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A Shock of Sea Kelp

In May, on the minus tides, I had my first breakfast of kelp. I hadn't thought of eating out on the beach, but there it was, a shock of sea lettuce, lime-green, wigging a rock at my feet. It was much greener than the long-distance produce in my refrigerator, and I hadn't eaten yet. I nibbled. It was salty, of course, and more slick than I was used to, the leaves sliding between jaws that now moved sideways. This was grazing indeed. The taste was pleasant, though; the mild crunch felt fresh. Next I tried bull kelp, the long tubular plant with a bulb and ribbonlike strands sprouting from its head.

I have long known they are edible, had even tried pickling them years before, but after the third failed batch, I decided that "edible" was a highly imprecise term. But here, now - I took a reckless bite of the ribbony hair. Slick again, but not slimy - an important distinction - and salty, slightly crisp with the raw flavor of ocean. It pleased me that that kelp should be so seasoned, that it should taste exactly like the smell of this beach.

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Our 30 head of cattle whose range includes this beach have known about the virtues and textures of kelp for years. They are grass-fed cows who eat grain about as often as I eat caviar. The lush summer grasses feed them fat, and winter growth keeps them healthy and glossy. But come an occasional heavy snowfall, they will weary of scraping the snow with their hooves and will file down to the beach as though on signal, and stand there in bunches slurping up kelp like spaghetti. I have seen deer, Sitka blacktailed, partake equally. One winter morning, both cattle and deer stood together, breaths fogging the air as they ground the sheets of kelp like fellow patrons of a fancy restaurant.

In the 19 years I have lived here on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, I have tasted other beach edibles, most of them reluctantly. One summer I ate chitons, gathered by a native friend from the next bay over who had eaten them growing up. My mother-in-law and I were presented with a bucket of the brown leathery disks and no other information, except the expectation that they would be the main course for lunch. We had already planned a hamburger pie, and lacking any other clue, and basically lacking courage, we ground them up and substituted the chitonburger for the hamburger. We ate it, politely.

I tried mussels one time (mushy). On a dare, I ate salmon eggs straight from the belly of a sockeye I had caught. And in a somewhat different category, but with the same motivation, I consumed a bologna sandwich that had sponged up fish guts from my fishing gloves. All this in my younger days, when such feats were accomplished for an audience, for admittance into the select club of the truly tough.

I did most of these things in the skiff, during long hours of salmon fishing. And it is there in the skiff that my long and checkered history with kelp begins. Like many others in Kodiak, I work in commercial fishing each summer. This is my 19th season. Our nets that catch fish also catch kelp - forests and bales of it, all kinds, and none of it moored. These are the vagrants, cut loose by storms, high tides, and other winnowing forks of nature.

After a particularly high tide, a 26-footer, our nets become trellised from corkline to leadline. The web, green as the water and once nearly invisible to passing fish, becomes solid as a billboard announcing: "Danger! This is a net. Swim around it!" As long as there is kelp in the net, we will not catch fish. Our job, then, is to pluck it out piece by bouquet by bunch by blade, until the net hangs clean in the water once more. In the hundreds of hours spent doing this, I do not recall any interest in the scientific name of each particular specimen, nor was I tempted to eat it. Nor did any aesthetic appreciation survive beyond the second hour. Simply put, kelp is the enemy.

I am reconciled with kelp now, though not by any significant expansion of my own consciousness. I am not fishing or picking it out of nets very much these days. Four young children and the job of keeping the shore-based operation functioning has stilled most of the voices that spoke so loudly in the skiff.

As I write this, the biggest tides of the year are coming up next week. The tide book reports tides of 24 and 25 feet and minus tides of -4.4, a -5.2, and the best, which is the least, a -5.6. It means harder work for fishing, the extra surge and pull on the nets and the hard harvest of weed. But for me, now, when the ocean so tilts away, it means a walk through the secret garden, the sudden bloom of neon greens, rust-reds, all shades of browns and yellows, each with the exotic fronds and grasses of its kind. I will bend and pick kelp again, but now to examine with a field guide, to name, perhaps even to eat.

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