Berry Fever in Alaska

Summer means it’s time to go fishing and berry picking for many Alaskans. I remember growing up when we would go out and pick berries on the tundra. I lived in the villages of Huslia and Bettles along the Koyukuk River.

We usually went out by boat or four-wheeler to pick berries. I remember high bush cranberries usually came first, and it seemed like they were the easiest to pick and you could pick them fast. We also picked rosehip berries. My mom used to make jam out of them. I remember her using a cheese cloth to strain the seeds out. It was a long process during the hot summers, but the end product was tasty. My mom made syrup out of high bush cranberries. They have a waterier consistency, so it was perfect for syrup.

From my sister-in-law, Dolly Yatlin (Iñupiaq), in North Pole. She said, "Decided to go out and pick me some yummy asriaq (blueberries) and akpiks (salmon berries)."
From my sister-in-law, Dolly Yatlin (Iñupiaq), in North Pole. She said, “Decided to go out and pick me some yummy asriaq (blueberries) and akpiks (salmon berries).”

Salmon berries and blueberries would usually ripen next. The availability of salmon berries varied each year. Some years they didn’t grow and other years they dried out before they could ripen. Salmon berries taste delicious and we felt lucky whenever we were able to pick them. We usually put them in the freezer.

My sister-in-law, Dolly Yatlin, recently went out picking in North Pole, Alaska. She picked blueberries and salmonberries. When asked what she does with the berries, Dolly replied, “Smoothies, put blueberries in our pancakes or eat both with a sprinkle of sugar and carnation milk.” They are delicious treats for Dolly’s three kids. Dolly grew up in Kiana.

“My parents and the family would go out with our grandparents, great grandparents, and uncles and aunts. There would be about five boats and we had our own berry picking spot. We would sit for hours on end filling up buckets and buckets. Our great grandparents told us berries are a very great food to eat. We would go home with 20 gallons of berries that day!” – Dolly Yatlin (Inupiaq)

I loved picking blueberries. When you live in the village, fresh fruits are hard to come by. Fresh blueberries were always a delicious treat! I remember sometimes sneaking a handful and stuffing my mouth full of berries. Pesky mosquitoes are always buzzing around you when you are picking. We would bring a smudge pot (beyee hudaałts’eege). We burned punk (kk’eeyh edaanee’one) to keep the mosquitoes at bay. We also wear summer parkas with a hood and/or wear a head net.

Koyukon Junior Dictionary. Written by Eliza Jones in 1978
Koyukon Junior Dictionary. Written by Eliza Jones in 1978

Denaakk’ee (Koyukon Athabascan) Language Translations
Smudge pot (beyee hudaałts’eege)
Punk (kk’eeyh edaanee’one)
Blueberries (niłyaagh
Low bush cranberries (neentł’ee’)
High bush berries (donaaldloy)
Raspberries (neełdaggay)
Black mountain berries (deenaałt’aas)
Low bush salmonberries (kkotł)
Indian ice cream (nonaałdloda)
Indian ice cream made with fish (binot hoolaanee)

My other sister-in-law, Sonja Yatlin, grew up in Venetie. She says, “I remember going berry picking with my mom and grandma and we would always eat every berry we picked…well the kids at least would (lol). Then my mom would make jam with the berries!”

Aunt Dorothy and Janessa picking blueberries near Huslia in 2006. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Aunt Dorothy and Janessa picking blueberries near Huslia in 2006. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

You might think picking berries is mindless work. It is to a point because you can zone out, but my mind is anything but mindless. I think about my grandmother and how our ancestors once did the same thing. Picking berries was a way to provide for their family, and it made me feel closer to them.

There is a lady, Nuna Inua, from Anaktuvuk Pass who shared her jam recipe. Check it out here:  Cloudberry/Salmonberry/Akpik Jam.

Later in the summer, we picked blackberries and cranberries. My aunt, Rosie Simon of Huslia, makes the best blueberry pie. My mouth waters thinking about it. Many of my relatives save berries for a special occasion throughout the year, like a potluck, holiday celebrations or a potlatch. There are a few people who make Indian ice cream (nonaałdloda). My great aunt, Rose Ambrose of Huslia, makes delicious Indian ice cream made with berries and fish (binot hoolaanee).

Many Alaskans will be freezing, canning jam or jelly or making delicious treats with berries they pick this summer. Many people have their favorite berry picking spots and keep the locations a secret. After leaving a berry patch, I remember just seeing nothing but berries in my mind for the rest of the day. Enjoy berry picking this summer!

Cranberries picked in Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Cranberries picked in Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

8 thoughts on “Berry Fever in Alaska”

  1. I was not fortunate enough to grow up in Alaska, but when I was young I spent all of my summers fishing for salmon on the Columbia. Those are some of my best memories. At the end of summer I would pick buckets and buckets of blackberries for my mom, who used them to make jam.
    I’m an elder now, living in north Idaho, and this week we will go up into the Cabinet Mts to pick huckleberries. I like to make syrup with them, and also like them in pancakes. Earlier in the spring it was morel mushrooms. These simple things we harvest from the land are some of the finest things there are!

  2. Angela, your wonderfully detailed descriptions of berry picking in Alaska reminded me of my berry picking adventures in Michigan and West Virginia. Based on the time of year we picked everything from blueberries to blackberries to raspberries (red and black) to strawberries. It was always fun but as you described the mosquitoes were always an issue. Thanks for sharing your experiences in berry picking in Alaska; I might just have to wander outside of Talkeetna a bit and see about finding some blueberries..!

  3. Wonderful blog. Reminded me that I was happy to pick the tiny blueberries on the Tanacross flats until I moved to Perryville where they have LOTS of blueberries almost as big as grapes! When I came back I would take a carload of ladies up the Taylor highway, down to Mentasta and up to Delta Jct. Sometimes my aunt in Fairbanks would get me to drive her up towards Circle. I loved those night visions of fields of berries after a day of picking. Your beautiful memories reminded me of mine!! Thank you!

    1. Awesome Amy! What a blessing to have picked with so many people and in so many places. That reminded me of the stories we would share while picking berries, and laughing together. Thank you!

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