Harvesting Alaska: Blueberry picking brings back fond memories in Unalakleet
The tundra outside Unalakleet stretches for miles, blanketed in blue.
“There are just berries everywhere this year. They’re so abundant,” said Davida Hanson.
On a sunny Friday evening, she and her family headed for the hills near the Norton Sound village to fill their buckets with blueberries.
“To bring the kids out here to teach them how to live off the land and pick berries and have a great time, to me it’s awesome,” she smiled.
The low bush fruit can be hard to find at first.
“One time my mom came down from Barrow, she grew up here and she said, ‘I don’t see the berries.’ I said, ‘Mom you need to get your blueberry eyes on because they’re everywhere,’” Hanson laughed.
Berry picking is a way of life Hanson and her sister, Francine Johnson, have always known.
“This little berry bucket was mine when I was a child,” Johnson held up her 3-year-old son Beah’s small wooden pail. “You pass it down and teach them the importance of what goes in it.”
The sisters grew up picking berries with their grandparents. Their grandmother would take them out with a five-gallon bucket and Hanson said no one went home until it was full.
“She would bring a backpack with dried fish, and seal oil, and crackers, and a thermos of tea and we’d take a break,” she reminisced.
For Johnson, the time on the tundra was about learning how to be self-sufficient. She said her grandfather would drop them off for an entire day of picking.
“I’d be thinking, ‘What if a bear comes, what if a moose comes?’ I’d plan it out what I’m going to do to take care of my great grandmother cause she’s very old and couldn’t walk anymore. It’s part of trying to learn how to take care of each other. That’s what they taught me,” Johnson said.
With an endless harvest and “grape-sized” berries, it didn’t take long for their buckets to fill up.
“My grandmother says I’m a very fast picker. My husband says I’m a dirty picker because I don’t take the leaves out,” Johnson laughed.
The fruitful outing will keep their freezers full until the berries come back around next year.
Harvesting Alaska is a featured series exploring all the ways Alaskans live off the land — from growing and foraging to fishing and crafting. We hope you’ll join us on our journey and share how you harvest Alaska. Share your recipes and ideas for upcoming articles.
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