In this Earth and Beyond program, Robin Song tells what type of blueberries she found in abundance this year, when she found the usual patches fruitless.
As the annual ‘harvest of the berries’ time drew nigh, I thought about the bounty of last year. I had found the patches in the forest near the cabin fairly bristling with berries, more than I had ever seen. I suspected that this year would be different, with the long, hot dry spell of this summer.
On August 15th I went out to have a look. Sure enough, examining bush after bush, my berry container in hand, I had only collected a pitiful cupful by the time I had explored all the patches I had picked last year. Then, I had picked quarts of berries, having to go back to the cabin to get another container, then another, as I discovered bush after bush loaded with berries. I had happily washed then divided them into baggies, placing them lovingly in a friend’s freezer. Being frugal, I managed to stretch their usage out over the winter, having them in smoothies, on oatmeal, and in granola well into March. While disappointed with this year’s crop of blueberries, I did manage to score some lovely wild Elderberries, which are also one of my favorites.
I heard reports of decent blueberries up in Broad Pass and Cantwell, but that was beyond my reach, this year. I called my friend CW in Willow and he took a trip to the summit of Hatcher Pass. He said the bushes looked odd- liked they had been singed. We wondered if last fall’s early frost or the scorching heat of the summer had caused this. Where he had walked around, he didn’t see many blueberries. A few days later another friend told me she had gone berry picking at Hatcher’s with her daughter and found a couple of good patches. But when she had pulled over, parked, and gotten out of her car with her berry buckets, car loads of people magically appeared and suddenly kids were running through bushes, knocking off berries, and adults were spread out, picking berries into their buckets. Her daughter remarked that it was “combat berry picking” and she wanted no part of it. They had left. That didn’t sound promising to me, but I did know of a patch that was a bit off the beaten path and that may not have been discovered yet. I was willing to have a go.
CW and I planned an afternoon at Hatcher’s Pass on August 18th. His property, a few miles south of Willow, has extensive wetlands to the east, starting out from his cabin. He suggested that we look there, first. It started out mostly sunny when I left the ranch, but when I got to the Parks highway, I drove under heavy cloud cover. It was lightly raining by the time I pulled into CW’s drive. For me, it was perfect berry-picking weather. Warm enough to wear tights and shorts, a lightweight jersey and a flannel shirt. I wore mud boots for the boggy areas, and kept a rain jacket tied around my waist in case the rain got serious. It was cool enough that I didn’t get over-heated as I explored the brush, searching for berry bushes. Skeeters were plentiful, but I kept the bottle of bug repellent handy in my back pocket.
We drove down an old trail in CW’s six-wheeler Ranger, and parked it before the first bog. Walking from there, it wasn’t long before we were putting berries in my container. CW is a self-proclaimed “non-berry picker”, preferring to eat rather than pick and save. He did rally, however, and added enough berries to help me fill my container fairly quickly. He headed on back to his house and returned with quart bags. Now we were in business. No need to go to Hatcher Pass after all.
The berries we were finding were Alaskan Bog Blueberries. They grow on bushes up to two feet high, and the berries are pale blue, with a velvety texture. They are round to oblong, with most about 1/4” diameter. Some of these monsters were an impressive ½” diameter. Typical of their name, these berries are to be found in wet areas, especially bogs and wetlands. I didn’t find any Alaskan Huckleberries, which prefer a little drier climate, though I have found both growing in some areas in past years.
I picked for three and ½ hours, and could have gone longer, as there were plenty more berries to be had, but my body had had enough, by then. When picking berries, one uses every muscle in one’s body, and after awhile the ones not used to being stretched begin to protest. Standing in bog holes, I needed to stretch up to reach some berries. Standing on grassy mounds, I had to bend low to reach berries hiding under leaves near the ground. I had to straddle some bushes, and squat to reach others. All the while my arms reached and bent, reached and bent, picking and bringing berries back to my container. Sometimes I would find a particularly heavily laden bush and I could then set the container down and pick with both hands, fingers working the berries off so I didn’t collect any leaves. I am a particular picker- I don’t like leaves, twigs or insects in my container. Just berries, thank you.
CW picked off and on for awhile, then his attention drifted to the iphone he had brought along. He has an ap on it with animal calls and he began playing various ones to see how Lyra dog would respond. To the animals which are not found in Alaska, like raccoons and alligators, and so which she has never heard, there was no response. But when he played the distress call of a snowshoe hare, then the mating call of a bull moose, Lyra sat up straight, her head tilting side to side. When he played the teeth popping and grunting of a grizzly, she cautiously approached and reached out, carefully touching the phone, as if to see if CW was somehow hiding a grizzly in his palm. She is scared of bears, having had her first sight encounter this past May, and while her nose told her there was no bear in that strange box CW was holding, she just had to be sure.
The noises from the iphone drew in a curious pair of gray jays. They followed, flying from spruce top to spruce top until their curiosity was satisfied, then they headed on deeper into the forest. CW had to put the phone away after a little while, as the battery was getting low. When the silence settled in once more, I listened for birds and was rewarded with the distant calls of Boreal Chickadees and one yellow-rumped warbler. The slight breeze carried the scent of the lichens and moss through which we walked, and as the berries stained my fingers blue, their rich smell also wafted into the air. Bear prints and scat were on the trail we followed, some old, some new. Moose had also been here recently. CW had found the primary flight feather from a Great Horned Owl at the base of a tall spruce near his house that morning. To the east there lies a marsh and Sandhill Cranes had nested out there this summer.
Though the Parks highway borders the land on the west, to the east and running north and south is an ancient forest and wetlands. The farther east you go, the farther from the marks of humans until you are heading for the Talkeetna Mountains. It doesn’t take long to get to wilderness from the road systems, in Alaska, and the simple act of berry picking can remind you of that. Immersing yourself in a pastime as old as humanity is a good way to focus on the moment and open your senses to what is immediately around you. One could call it “The Yoga of Berry Picking”. Though it may produce sore muscles, it also produces fine memories to draw upon as one eats those sweet berries in the midst of winter.
By Robin Song, for KTNA