"Who are you picking for?" asked my uncle.
"For grandma and my mom," I answered.
Growing up in Mountain Village, my family would travel to Arularviq, an abundant spot about 40 miles down the Yukon River, or to Clear Water, behind the 500-foot-tall Azachorok Mountain, to go berry picking. I have fond memories of picking with my mother, Tina, and stepfather, Brian.
The last few times I’ve returned home, it’s been mainly in the winter months. This year, I made a decision to go home to go berry picking for my 85-year-old grandmother, Maria, who is elderly and disabled, and not so mobile anymore.
For days, I texted with family to determine a good time to fly out to go picking for salmonberries. On Thursday morning, I got a text that read, “The berries are ready!” By Thursday afternoon, I had booked my ticket for the following day.
Around Mountain Village, the landscape is tundra among rolling hills. My great-grandfather was a reindeer herder, and growing up I listened to hours of stories told by my grandmother about traveling from Unalakleet to Nunivak Island by dog sled.
Mountain Village is located 90 miles inland from the Bering Sea on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Western Alaska. It sits in the shadow of Azachorok, which isn’t a large mountain by Alaska standards, but is quite sizable in this low-lying part of the state. The community is also large by rural standards, with a population of nearly 800.
My great-grandfather, Chekohak Landlord, founded the community, which is how my family got our last name. Missionaries in the area chose our name after seeing that village members would ask permission from my great-grandfather to set up their homes on the land.
I arrived in the village on a sunny Friday afternoon to see my grandmother sitting on the front stoop of her house. She cried when we hugged.
“Welcome home!” she said. Though I haven’t lived there in many years, it is still home.
Later, as I would pick berries around where my great-grandfather had a reindeer corral, I tried to imagine my family living on the land where my ancestors walked, hunted and gathered. Going home is so important for me, to get connected to my family and the land, and things that I sometimes think are so important in the city can seem insignificant in comparison.
The following day, on Saturday, my cousins and family went looking for salmonberries along the bumpy, unmaintained, 20-mile-long gravel road between Mountain Village and St. Mary’s. The tundra was dry, and the berries few and far between. After nine hours of picking, we returned home at 10 p.m. and I’d only filled a disappointing half-bucket of salmonberries.
Salmonberries taste sweet and tart and look almost like a raspberry, but they are typically orange in color. They are generally ready to pick in mid- to late-July. You know they are ripe if they are easy to remove from the prickly bushes. I’ve tried taking some unripe ones, but would then have to pry the leaves from the berry. After hours of picking, my fingers were sticky and smelled like fresh tundra, like earth.
Salmonberries are my favorite, and a special treat in Anchorage, where they’re harder to find.
Much of the time, berries are used to make agutak, also often called “Eskimo ice cream,” though the real translation from Yup’ik is “something mixed.” Salmonberries can also be frozen to preserve them, or made into jam.
I love salmonberries plain, with a sprinkle of sugar on top, or mixed into salmonberry agutak. I have never made agutak myself, though I enjoy eating it. For the next special occasion -- like a birthday or family dinner -- I’ve resolved to ask my mother to teach me how to make agutak using the salmonberries from this year’s pick.
We went out again on Sunday, this time trying our luck up the road at Liberty Landing and at Mile 8. The day was even more of a letdown: I picked less than a quart of baby blueberries. Initially, I was feeling disheartened. That night, I made it home for qaamalluk, half-dried baked salmon, on the table for dinner.
On Monday, my uncle went by ATV -- which is often just called a “Honda” in rural Alaska -- to check his “secret” berry picking spot. He returned home with a gallon of salmonberries in less than two hours. On Tuesday, he took me along to his berry patches. When we arrived, I was astonished -- with every step, there were berries. We picked for a few hours, and by the time we left we each had a gallon.
Despite this success, on the treacherous Honda ride back home along the rough tundra, the handle of his berry bucket, filled with the day’s bounty, came undone and I accidentally spilled about a half-gallon of his pick. He said it was OK, that it was an accident; but I still felt horrible, especially remembering that salmonberries are like gold in Anchorage.
The next morning, Wednesday, it was hot and sunny, and I went again with my uncle to the secret berry patches. Again we each pulled a gallon of berries in a matter of hours.
From my uncle, I learned persistence and perseverance. Hunching over the tundra for hours is backbreaking work. Whenever I stood up to take a break, he was focused and absorbed in the physical act of picking.
That evening, I went subsistence fishing, drifting with a net on the Yukon River with another uncle and cousin. We drifted for five hours and caught nearly 20 fish.
After spending the day out on the tundra with my uncle, filling our buckets with berries, then on the river filling our nets with fish, it made me sad to realize I’d have to leave in just a few days.
As with everything in rural Alaska, life and activities are always “weather permitting.” On Thursday and Friday, the weather was foggy and rainy. I was grateful we went out picking when we did.
My morning return flight on Saturday was canceled due to the soupy, thick fog and rain, and I missed my connecting flight in Bethel. If I drove the precarious road to St. Marys, I could catch the direct flight to Anchorage. Ultimately, I made the flight, thanks to my cousin, who was willing to drive.
I left a majority of the berries with my grandmother, returning to Anchorage with two quarts for my mother and two for myself and to share with friends. I transported the berries -- along with Native “soul” food, dry fish and moose and geese, sent by my family -- in a tub kept frozen throughout the trip. Now that I’m back, it’s time to ask mom to teach me how to make agutak.
Trina Landlord is from Mountain Village and is executive director for the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in Anchorage.