Fiddle Heads and Bracken

Tales of Vashon

Dogfish.. Ugly as they are, were once considered worthy of low level individual commercial fishing in the Sound. According to John’s grandfather, dogfish were actually canned and sold in the area during WWII under the name ‘Silver Cod’.   Likely the only market for this was the Scandinavian stronghold of Winslow on Bainbridge.

While dogfish are loggy and slow when caught on the line, once landed out of the water and in the boat, they thrash around and wrap themselves in  line and gear, all the while trying to stick you with the hidden poisonous spine behind the dorsal fin.

Uncle Jim raised chickens on Tramp Harbor at Portage and rowed to Tacoma once a week to sell their eggs.  On the side, he fished for dogfish in the 1940’s for their livers, which were made into a substitute for cod liver oil, their bodies making prime garden fertilizer because like sting rays the flesh had a large amount of ammonia, which made them difficult to prepare as food, although somehow the Swedes and Norwegians managed to do a respectful job of making them edible.

Bobby Millard once showed me his garden where the rows of peas were two feet higher where the dog fish had been buried.

Uncle Jim wasn’t careful enough one day and a big four foot dogfish nailed him in the leg.  Since his Father was a doctor from Denmark, the leg was treated at home until the blood poisoning could be seen moving up his leg in red streaks.  Uncle Jim nearly lost his leg over that move.

Poison ivy and poison Oak were thick among the giant Madrona trees at the head of inner Quartermaster and chasing after a miss-thrown baseball or throwing the ball into the ivy on purpose and laughing at the cousin who fell for it was grounds for punishment.  Poison ivy and jelly fish stings were similar in the little red bumps and pain and itching they produced.  The redder the jellyfish and the longer his red streamers created such pain that it could send a little kid screaming as he ran around the house naked, only increasing the spread of the poison until his whole body was red with little bumps and his mother took him to Dr. Osborne who gave him an antihistamine which killed the stinging in 30 minutes.

If one of us got the measles or chicken pox, the patient was restricted to their bedroom and all their dishes and utensils were washed and stored separately, lest the disease be passed to a sibling; which happened commonly, whatever precautions were taken to prevent it.

Anything that was dangerous held our interest.  Down below the rose garden, where the brush got thick, Brother Mike showed me a long green vine winding its way about four feet off the ground.  There was green fruit hanging on the vine, about the size of a large pear.  I cut the fruit apart and found large white seeds.  I brought it home to show to Dad, who told us never to touch the Wild Cucumber again as it was deadly poisonous, which he knew having grown up on Vashon. You can find these vines today over on the East side of Maury.

Boy, were we proud, knowing how to deal with nettle stings which were probably our most common problem, spending most of our spare time in the woods, swinging on the ivy in Bradley’s canyon or similar common pursuits over 20 or 30 acres, disregarding the neighbor’s property lines. There were nettle wars in which bundles of nettles were used as swords for a few moments until they broke apart, usually causing more damage to the sword wielder than to the proposed victim. Our simple solution to the stinging welts caused by the nettle was to quickly pull the short fiddleheads that would grow into the tall bracken fern and to rub the juicy stalks over the wound and provide near instant relief from the stinging nettle.  The older bracken wouldn’t provide the same relief due to the lack of the healing juices of the “fiddle head.”

Later in the season as the ferns hardened, they were used as ‘swords’ in pitched but short lived battles.   Battles lasted about three or four ‘whacks’ and then even the hardened ferns were broken.