If one were to travel north through Alaska, they would witness a variety of different environments. There’s the coastal environment with its sea life, large trees and rainy locales. There’s the mountainous environment of the Alaska Range, where tall peaks of ice and rock extend into the sky. The state’s Interior brings stunted spruce forests, rolling hills and frigid temperatures. Finally, in the northern most regions of the state, one encounters the Arctic. The land scoured by wind, cold, an overabundance or lack of sunlight and a low diversity of animals. Approximately, 115 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the tree line ends. This is an area that goes without sun for over a month each winter. It’s an area that regularly sees temperatures far below 0 degrees Fahrenheit for the majority of the year. The entire ground surface is frozen for most of the year and just a few inches beneath the surface, there is a layer that is always frozen, the permafrost. Despite all these hazards, there is still vegetative life that is able to grow. Reaching all the way up to this northernmost boundary is one of the most important species throughout Alaska’s history. The spruce tree.
It seems there is almost no limit to the multitude of ways in which one can use a spruce tree. Like all wood, it is versatile and available for many applications. On the winter trail a pile of its boughs provide an insulated mattress, protecting the sleeper from the cold ground and snow. In the past, Athabaskans ate the pitch, treating it as a candy (my own experience begs to differ). Roots can serve as cordage, binding together birch bark canoes, baskets and tools. If the trees are cut down, they can be cut into logs, which could be used to build a cabin, shed or raft. Bucking up the logs into rounds provides wood for splitting, offering a way to heat cabins and homes throughout the winter season. And finally, milling the logs creates boards, ideal for creating furniture or a sled, among other things.
While some subsistence activities have diminished over time as tourism and the modern western economy invade the north, the gathering of wood and use of spruce hasn’t changed. The tree still holds its importance. Walking down the road through the village of Wiseman, one can see the many ways its put to use. Most of the buildings are cabins made from spruce logs, cut from the surrounding area. In my neighbor’s yard, milled boards sit next to his woodpile (of spruce), waiting to be crafted into a sled. And most telling of all is the smoke that emanates from the chimneys and smells of burning spruce that waft through the village. As fall ends, the fire within the woodstove becomes a constant companion. The sign of smoke tells of those who have spent much time in the country, throughout its forests. Those that know the importance of the trees. Those that survive and thrive thanks to the spruce.