I’d already been entrusted with the keys to their truck and the care of their dogs before my Alaskan cousins would even consider letting me in on the secret location of the family berry patch. When I was finally invited to go berry-picking with them – three years after I’d started working in Alaska during the summers – is when I felt I could finally start calling myself a local. As with fishing, everyone seems to have their own favored locations for finding the biggest, the plumpest, and the tastiest. And some people take the locations of their special spots very, very seriously.
Berry picking is one of the easiest ways to take advantage of Alaska’s bountiful food sources. No fishing license needed, no special tools or equipment. Simply a zip-lock bag, a bit of free time, and a general idea of where the berries might be. Fortunately, berry bushes are easier to find than fish (at least, I think so.) They’re not migratory; you don’t need camo clothing or fish finders to stalk them. For visitors unfamiliar with Alaska, berry-picking might be the most low-cost solution to taking a bit of Alaskan home to your own kitchen and freezer. No weird dry-ice shipping containers, no charter boats or hunting licenses needed.
It is however, necessary to know which berries are edible and which aren’t. The best way to get a start learning one berry from another would be to go out with someone who already knows the area’s plants, and isn’t averse to pointing a few out. Field guides are another option. There seem to be an increasing number that are dedicated to not only identification, but to traditional and edible uses – perfect resources for someone looking to learn more about what’s edible in one’s backyard or favorite vacation spot.
Alaska’s Wild Berries and Berry-Like Fruit – by Alaskan flower maven Verna E. Pratt is a great fiend guide focused specifically on berries, and is small enough to fit easily in a purse or backpack. If you’re looking for a few recipes thrown in with the identification information, try the Alaska Wild Berry Guide and Cookbook.
If you’re learning exclusively off of a field guide, I’d recommend becoming *very* familiar with the toxic species before starting to sample the edible ones. If you know for certain which berries you can’t eat, there’s less chance of making a serious mistake when trying to identify the edible ones. Fortunately, blueberries in Alaska look pretty much the same as blueberries in your grocery store. But there’s still no substitute for learning directly from someone with a good knowledge of local plants. If your berry-picking site is in bear country, this is another reason to go berry-picking with a buddy, just in case your favorite patch is also frequented by furry berry-pickers a well.
It’s also helpful to know the etiquette around berry picking. Unless the bush in question happens to be growing on your property, don’t strip the entire bush. I’m a fan of the rule of thirds – take one-third of the ripe berries, leave on third for the next picker, and one-third for the animals that may be depending on these berries to get them through the winter. Don’t pick berries before they’re ripe – leave them for the pickers (human or animal) that will be visiting in another week. (Underripe berries don’t taste as good, anyway.) And if you’re heading out with the idea of harvesting berries in quantity, I’d recommend not picking berries right along the side of the trail. By harvesting from bushes slightly removed from trails, you’re still allowing the more casual berry pickers to still have berries to enjoy on their hike. And as long as you’re not selling the berries you pick, on public lands in Alaska, you may pick as many berries as you want! No licenses, no limits, and no fees! (Like I told you – way better than fishing!)
One of my favorite ways to pick berries is simply grabbing a handful now and again as I’m hiking. It’s a great way to supplement granola bars or trail mix, and it’s interesting to see how the flavor can differ from one berry bush to another. It’s also a good way to build in rest breaks while you’re hiking. Some berry bushes, however, are so full of berries that they require more serious dedication to harvesting them – requiring berry rakes or gallon bags, the bushes approached with the aim of coming home with something to fill a freezer or a pie. My cousins – who’ve lived in the 49th state since the 80s – have a number of these ‘paydirt’ berry locations both on their property and in the surrounding Chugach National Forest. None of which I can tell you about, because if I did, I might no longer be invited to family dinners (and I’ll bet you can guess what sorts of pies they cook up…)
Berries can easily be turned into a wide variety of local foods – pies, jams, jellies, wines, and syrups can all be made, or bought locally. Some come from well-known grocery store berries – blueberries or raspberries – but others are from berries that aren’t widely known, or cultivated outside of Alaska, such as cloudberries or salmonberries. If you’re visiting a berry area, I would highly recommend tasting some of these products. If you’re visiting before the berries are out (which in Alaska is anywhere from mid-July through mid-September), or don’t know the difference between a baneberry and a cranberry, these are excellent ways to get a taste of what berry season in Alaska is all about.