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Alaska Science Camps, Fairs & Experiments

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Spruce & Other RootsSpruce &
Spruce & Other RootsOther Roots


There are many traditional uses for spruce roots: birch baskets, canoes, fish traps, a variety of lashings and even whole baskets made of woven roots.


Look for a patch of smaller spruce trees 10-20' tall. They might even be among cottonwoods. The roots on very large spruce trees are often too deep to dig easily.

You can tell the quality and nature of the roots by the tree itself:


  • If the branches are brittle, the roots will be brittle and easy to break. Test the branches to see if the roots are strong.
  • If the tree has many branches like a Christmas tree, then the roots will tend to be short with many small branches. If the trunk of the tree is long and slim, the roots will tend to be the same way.
  • If the roots are too deep they are hard to dig.
  • If you can't tell spruce roots from cottonwood or other roots as they are entangled with each other in the soil, smell or taste them. They have the same distinct smell as the needles, branches, and bark of the spruce tree.
Spruce & Other Roots
Spruce & Other Roots

Oldtimers used a stick to dig roots.

Nowadays we use a carpenter 's framing hammer.

Spruce & Other Roots


Test the trees, then test the roots. Do you notice a connection between the toughness of the branches and the toughness of the roots?

Is there a connection between the configuration of the tree trunk and its roots? (Long vs. stubby with many branches)

  1. Spruce & Other RootsTry gathering roots with your hands, then
  2. Make a stick like the oldtimers.
  3. Try a framing hammer. Which method do you prefer? Some people gather the roots exposed on cutbanks. This is a very easy method, but the roots are too dry to clean unless gathered right after being exposed.

Cleaning the Roots

Cleaning the bark from the roots is easy or hard, depending on when they are gathered. If it is June or July, the bark comes off quite easily. Before or after June/July they peel with more difficulty, although cleaning is never the hardest part of the job. Digging the roots is the difficult part

1. Oldtimers used to chop a tree down that was 2"-3" in diameter, leaving the stump at least 12-18" above the ground. They split the stump with an axe, and cleaned the roots by pulling them through the crack in the stump. This works quite well, but the crack tends to plug requiring frequent cleaning.

Spruce & Other Roots

2. Another method is to split a stick, and tie the two pieces together on one end. Holding the stick together while the spruce roots are pulled between them cleans the bark from the roots. It is easy to clean the bark from the crack in the stick.

Spruce & Other Roots

3. Nowadays we pull the roots between the claws on a framing hammer. The bark peels easily from the roots. This seems to be the best method, as it cleans the roots quickly and is itself easy to clean. We use the same hammer to dig the roots. It is a two-in-one tool.

Spruce & Other Roots


Try cleaning roots gathered before, during, and after the June-July season. Is the difference noticeable?

Try the above three methods of cleaning roots. Which do you prefer? 

Willow and Cottonwood roots 

Cottonwood roots look good, but after they dry, the break by themselves. You can hear the popping noise as your basket comes apart. 

Willow roots are often good, but there are many different kinds of willows.

They can be gathered by pulling up willows on a sandbar, or collecting them as they hang from cutbanks. The only way to find a good place for roots is to try many different locations. Some are long, some short. Some are tough and some break easily. 

Spruce & Other RootsSplitting

Once the roots are gathered and cleaned, they also need to be split, as one end is thick and the other thin. The roots often have a natural indentation. Start the split there.

Spruce & Other RootsSplit the root down the middle as accurately as possible. When one side gets thicker than the other , bend the thick one. The stress on it will cause the fibers to split over towards the thinner side. The split is "steered" by bending or holding straight the both sides of the split. We usually hold one side of the split in our teeth. We split by feeling the roots, as it is hard to see what is going on. The rule is "Stress the fat one."

How thick or thin they need to be depends on the use. When we split a root into fourths, we do as shown on the left, not as on the right.

Spruce & Other Roots


Splitting willow branches is ver y similar to splitting spruce roots. We often let young people practice on willow branches as they are much easier to gather. Once they have mastered splitting, we let them do roots.


Some people split the roots first and then clean the bark from them by scraping with a knife. Try both methods:

1. clean then split, or

2. split then clean. Which is easier?

Compare the strength of spruce roots to those of willow and cottonwood. Do several tests with roots of similar size. In the past, people from different villages traded with each other. You might have to trade with other villages too.

Spruce & Other RootsCompare the strongest of these with modern materials like nylon and cotton. We split the straps used to wrap our groceries and use them for lashing. They split very easily and are incredibly tough.


We usually store roots coiled in small plastic bags in the refrigerator or freezer. This keeps them from drying out, although dry roots can be soaked in water and restored.


Bending the fibers in roots greatly weakens them. All knots and lashing should be done in a way that bends the fibers as little as possible.

Spruce & Other Roots


Ask the Elders which knots were used for different applications. Experiment with different knots in those applications. Which knots work best for you?

Planning ahead

It is impossible to get roots in wintertime. The wise basketmaker gets an adequate supply in the summer and fall. That is wealth.

Finding and Developing a Science Fair Project

Examples of "Observe and Think" Projects

200+ Ideas for Science Fairs!

Traditional Lighting


Traditional Firemaking


Fishing with Lures

Rabbit Snares

Spearing Fish and the Refraction of Light

Chill of the Campfire

Solution vs Suspension

Seals & Beaver, Floating & Sinking


Selecting a Birch Tree

Spruce & Other Roots

Spruce Gum

Spear Throwing

Berry Pickers

Drum Frames


Book Cover

© 2004 Alaska Native Knowledge Network. All rights reserved.

A partner with the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0086194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Camps as an Environment for Science & Culture

Culturally Relevant Science Fairs



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Last modified April 12, 2011