans, Stacey and I boated downriver to the mouth of the sand dunes creek with Clarence Wood. I'll never forget that terribly cold ride and him smoking a cigarette, stoically plowing through immense sheets of ice -- ice chunks clattering and sailing away beside us across solid ice -- and wondering if the river would seize up before we made it home.

Clarence was tough as nails, a relentless walker, scary fast. The dunes a few miles in from the Kobuk, through willows and rolling ridges carpeted with an enchanted forest of lichens and spread-out birches, aspens and spruce, was a perfect place to get lost. Stacey was slow. I was in the middle, struggling to keep him in sight, turning back to hurry her along, then racing ahead to locate his moving form, lanky legs disappearing over the next knoll.

Tinniks saved me. Clarence had a plastic bag in one hand. Each time he came to a patch of the plants, he couldn't pass up poking around for those random red berries. He had to kneel down on the frozen ground and pick a few and then we could almost catch up.

He ended up with half a gallon. Stacey and I got less than half that, a few pocketfuls, but it was the right year. I had shot a grizzly bear with gallons of fat on him and we rendered enough for pies all winter and still more to soak those berries in. From then on, I always wanted bear fat and tinniks to dip my daily dried caribou in.

For decades I've searched other areas. That food addiction just keeps growing. A few springs ago, I was flown to Tok to teach a writing camp for school kids. While I waited for a ride to Tanacross, I strolled in the trees. There I spotted amazing berries, melting out of the snow. I filled the pockets of my jacket. Later, at the school, I found the first woman who looked Native and asked her if people there ate those berries. At first she assumed I was some crazy mumbling white guy, and weird, but suddenly she nodded and smiled. "Oh, yeah. We put them in moose fat," she said. Right then I knew I needed friends in that part of Alaska.

This fall, as always, I roamed ridges and hills. After the rain raised the river, I boated up Niaktuvik creek. I remembered Merrill, cutting trees that blocked passage up Ahnewetut creek, and in his honor I took along my chain saw. But no deadfalls stopped me and I didn't need the saw after all.

Many bends up, I anchored and walked west. The conditions looked right but there was no elevation gain, and in the lichen forest and maze of game trails I grew worried about finding my way back to the right curve in the slough, to my boat. I cut little spruce boughs to mark my trail. After a few hours I'd found only 20 berries. I started wondering, would Scott MacManus in Tok mind picking me a few handfuls again this fall?

But still, I had secrets up my sleeve. A friend formerly from Ambler, Linnea Wik, had promised to find me some in Fairbanks. And I'd been invited by Arctic Wild guide and owner Bill Mohrwinkel to the sand dunes, where the BBC planned to film caribou.

The first day on the dunes, I led the cameraman and the producer, Toby Strong and Felicity Lanchester, and NPS archaeologist Jon Hardes, on a hike along the head of Niaktuvik creek and across the tip of the dunes. I had their heavy tripod on my back. We hoped to spot caribou, or a bear or wolf or any animal. We did pass fresh tracks but the only animal we saw was a dead mouse, found by Jon. I wasn't too impressed with my alleged abilities and started wishing I'd been the one to spot the mouse.

Near the east side, suddenly under my feet was the best patch of tinnik berries I'd seen since that walk with Clarence 25 years ago.

"Look!" I said. "These berries ... These are, uh ... They're really rare and valuable!"

I dropped to my knees. They all stopped and for a few minutes helped me pick a pocketful. Felicity was 24 weeks pregnant and leaned on her elbow. Toby moved around more and managed to lose his iPhone in the process. (I found it for him later.) We didn't pause long -- I knew they had spent thousands of dollars and traveled across the globe to film here -- but still, it was tough to move on.

A few days later, my friend Bill was along when the same thing happened. "Oh, geez, look at this!" he joked in disgust. "Seth's got the BBC picking berries for him!"

Nights after that, while everyone slept in their tents, I sneaked out and picked those berries in the dark by headlamp. It was cold and frosty and I worried that the crew would think I was a bear roaming in the dark. I sort of expected to meet a bear myself, doing the same thing I was. But I couldn't help myself. What can I say? It may be a modern and iPhoney world but those little berries remain valuable to me.


Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

 

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