Berries




It’s berry-picking season, one of my favorite times of year.

Actually, as any devoted local picker can tell you, the gathering of fruits from Anchorage-area berry plants began in July. And for the most obsessed of us, it figures to last into early or even mid-October, weather permitting.

I tend to follow the progression of berries from flowering to first fruiting (the appearance of hard green fruits) and then to ripened berries. 

Berry plants are among the first to flower in local woodlands each spring. Some, like the red currant, will eventually yield fruits that are favored by people. Others, like the soapberry and baneberry plants, will produce fruits that either don’t appeal to humans (the soapberry for example, which people find bitter, but is a favorite of bears) or are poisonous (the baneberry).

For most of my years I didn’t pay much attention to wild red currants (or the black variety), beyond noting their presence in local woodlands. I think it was Jan Myers who introduced me to the joys of eating them. Though sour (and with a large pit relative to the size of the fruit), the bright red, translucent berries are excellent in yogurt, especially when combined with wild blueberries. At least that’s the way I prefer to eat red currants, though I’ll sometimes nibble them in the wild. 

Jan picked a couple of pints of red currants in woodlands near her house on July 21 and we’ve both collected more since then, three to four quarts between the two of us. 

Wild red currants seem to thrive most in forested areas locally in my experience, but I’ve also found them in some sub-alpine areas and there’s one rich patch I’ve learned to check each summer. (Of course I can’t say where!)

While I’ve come to relish red currants, black ones doesn’t appeal to me. They have an odd taste that I find hard to describe. Jan likes to graze on them when ripe, but she doesn’t gather them to bring home,

The second type of berries to make it into my breakfast yogurt this year (and also enjoyed straight off the plant) are what I call “feral” strawberries from Jan’s patch. Though not wild, exactly, they’re largely left alone, except for watering and a bit of weeding. The strawberries that grow in Jan’s patch (and which once grew in mine, when I lived on the Hillside years ago) are small, pink, and sweet. Yum. And they too ripen in late July.

And then there are the “tundra blues.” Anyone who’s followed my writings knows that wild alpine blueberries are my favorite (YUM squared) and the ones I’ve picked the longest, a relationship that stretches back to the mid-1990s. As with currants, I track their progress through the spring and summer, from tiny, pink bell-shaped flowers to hard green fruits to ripened, soft, purplish-blue berries.

Like any dedicated wild blueberry picker, over the years I’ve found some reliable “secret” spots (some of them also secret to others, I’ve learned), mine concentrated in the Chugach State Park’s Front Range. They’re in varied enough terrain that whatever the summer’s weather, at least some produce a bounty of fruits.

Though most of the Chugach’s tundra blues don’t ripen until mid- to late August, this year Jan and I found surprising numbers of ripened berries the last week of July and I picked my first quart of them on July 31. Along with a friend, we picked more than a gallon on Aug. 3 from the slopes of a peak where I’ve never before seen such an abundance of berries.

Only a week into August, I’d already gathered more than a gallon of wild blueberries, a pace I’m sure I won’t maintain. 

Unlike most berry pickers, I prefer to combine my blueberry gathering with a substantial hike or hill climb. 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. And it seems less harmful to them.

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.

The good news is that this seems to be a berry-rich year, both in town and up in the hills, and for a variety of edible, tasty berries, including raspberries, pumpkin berries, and lingonberries. If the opportunity presents itself, I’ll sometimes collect a quart or two of raspberries to add to the mix. And one year I gathered nearly a gallon of tundra lingonberries, which became the main ingredient for a fine-tasting liqueur. 

Now that we’ve moved deep into August, my focus is on tundra blues. I’ll be spending a lot of time in the hills the next two months, hiking and exploring the Chugach Front Range—and spending quality time in the close company of my favorite fruit. 

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan 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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