Posted By: Jan
July 26, 2014
It’s almost time! Time to grab your blueberry pail, a pair of pants you don’t mind getting stains on the knees and bum, a bandana to keep the rogue mosquito from flying into your ear, and a friend or two, and head into the berry bushes! Denali has multiple species of edible berries: nagoonberries, crowberries, soapberries, cloudberries, blueberries, currants, and three species of cranberries, to name a few. All are food for the voles, bears, foxes, and birds of the park, but are thoroughly enjoyed by the human residents as well!
I begin thinking about blueberries in June, when the plants produce the small, delicate, pale pink and white cup-shaped flowers which will become berries in a month or two. The flowers are so tiny (about the size of my nail on my pinkie finger) that it used to be thought mosquitos were the main pollinator. Such a lovely tale…but alas, not true. Denali’s major pollinators are bumblebees, flies, butterflies, and moths. Once a flower has been pollinated, the petals fall away and the ovary swells into a small green berry. In late July and early August the blueberries begin to turn blue and build up sugar content, “hoping” to lure a seed dispersing animal into eating them. Bears, birds, and other critters amble by, gorging on the ripe berries and dispersing the seeds away from the parent plant, sometimes miles away, in a conveniently nutrient-rich pile!
Our berries in Denali are aided in their growth by our near 24 hours of sunlight at 63 degrees north latitude. They are not as sweet or as large as the commercial blueberries you buy in stores, but, boy, do our berries have flavor! They are also powerfully packed with antioxidants and vitamins. Every summer I try to spend as much of my free time sitting in blueberry patches, filling my buckets to fill my freezer for the long Alaskan winter ahead. The berries go into my pancakes, smoothies, pies, and desserts throughout the year. Our staff here at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge collect the berries to be made into jams and syrups for guest use in our picnic supper while driving into the park and sourdough pancake breakfasts. And some of our staff pick and can the berries to give to each other as gifts during our annual “Christmas” in early September!
Believe it or not, there is a “code of ethics” to picking berries. You begin by picking as far away from the lodges as possible, leaving the berries closest to the cabins and the trails for our guests. Secondly, you pick every patch thoroughly….leaving only a few berries on each plant would tempt someone else to that patch, while a bare patch symbolizes “look someplace else!” Pick only in dry weather to avoid soggy, smooshed berries. Be gentle when picking. Getting some leaves and sticks is inevitable, but let’s not grab the whole plant! And of course, be mindful of bears. Never crowd them away from their berry buffets!
At the end of a good day of picking I feel happy and satisfied to have spent my time under a broad Denali sky, sometimes with the Alaska Range over my shoulder, smelling the sweet aroma of Labrador tea as it wafts up from the tundra and knowing I have an ever increasing larder to get me through the winter. When I close my eyes at night I see images of round blueberries hanging off the low branches in front of me, just like you continue to feel the motion of waves after a day of playing in the ocean. The sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of Denali come so vividly alive in those fleeting few weeks of summer when the berries are ripe.
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It is our pleasure to present Dispatches, a journal of the goings on at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge. Written by members of our staff, Dispatches is an opportunity to peek into the special sightings notebook, brush up on Denali National Park issues, read about our ongoing projects in sustainability, and maybe get a whiff of what’s cooking in the kitchens. Dispatches will carry on through the winter, when we hope to share stories of snowy ski adventures, deep cold, and the events of a small Alaskan community.