Dulse Wildcrafting with Devotional Love: John Banks of White Head Island
“This is about as far out in the North Atlantic you can get.” John Banks, a man as solid, compact, and full of life as the little granite island he lives on, gestured at the clean, cold waves striking the ocean side of White Head Island. “This must rank with the cleanest dulse harvesting areas in the world.”
Located in the Gulf of Maine at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, White Head Island is washed by the waters of the open North Atlantic, yet enjoys the prolific growth of dulse encouraged by the 30-foot tidal sweep created by the huge, funnel-shaped bay, which separates New Brunswick from Nova Scotia, Canada.
On the Fall Equinox, 2006, John Banks had ruby-red dulse spread to dry on clean beach rocks right next to the high tide mark. A variety of sea birds wheeled, swam and dove in the sea, observed by an Audubon Society group who had taken two ferries to this remote island, famous for prolific bird life.
“The wind dries the dulse as much as does the sun,” John Banks explained.
John Banks was raised on White Head Island, part of a tiny, isolated little island universe dominated, at least geographically, by Grand Manan Island. Grand Manan still calls itself the “Dulse Capital of the World,” and the dulse industry here dates back at least two hundred years.
The heart of the market for this rust-red to ruby-red sea vegetable with the salty, bacon-like taste is old families in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, to whom dried dulse is a basic survival food shown to early European settlers by the local Passamaquoddy Indians and other coastal tribes.
At the age of fifteen, John Banks began going with Jewett Robinson to harvest the dulse, which grows in the remote crevices and coves on and around the southern exposure of White Head Island. Venturing forth into the temperamental Atlantic in a small outboard vessel, Jewett Robinson would land with John Banks at the secret little “homes” where dulse blooms reappear, year after year, each at its own time during the picking season, which runs from May until November.
John Banks showed us the modest, one-story spruce-frame house still on solid foundation next to the sea, its whitewash gone gray with time and spray. “Jewett Robinson lived there all his life, with his sister. He was a very methodical harvester, picking each area by section in a way that encouraged a healthy second growth. A lifelong dulse picker, he died with his harvest boots lined up and ready to go.”
This season John Banks has been going out in his patched-up, high-sided, fifteen-foot boat, picking dulse from rocky landings in a ten-mile radius of sea. “I stay close to shore and love working in harmony with wind, wave and weather,” he said. “I’m picking the highest-quality rock dulse, loading it in plastic buckets with holes, and landing it right on the rocks where I dry it.”
John showed us his warehouse, a temperature- and humidity-controlled wooden structure where he practices the fine art of “slacking” the dulse, softening it by carefully controlled exposure to the natural humidity of the oceanside air. He had several cases of his finest lined up for shipment to the Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company.
Now John Banks is beginning to wildcraft and dry the wild nori which grows in the upper intertidal zone near where streams and springs enter the Bay of Fundy. This Nori is an amazingly black, tender and sweet variety of this protein-rich sea vegetable. White Head Island Nori soon will be offered in very limited quantity by the Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company.
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