What do you do in Tsiigehtchic if you need a kombucha starter but you don’t have a car? You stick your thumb out or beg the townsfolk to drive you the two-and-a-half hours to Inuvik.
“Random, spontaneous trips is usually how that works out,” says Shelane Stuart, a schoolteacher, kombucha brewer, and budding herbalist. “‘Want to go to Inuvik?’ OK. Drop everything. Go.”
Brewing up a batch of kombucha—the bubbly, tasty, and nutritious fermented tea—isn’t foolproof, but it’s usually more a matter of patience than labour and travel. Take your starter (either pre-made kombucha or a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast known affectionately as a SCOBY) and add it to some tea and sugar, cover and let ferment for a week, pour out the tea, flavour with fruit, and wait for it to naturally carbonate.
Getting started is simple in bigger cities where bottled kombucha is sold in most corner stores. But it’s a little trickier in a town of under 200 just north of the Arctic Circle. So naturally, it’s heartbreaking when all that time and effort falls apart. The pH balance of Stuart’s first kombucha attempt, for instance, went screwy. She had to chuck the whole mouldy lot out and start from scratch.
“It was like a whole month’s investment. I had to figure out how to get back to Inuvik and get another bottle of kombucha,” she says with a sigh. “Northern problems.”
Thankfully, Stuart usually doesn’t have to travel so far to forage ingredients. Just steps away from her backyard are fields of rosehips, Labrador tea, yarrow, and other wild herbs perfect for making teas, tinctures, and medicines.
Inside her small apartment there’s soup on the stove and broccoli sprouts on the windowsill, soaking up the sun. Her sparse living room houses a squat rack and weight bench next to a homemade hydroponic tower of PVC pipes to grow her own veggies. (Stuart’s hoping to build a similar setup at school, where her students will be able to grow their own healthy snacks.) And in her kitchen there are mason jars and potion bottles of various tinctures, medicinals, and healthy concoctions made from foraged northern herbs—like rosehip oil, juniper cough medicine, even a kombucha vinaigrette salad dressing.
“I’m basically just trying to forage and propagate where I can, building up my medicine cabinet,” she says.
In Toronto, where she’s from, Stuart wasn’t much of a forager. Her herbal interest grew from the ground up after she came to the North two years ago to teach kindergarten at Tsiigehtchic’s lone school.
Gradually getting to know the community, and over tea with Elders, she learned about the profound respect Indigenous Northerners have for harvesting the medicine growing all around them. One local Elder even invited Stuart to her personal berry-picking patch; a high honour in the North.
“Since then, it’s just opened my eyes,” she says. “Really seeing every plant that’s around me as having a purpose.”
Stuart’s next project is transforming her kitchen waste into a compost system to feed future generations of plants. It’s all part of her passion for permaculture.
“The idea of ecosystems working together,” she says. “Closing the loop, closing the system, making sure there’s no waste.”
It’s a new idea, but also a very traditional one. Self-sufficiency is how people survived in the North for centuries, and even now it’s the best bet for moving past expensive and unhealthy foods shipped in from the south. All the ingredients are there for a healthy way of living.
Well, except for the worms to make compost. Those, Stuart says, she’ll need to order online. Hopefully pick-up won’t mean another hitchhiking trip to Inuvik but, if so, it’s doubtful she’ll mind. It’s just another kind of foraging.
“Harvesting is my jam.”