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Alaskan Berry Magic
By Iris Brooks

Published April 10, 2008

Alaska resonates with stillness. Named after the Aleut word “Al-yes-ka,” meaning “the great land,” it is a wide-open expanse with subtly shifting light in a state more than twice the size of Texas. Traffic lights are rare, signs about moose are common and connecting with nature is key. “The feeling of endless space is exhilarating,” says Alaskan-based composer John Luther Adams, whose vast sound palette echoes his musical and physical landscape.

The people drawn here, like Adams, are extremely independent in spirit. You have to be a rugged individualist to survive in a place where snow mutes the land and schools close only when weather conditions are truly risky, with temperatures plummeting to more than 50 degrees below zero. At the Museum Of The North in Fairbanks, Alaska, I learned frogs literally freeze into a state of hibernation for the winter and then fully thaw out in spring. When the bears come out of hibernation, they join the humans—hopefully at a safe distance—in berry-picking and eating activities. People are advised to sing or wear bells, making the bears aware of their presence.

I discovered the Grizzly Bears in Denali National Park may eat 200,000 blueberries (their favorite) daily! While consumption among humans isn’t quite that high, berry-picking is a social activity it’s a time for women to bond, sing, and dance. Some berry patches are kept secret and women may camp out and “hoot it up.” In the Yup’ik culture, where the drum is the heartbeat, berry-picking dances involve tossing them in the air and trying to catch them in your mouth as though they were popcorn. Berry-picking up north often employs a paddle (qalutaq), but the Inupiaq Eskimo berry-pickers whistle to the wind so it will blow the leaves away from the berries before they paddle the bushes. Another storyteller warned me not to pick berries from a partially picked bush on the tundra. According to her grandmother, if you whistle to the spirit, he will take your soul away.

Before my visit, I never thought about Alaska as a place where one might lose their soul while picking berries or as the home of huge fruits and vegetables. But the long days of sunlight in the spring and summer help grow giant, 60-pound cabbages and large, luscious super-sized strawberries. There are about four dozen varieties of Alaskan berries in many colors. Some are inedible others are toxic. All Alaskan white berries are poisonous, including snowberry, mooseberry and snakeberry (as well as baneberry, also in red).

Some kids in Alaska play a pictorial Berry Bingo game, learning the varieties indoors as well as in the bush with their elders. I tried oblong watermelon berries, part of the lily-of-the-valley family, with the aroma of a cucumber and a melon-like taste. Salmonberries look like a pale orange blackberry, while huckleberries—similar, but not the same as blueberries—are a crunchy, wild blue-black berry. Blueberries are called upon as fish bait, and are also a natural dye for fabrics. Robin Sandvik Kornfi eld, ofnative Inupiaq descent, insists that “The Alaskan blueberry has a stronger, more intense flavor than blueberries in the lower 48.”

The gathering of salmonberries (cloudberries), raspberries, cranberries, crowberries, nagoonberries (wineberries), and blueberries in the tundra are all part of native culture. An Alaskan specialty made from whitefish and berries is the “akutaq,” also known as Eskimo ice cream. It is a whipped version of caribou fat (or seal fat), often mixed with crowberries and sugar. But medicinal uses of crowberries include drinking the juice for kidney trouble, using the bark for removing cataracts, and drinking a tea from the roots for an eyewash. Lingonberries are a native remedy for headaches, while highbush cranberries provide a gargle for laryngitis.

Past highway exits with names like Raspberry Street and Strawberry Street, the magic of Alaska is in the wilderness, where<

  Recipe
Juicy Berry Trivia

We’re not the only species eating blueberries. They’re also a popular staple among Alaskan chickens, bears, birds, and insects.

Considered to be the healthiest food in the world, blueberries are rich in antioxidants and are believed to help with memory and the anti-aging process.

In Alaska, berries were traditionally stored in square, cedar bark baskets or bentwood boxes coated in seal oil.

Eating a few poisonous baneberries can kill a small child.

Originally called an “omelet surprise,” this elaborate dessert was re-christened Baked Alaska at a New York restaurant in honor of the American acquisition of the 49th state. The dish was popularized in Monte Carlo.

Many berries are red, making them more visible to birds and animals, while invisible to insects (who won’t carry them and seed a new location).

Alaskans, who consume more ice cream per capita than any other state, have a mixed berry flavor known as “Aurora Borealis.”

Laughing berries are so named because the stain of this purplish-black berry juice looks like a grin on the eater’s mouth.

BOOKS

Alaska’s Wild Berries (Alaskakrafts) by Verna Pratt is a handy, pocket-size pictorial guide for berry identification.

Berry Magic Atsat Irr’inargellriit (Alaska North-west Books), a lovely children’s book by Teri Sloat and Betty Huffmon, tells a berry origin story that expands on a Yup’ik Eskimo tale. Available in both English (with a smattering of native words) or in the Yup’ik language, its colorful illustrations transport you to the magic of another place.

The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook (Alaska Northwest Books) by Kirsten Dixon is an appealing compendium of culinary creations in a feast for all the senses, with alluring photos by Fred Hirschmann and many Dixon recipes, including her Baked Alaska. www.withinthewild.com

Winter Music (Wesleyan University Press) by John Luther Adams (www.johnlutheradams.com) explores the philosophy, environment and sonic geography of Alaska through the poetic essays by this thoughtful composer (with accompanying CD).
 

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