In Alaska's high country, the dwarf birch are shading to red and the willows are beginning to yellow. The first frosts of the season have already come. For many, this heralds the beginning of hunting season; for others, it is the time for berries.
Moose and caribou may be tough to come by, with plenty of competition, but berry pickers will have no such concerns.
The required equipment is minimal. You need only a small bucket, nimble fingers and an alarm system to keep the kids out of the container. While moose hunters worry about a grizzly, berry hunters need only to worry about the family dog knocking over the berry bucket.
Wherever you choose to drive along the highway system, you will find edible berries in quantity. Most are good for jams, jellies or sauce.
Blueberries are one of the most common berries -- and the most sought after. The Denali Highway is a popular location to find them. They are the predominate ground cover in many areas of the highway above timberline. South and west facing slopes are the first to ripen and normally have the most berries. During hot summers, such as this, northern slopes may yield the best picking.
Blueberries should be picked before a hard frost softens them. Early berries make very good jams and sauces. Use berries that are not fully ripe to avoid a sharp flavor. Mix in a few green berries; they have more pectin so your only additive will be sugar. Add a few raspberries, lingon berries or salmonberries, about a quarter by volume, to neutralize the sharp flavor of over-ripe blueberries. Avoid mixing in pithy berries such as rosehips and pigeon berries.
Lowbush cranberries or lingon berries are another common berry throughout the Interior and Southcentral. They can be found low to the ground in open spruce forests or along the edges of eskers and gravel ridges in higher terrain.
Most lingon berries are not fully ripe until early September and are easier to use after a good freeze. They are easy to pick with a metal picker, and in a good patch you can average three or four gallons an hour. They make a great sauce and wonderful pies, especially when mixed with apples. The juice can be canned as a concentrate for use later in the winter.
Rosehips are often overlooked. They have the highest concentration of vitamin C of any of our berries and make very good jam, though their large seeds make them tougher to work with. Wire mesh strainers work better than cheesecloth for removing seeds, though I usually just give in and leave them.
Rosehips are abundant in old burns and along roadsides. They jell easily and need a bit more water than other fruits. Personally, the best use I have found for rosehips is jam, though I have friends who swear by them for fruit leathers.
Salmonberries are my choice when traveling to the coast. Sure, there are huckleberries, tall blueberries, currants and watermelon berries, but a good salmonberry patch, with fruit the size of a small plum, is tough to match. Salmonberries come in red and pale orange with no change of flavor. The stickers on the bushes are more an inconvenience than a problem. Mix in a quarter blueberries by volume for the best jam or jelly.
Processing berries, at home or in the field does not need to be an intimidating task. You can remove most of the inadvertent leaves by pouring from one container to another in a good breeze. Rolling berries down a towel or old blanket also works well. A Coleman stove, sugar, a good pot and some canning jars will complete the processing. If you are making jelly or juice, a wire strainer is also necessary.
A basic formula is four parts berries, two parts sugar and one part water. Pectin is unnecessary, though for late blueberries, a quarter of a green apple for every two or three cups of berries will help them jell.For very juicy berries, use less water. Pithy berries may take a little more. Adjust the sugar to taste and the ripeness of the fruit.
When making jam, cook to the "splatter" stage. Start with water and berries, add the sugar as soon as the mixture is liquid. The pot will foam at first and then settle into a stead boil. When the jam or jelly clings to your spoon or begins to spatter all over your stove, it's done. It can then be poured into canning jars and sealed with a pressure lid or wax.
Granulated sugar works well for jam. Powdered sugar or corn syrup is the ticket for juice or syrup. Take care to cook syrup at a lower temperature or you will end up with another jar of jelly. Sauces should be more tart, so use less sugar. Less water will have sauce jelling more solidly.
However you choose to use Alaska's bountiful berry crop, it's sure to be a hit at home throughout the winter. There is nothing intimidating about making jams, jellies or juices. There are many good recipe books explaining in detail the methods I have outlined, but trial and error along with personal taste are the best teachers. I can guarantee berry hunters at least as good success as the best of hunters. Good luck!
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan and two-time Yukon Quest champion who lives in Paxson and commercial fishes in Bristol Bay.