Two women hiking the trail above me averted their eyes as they approached my position and I heard one comment to the other, “Someone is having a private moment.”
That was true, I suppose, though not in the way she meant it.
“I’m picking currants,” I called cheerfully from the bushes below the trail.
“Oh,” the woman replied, and the pair continued their hike without slowing down.
The trail alongside which I picked currants that September morning is one of Chugach State Park’s most popular routes and is especially busy with people on weekends. During the time it took me to fill a quart container with the bright red fruits, some 20 people and a bunch of dogs walked past. Because I’d left my pack along the trail and my mixed collie, Denali, was curled up beside it, I figured my loud rustling among the bushes wouldn’t surprise—or, more importantly, frighten—anyone.
Some of those who passed by looked my way and a few even smiled or said hello. But no one seemed especially curious about what I was doing. Perhaps they thought my behavior odd enough they didn’t dare ask.
In a curious way, all of this pleased me: here I was, standing amidst an abundance of red currants, with plentiful solitude despite the nearby passage of people, bound for what they considered grander adventures.
Truth be told, I too had greater ambitions for the day and would later ascend into the alpine splendor of a large tundra basin, to roam the high country and hunt late-season blueberries. But for now I was having a fun and satisfying experience with its own share of challenges as I waded through thick brush and balanced on slippery, decaying tree branches piled on the steeply sloping forest floor.
By the time I finished that morning’s currant harvesting, my pants and boots would be soaked from the rain-wettened plants and my arms crisscrossed with scratches and small welts from encounters with wild rose bushes, devil’s club, and, based on some sharp and painful tingling on my flesh, even a stinging nettles or two.
My reward was not only the quart of currants I collected (with many more left on the plants and forest floor), but also the fact that I’d found my own secret spot. Well, not exactly secret, given the presence of so many people, but a place where few other berry harvesters would choose to pick.
Over the years, this has become one of my great pleasures: to find places where I can hunt and harvest wild foods in places few other people go.
Once upon a time, my annual harvest centered on fish, particularly salmon and halibut. But many years have passed since I was an avid angler (and though I’ve dip netted, I never became an enthusiast of that method), though I still savor wild salmon caught by others. And I’ve never been drawn to the hunting and killing of other wildlife (or wild “game,” as some like to say) for reasons I’ve written about elsewhere and likely will do again sometime.
Instead of wild meat, berries and morel mushrooms and wild greens are what I hunt. For me they fulfill what seems to remain an elemental human urge, once essential to survival but now, for most of us, a recreational but still passionate pursuit: the harvesting of food. (Gardening, too, fulfills that need, but that’s another story, one best told by someone other than me; though when I lived on the Hillside, I did maintain a small patch of feral strawberries, which I relished.)
I’ve grazed on wild berries for as long as I’ve lived in Alaska, but I first began gathering them to eat at home in the mid-1990s. For many years, I focused on “wild blues,” which I’ve used in pies and muffins and my breakfast yogurt. But in recent years my harvest has expanded to include morel mushrooms, an assortment of springtime greens and, over the past couple of years, red currants. (When the opportunity presents itself, I also collect strawberries and raspberries in town, and I graze upon a wide variety of other wild berries: salmonberries, nagoonberries, raspberries, watermelon berries, and pumpkin berries come immediately to mind.)
The berries, greens, and mushrooms feed me in many ways. Besides adding wildly nutritious foods to my diet, they take me out into the mountains and woodlands that I love so much. And because I prefer to go where few others venture, that often means I combine long hikes with my berry picking (and forest walks with my morel hunting); in other words, I get plenty of healthy exercise.
And then there’s the solitude I treasure so much, along with the happy presence of Denali, who sometimes roams but eventually ends up by my side, waiting patiently for me to be finished; and sometimes the good company of my sweetheart, Jan, and (more rarely) other berry-loving friends.
In short, the wild foods nourish my spirit as well as my body and they’ve become central to my life.
After finishing with the currants, Denali and I returned to the trail and moved uphill into the mountains, where thick clouds had descended upon the alpine basin, bringing fine but heavy mist and limiting visibility to no more than a hundred yards.
I slowly moved among the plentiful tundra blues, kneeling here and there to do my picking, in no hurry at all while savoring the hushed gray stillness that enhanced our solitude; just the two of us and the tundra landscape and the occasional call of birds and ground squirrels, and the soft and juicy purplish-blue fruits that stained my hands and gradually filled my second quart container—and what more could a berry picker ask?
Anchorage nature writer 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 email@example.com.