Words / Cody Liska
Photos / punkash.com
Photo Caps / Skeeter
Skeeter sells drugs. Well, not really. He sells Punk Ash – a legal tobacco additive made by burning the fungus Phellinus igniarius. The fungus causes wood decay and grows on the trunks of birch trees. You can smoke it and you can snort it, but most people chew it. Mix it with your choice of chewing tobacco and you get Blackbull, Aaraq, Iq’mik and Eskimo Cocaine – all names refer to the same sticky, black mixture. The latter name is a bit of a misnomer though. Instead of the rush you get from coke, side effects are more similar to your first drag or your first dip.
Punk Ash is an alkaline. When added to tobacco it increases the PH and streamlines it through your system quicker. It’s like freebasing nicotine. Of course, there are health risks associated with nicotine and tobacco use. The opportune words here are “awareness” and “moderation.”
Some studies suggest that the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area first introduced Punk Ash and it’s recreational uses to the coastal tribes of Alaska in the late 1800s. Others suggest that the Dena’ina people were chewing a balsam poplar bark mixture back in prehistoric times. Either way, it’s been a staple in Alaskan communities for a while.
Today, people like Skeeter sell the Ash for $20 an ounce. And, as it turns out, his ounces are pretty generous – they average anywhere from 1.1 oz. to 1.2 oz. A good business leaves satisfied customers. That satisfaction ensures that everyone out in the Bush knows Skeeter’s name. He’s the dude you contact when you need to re-up on your supply.
“I often ask the stores how the customer likes our product,” Skeeter says. “[The stores] always reply ‘If they didn't like it, we wouldn't buy it.’”
The conk comes in all sizes and shapes. Here is a unique Tri-Punk, known for it's extra potency.
After a long day of picking, this was a haul! We picked over 400+ lbs. It took four of us to pull it all back to the rig.
My 40 gallon Stainless Steel cooker filed to the brim. We will start burning this down and continue to add Punk to it for at least 2-3 days.
This stuff burns at least 2X hotter than charcoal and it takes 2-3 days "AFTER" it's done burning down for it to cool off enough for processing. Gotta love not having neighbors! Some people out in the Bush think the smoke has some psychedelic properties. I stay upwind! For small batches, we just burn down the conks in stainless steel stew pots – the smoke eventually clears up once the temperature maxes out.
This is the ash left over from the burnt down conks. If you look closely, you can still see the original forms of the conks. Under this pile of ash is a bunch of very, very hot coals. We still have another day or two before it can be handled.
Many stores and tobacco shops in Bethel and the surrounding 50+ villages sell Punk Ash and display signs such as this outside their business. Punk Ash is a basic commodity in the Bush. It really adds a kick and a zip to your chewing tobacco. There is a reason they call it "Eskimo Cocaine!"