CIty wilds

Berry picking stains





The frenzy has begun. For the next several weeks, those obsessed with the “Chugach blues” will make numerous trips into Chugach State Park’s Front Range to hunt and pick tundra blueberries, intent on gathering enough of the wildly delicious purplish-blue fruits to eat them through the winter and maybe even into next spring and summer. At least some of us will harvest the blues until the tundra has frozen or been covered with snow.

For more obsessive types, the annual hunt for wild blueberries began in June, with scouting trips into the mountains to check on the tiny, pinkish, bell-shaped flowers that blossom on blueberry plants. We recognize that flowers do not always yield berries, but they are often a good indicator of the fruiting to come.

This year I found some incredibly rich patches of blueberry flowers, more than I recall seeing in recent years, and this gave me hope for a later abundance of wild blues.

Though I made many trips into the mountains in early to mid-summer, it wasn’t until late July that I first seriously looked for blueberry fruits. I knew they wouldn’t yet be ripe, but I wanted to see how they were coming along.

Again I was delighted. In several places that have become favorite picking spots, I found large quantities of hard, green fruits, enough of them to elicit a “Yahoo!” or two. I texted some “Looking good!” images to Jan, my girlfriend and berry-collecting partner, the one person who knows all of my primary picking patches. (Though I’ve also taken one other person, a good and trusted friend, to a few of “my” spots.)

Though not as obsessed, Jan will join me on several picking excursions into the hills, which usually means a hike of considerable length and in some cases, a hill climb of a thousand feet or more.

Unlike most berry pickers, I prefer to combine my blueberry gathering with a substantial hike. Not only does this put me beyond the reach of most other pickers—I prefer to get the blues in solitude—it also makes my berry picking part of a larger experience.

Another difference with many berry pickers: I’m a hand picker. I’ve never used a comb or rake or other tool. I think that’s partly because it allows a more direct connection with the fruits, the plants.

At times, when I’m more mindful, hand picking can become something of a meditation. Perhaps that’s possible with a tool as well, but for me the touch is important. It helps to slow me down (though yes, sometimes I hurry to fill that last container). And as Jan has observed, I tend to “pick clean,” with minimal debris, while combing or raking also collects leaves and twigs and other stuff.

On any given outing I tend to gather enough blueberries to fill a couple of quart containers, which means I rarely pick for more than an hour or two, though I might spend several hours in the mountains. This is a good reason to have “secret” spots—or at least places that are unlikely to draw crowds of pickers. I can take what I want and there’s a good chance the patch won’t be emptied of blues when I return. That’s an important consideration because my preferred patches tend to be small and would be easily depleted if several people—or even one hard-core, gather-till-they’re-gone picker—were to find them.

I suppose there’s a selfish aspect to this. But on the other hand, I share my harvest, so I don’t feel too much guilt.

This year I picked my first two quarts of blues on Aug. 6, figuring it was an excellent way to celebrate Chugach State Park’s 50th birthday. Jan prefers waiting until the blueberries are more fully ripened, but my enthusiasm got the better of her and she joined me last weekend, and together we gathered a gallon.

The blues may not yet be in prime condition, but the ones I’ve collected so far sure taste good to me. At this point in the season the ripeness of the berries may vary considerably from spot to spot, even bush to bush within a single patch, another reason to pick by hand.

One thing I’ve noticed in the quarter century I’ve been a dedicated berry picker, is that the production of any one patch may vary considerably from year to year, which is one reason I have several places where I gather blues, in varying habitats. It’s also a reason that I ‘m always alert for new “hot spots” on my ventures into the hills.

Here’s something else that I noticed this past weekend, while transferring newly harvested berries from a yogurt container to a freezer bag. Even though I pick “clean” by most standards, there’s always some small things to remove from the berries before they’re stored and later eaten, so I give my blues a second check. In the comfort of my kitchen, listening to a John Prine CD, I settled into an easy, relaxing rhythm while handling the berries one more time before storing them away, and nibbling a few. This also presented an opportunity to express my thanks, both to the berries and the source of these delectable and healthy wild fruits.

And that got me thinking: a big part of what I’ve come to love about picking tundra blueberries is the entirety of the experience: discovering rich patches, sometimes in places I never would have imagined them to be, a part of getting to know the local landscape; doing the early season scouting; following the transition from flower to hard, green fruit, to ripened berry; the picking itself, sometimes in solitude, sometimes shared; the good company of my patient and stoic dog, Denali, who graciously curls up nearby, no matter how benign or harsh the weather; the hike to and from the patch, often bringing other adventures; the sharing of the fruits of my labor (though I can hardly call it work); the quiet time spent back home, often with joyful music playing in the background, while I transfer the berries from container to freezer storage bag (being sure to keep some blues fresh in the refrigerator); and the eating of the berries, both in the wilds and later at home, usually in yogurt but also pancakes and pies, this eating another form of sharing with Jan; and the sense of blessing that all of this evokes, the enrichment of both body and spirit.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskans Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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