Buckets in hand, berry lovers take to Alaska hills to reap nature's bounty

I admit it: I buy supermarket blueberries in the offseason. But this time of year, there's no need to because a little time and effort is all it takes to harvest your own wild blueberries. Aside from a little gas money and the occasional parking fee, the most delicious berries you'll ever taste are completely free for the taking.

And they're not alone. Although blueberries are among the easiest berries to find and identify, there's a long list of other plentiful berries to be had across Alaska: salmonberries, raspberries, high-bush cranberries, lingonberries, crowberries and currants are among those easiest to find in Southcentral Alaska.

Still, blueberries are the easiest "starter berry" in Alaska because they're easy to find, easy to identify, and don't have any lookalikes that will harm you. When you pick berries of other colors, though, careful identification is essential -- especially when it comes to avoiding the poisonous baneberry, which comes in both red and white.

That goes double if you have kids along.

"You wouldn't send children out, ever, and say 'you can pick berries without guidance,' " said Leslie Shallcross, an associate professor in the Anchorage office of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service. When it comes to kids, berry picking is a two-pronged learning opportunity: Teach them how to identify and avoid poisonous local varieties, and make sure they let you OK all berries before they pick.

When it comes to the alpine tundra, though, it's heaven for all ages this time of year, with safe crowberries and blueberries galore, and plenty of room to run when the kids' attention spans run down. Usually there's plenty of human company too, if you're frequenting the most popular berry patches -- and you should always be on the lookout for bears, since they eat berries too.

"Weather has not harmed wild berry growth and development this year in Southcentral," Shallcross said. "Berries seemed to be early and abundant. Drier weather could have caused problems but conditions were good when the plants were flowering and the fruit was 'setting.' And even with lots of rain in June we have also had some very nice periods of sun."


Be nice to the plants

For a long time, I believed you had to leave a few berries on the plant for the sake of the plant itself -- but that's not so, agree Shallcross and Julie Riley, Anchorage district horticulturist with the Cooperative Extension Service. Most berry plants reproduce via roots or runners; that's why raspberries are so difficult to eradicate from your yard. "What you don't want to do is disturb the plant or the soil," Shallcross explained.

But still, stripping all the berries off wholesale isn't always the best idea. "People often pick rather enthusiastically, taking nearly everything, and they often do it before the berries are ripe," Shallcross said. So taste before you pick -- and unless you need partially ripe berries for jam, let the ones that aren't quite ready sit.

Hit a blueberry patch and you may see a few people using berry rakes -- toothed scoops that pull many berries off the plant at a time, while leaving the rest of the plant intact. At least, that's how it works in theory. But if you don't use them gently, you're going to damage the plants -- impairing the berry crop in years to come and harvesting lots of twigs and leaves that you'll have to pick out of your berries.

Where to pick

It's hard to miss the bent-over, berry-picking bodies scattered across the alpine areas near popular trail heads. Some of the hottest spots in Southcentral include the Arctic Valley Ski Area, the South Fork Eagle River trail head, Glen Alps and Hatcher Pass.

Popularity and easy access have a downside, though: Berries go fast. If you're willing to walk around a bit, you'll almost always find some that others missed. But if you really want a bounty, you're going to need to find your own patch.

If you're a hiker, keep your eyes on the trail. You'd be amazed at how many lush blueberry patches lurk just off popular hiking trails. Some people seem to turn their eyes off after walking a mile or two.

Not a blueberry fan? Explore the woods and meadows of Kincaid Park and Far North Bicentennial Park, both of which offer good habitat for a number of berry types.

Experienced pickers keep the location of their favorite berry patches a guarded secret, but if you pay attention to your surroundings, you can find your own patches. All you have to do is learn what sort of habitat your favorite berries prefer, then get out and keep your eyes peeled.

For example, I love salmonberries, and salmonberries love moist coastal regions. So it's no surprise that you'll find scads of them around Seward and Whittier.

Maybe that's part of berry-picking's allure. You get all the excitement of the hunt, but none of the danger of stalking big game. Your quarry is tiny, docile and juicy -- and there's enough for everybody if you put in the effort to find them.

Now what?

If you're not going to devour your entire berry harvest right away, leftovers can be preserved by freezing, canning or drying. Because berries are acidic, they can be canned in a boiling water bath but you still need to know what you're doing to create a safe final product.

If you're starting from scratch, the Anchorage office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service (1675 C St., 786-6300) offers a DVD on identifying, picking and preserving berries for $5. They also have separate handouts about finding, gathering and using specific types of berries.

You can learn to ID berries on your own with a region-appropriate berry guidebook. Local plant legend Verna Pratt's "Alaska's Wild Berries and Berry-Like Fruit" is excellent. Or you can tap a knowledgeable friend for advice. And look carefully at the plants during walks from places like the Campbell Creek Science Center and Eagle River Nature Center.

Anchorage freelance writer Lisa Maloney is well known for her salmonberry desserts. Reach her at lisa@maloneywrites.com.

CORRECTION: The name of the Arctic Valley Ski Area is incorrect in an earlier version of this story.