Suzanne’s Blog: The Search for Salt – Takhini Salt Flats

Takhini Salt Flats, Photo by Bruce Bennett.

I continue to search for a local option for salt in my community of Dawson which is nowhere near the sea.  I haven’t yet had to resort to collecting the sweat off Gerard’s back as he chops wood.

Illustration by Chris Healey 

So far coltsfoot ash has been the most surprising result – a wild plant whose bland tasting leaves magically transform into a salty ash after they are dried and burned.  Dried celery leaves have been my go-to salt substitute – adding a mineral rich flavour to all things savoury.

spoonful_of_coltsfoot_ash
celery-leaves

Coltsfoot ash (left), and celery leaves. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.

I am still researching the possibility of harvesting salt from local animal mineral licks.  In the meantime, the Takhini Salt Flats came onto my radar – an endangered ecosystem that occurs in a small pocket of the Yukon a short drive from Whitehorse. This ecosystem is so unique that it is not even found in nearby Alaska. The Flats are not close enough to Dawson to be considered an option for my year of eating local.  But it did inspire me to question if the salt from Takhini Salt Flats would be suitable for human consumption.  I contacted Bruce Bennett, Coordinator of the Yukon Conservation Data Centre, at Environment Yukon to find out more.

And the more I learned about the Takhini Salt Flats, the more fascinated I became – unique plants that can be watered with salt water, ancient arctic ground squirrel cloaks from the Beringia Era, and inland ponds of shrimp!  Read on and I will share some of the fascinating information I have learned about the Takhini Salt Flats.

Takhini Salt Flats is considered an athalassic salt flat which means the salt does not come from the sea.  Instead, with a mountain range close by, the salt comes from silt from glacial lakes. Areas of permafrost prevent the water from soaking into the ground and there are no outlets to take the water to nearby rivers. So the water gradually evaporates leaving salt crystals on its surface.

Besides being very salty, the ground at Takhini Salt Flats is also very alkaline with pH values between 8.5 to 9.5. For both these reasons, most plants will not grow there.  However there are some unique salt and alkali loving plants that flourish, many of which give the salt flats its distinctive red hue.  And some of these plants are also edible.

One such edible red plant, that does not grow elsewhere in the Yukon, is Sea Asparagus or Arctic Glasswort (of the Salicornia family).   Too bad it doesn’t grow near Dawson.   Apparently, the young shoots taste salty and are rich in calcium, iron, Vitamin B and C and are exceptionally high in Vitamin A.

Another fascinating edible plant at Takhini Salt Flats is Salt Water Cress (Arabidopsis salsuginea) part of the mustard family and a relative of canola.  Salt Water Cress, is a ‘super plant’  – you could water it with sea water and it would grow! And it will survive freezing, drought and nitrogen deficiency!  It used to be common throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan but is now virtually non-existent in those areas due to agriculture and housing developments.

Chenopodium (the Goosefoot family) is related to quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa).  The two most common Chenopodium in the Yukon are Lamb’s Quarter (Chenopodium album) and Strawberry Blite (Chenopodium  capitatum) – both edible.  (I ate a lot of both while foraging last summer and Fall!) However there is a rare Chenopodium, Chenopodium salinium, that dates back to the Beringia Era, that can still be found at Takhini Salt Flats.  Chenopodium salinium pollen, which is preserved by freezing, helps archeologists date artifacts uncovered by melting permafrost in the North.

The remains of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi , Long Ago Person Found, was discovered in 1999 by sheep hunters on Champagne and Aishihik First Nations territory in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park in British Columbia near Haines Junction, Yukon.  His remains were found as well as his walking stick, a spruce root hat, a small bag made of beaver skins and a fur cloak made out of arctic ground squirrel pelts.    A high portion of preserved Chenopodium salinium pollen was found on the fur of the cloak and that clue showed that he had visited alkaline flats and helped date Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi to around 1700 AD.

Arctic ground squirrel cloaks were worn ceremonially by indigenous people long ago and traditional trails can still be found in the Takhini Salt Flats which would have been used by indigenous hunters over 700 years ago. The Takhini Salt Flats were a natural grassland for arctic ground squirrels because the high salinity of the soil prevents forests from taking over.   Although, for unknown reasons they died out for a time, Arctic ground squirrels are now starting to return to the Takhini Salt Flats.

One would expect to have to go to the ocean to find shrimp.  Not so!  Several varieties of shrimp live in the inland ponds of the Takhini Salt Flats. One such variety is the Fairy Shrimp.   Fairy Shrimp are the Sea Monkeys that many of us remember from our childhood!  Many migratory shore birds come to the Takhini Salt Flats for a shrimp feast.

But I digress.   What about the salt?

Salt-encrusted stump. Photo by Bruce Bennett.

The salt itself is mainly in the form of mirabilite (Na2SO4·10H2O – also known as Glauber’s salt) and thenardite (Na2SO4).  There is about 5% sodium chloride (NaCl) which is what we eat as table salt, but there is no easy way to separate out the NaCl from the mirabilite and thenardite.  Mirabilite and thenardite are used by the chemical industry to make soda and also used in glass making.  Mirabilite is also used in Chinese medicine and thernardite is also used in the paper industry.

My conclusion?   Even if I did live closer to the Takhini Salt Flats, I’m not sure it would be safe to be sprinkling this salt on my food.   Although I would certainly be taste testing the edible plants that grow there.

Regardless, Takhini Salt Flats is a fascinating place to visit.  If you are in the area, Bruce Bennett gives tours of every August.  Details can be found at Yukon Environments Wildlife Viewing Program.

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