Blueberries are in season

Thursday, August 22, 2013 - 04:32
Columnist Frank Baker's daughter, Emily Baker, with blueberries in South Fork a few years before the Geometrid moth infestation of 2011-2012.

They’re round and blue, juicy and rather tart — and they’re back — our blueberries that we’ve missed for more than two years! I’m no botanist, but on two hikes recently — one up Mt. Gordon Lyon via South Fork and the other up Blacktail Rocks, I found the delicious morsels from 2,000-3,000 feet. They weren’t thick, but they were there.

I’m sure there are many readers out there who get much more excited by a new app for their iPhones. But those who care about our annual blueberry crop, aside from the bears, know that beginning in 2011 a devastating infestation of Geometrid moths swept over Southcentral Alaska and reached as far south as the Kenai Peninsula and some parts of Southeast. The caterpillar form of the moths ate blueberry and salmon berry bushes to the extent they could not bear fruit. The caterpillars also denuded some willow, alder and birch trees.

Even though the blueberry bushes did not bear fruit for two years, they survived the attack. Locally, the greatest impact seemed to fall in the Eagle River-Chugiak area, as well as Peters Creek. I noticed that the low-bush blueberries up in Bold Valley — the really low ones that hug the ground — seemed to survive the peak of the infestation.

I’m only an amateur berry picker compared to some of the folks I’ve seen in past years out on the mountainsides. They’d probably like to keep the berry  comeback secret. Don’t be concerned, I won’t give away any prime locations. For those who don’t mind hiking a bit, there are plenty of berries for the taking.

I’m also not a nutritionist, but I’ve heard that our Alaska blueberries pack several times the anti-oxidant, cancer-fighting punch of the store-bought blues. The price is certainly better. Forget that they’re a bit tart and need buckets of sugar for pies and muffins. They’re healthy, with a Vitamin C super punch!

I still claim to make the very best blueberry muffins this side of the Knik River, but my wife tends to be skeptical about my baking abilities.  She says I don’t add nearly enough sugar. She seems to delight in telling the story about the day I graciously took a platter of homemade muffins around to our neighbors. No one answered their doors. She claims that at two houses, she definitely saw curtains move.

I like to freeze some of them and then lightly thaw them out in the microwave to put on vanilla ice cream. Putting them in cereal is a given.  Blueberries with whipped cream are a fantastic treat.

There’s one blueberry picking session I’ll never forget. It was back in the early 1980s when I worked with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on a tributary of the Kuskokwim River, called the Holitna River. I had the day off and decided to take the boat a ways downriver. I pulled over to shore, beached the boat and climbed up the river bank to a huge field that was loaded with blueberries. I plopped down and began raking them five and six at a time with one hand, eating more than I kept.  I’d never seen blueberries so thick.  After a while I felt a strange presence. Something told me to rise up and look around. Behind me, less than 200 feet away, was a large grizzly bear doing the same thing — comfortably seated in the patch, raking the blueberries with his paw, completely unconcerned by my presence. I nearly jumped a foot. Quietly, heart thumping, I crawled unceremoniously back down the river bank, got into the boat, and still trembling, headed upriver to our camp. Two in that patch made a crowd.

On the day I climbed around Rendezvous and up to Mt. Gordon Lyon, I actually ate too many berries and gave myself a bit of a stomach ache. But I couldn’t help myself. I’d really missed them over the last couple of years.  I also enjoy Crow or Moss berries, which can be a great source of fluid if no water is available.  

But in my mind there is nothing as refreshing, delightful and uplifting as a handful of our wild Alaska blueberries.  In Star Trek’s Spock speak, may they live long and prosper.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. His column appears weekly in the Star. To contact Frank, email [email protected]

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