Stalking the Wild Blueberry
Copper River Record October 4, 2018
By Robin Mayo
Along the western end of the Denali Highway, from Paxson to Tangle Lakes, there are dozens of places to pull off the road. Some are real pullouts, others just wide shoulders, or places where the ditch is shallow enough to make good parking. And in early September, it seems nearly every one holds a vehicle or two. This time of year, chances are good the occupants are either hunters or berry pickers. It’s usually pretty easy to tell which is which, although occasionally you can be surprised when a well-armed team in camo shows up to claim a Subaru.
My Mom and I spent several days roaming the area recently, filling our buckets with Blueberries. A gentleman in the campground asked us how long we’d been picking berries together. Or he may have been asking how long we have been coming to Tangle Lakes for a blueberry pilgrimage, but nonetheless I blurted out “53 years” to his surprise. But it is true, I have no doubt that the first Autumn of my life I was bundled in a backpack and taken berry picking. Soon I had my own berry bucket, a tin can painted dusky blue, with a cord to go around my neck. It wasn’t very big, and I remember occasionally accumulating an inch or two of berries, ready to eat, spill, or possibly even contribute to the family supply in my Mom’s big bucket.
We had a few false starts before we found a spot to settle down and really pick. Sometimes the brush is much taller than it looks, or the ground turns to swamp, or there just aren’t good berries. But we did eventually find what we call a “Gobby Spot,” a place where you can just sit down and pick, hardly needing to move.
From our spot, we can hear the traffic rumbling by on the Denali Highway. At the end of the Labor Day weekend, much of the traffic is outbound, big rigs hauling swamp buggies and four-wheelers. One of the things I love about berry picking is that once you find a good spot and your fingers get going, your mind is mostly free to wander.
I notice that most of the hunting rigs are not displaying antlers, so are probably not taking home any meat for the freezer. Smugly, I reflect that it is hard to get skunked berry picking. Even in a bad year, if you persevere, you will bring home the goods. From that thought I start imagining what it would be like if berry picking were regulated like hunting, with seasons, bag limits, and mind bogglingly complicated regulations. We’d be punching our harvest tickets for each gallon we collected, and planning to stop in at the Department of Fish, Game, and Fruit to have our harvest sealed and tested for size and sugar content. How many of us would it take to over-pick this area? Would they shut down the season if escapement goals were not met? Would the berries we ate while picking count towards our limit?
I shake my head to dispel the fantasy, and return to picking. While I daydreamed my bucket has been filling steadily, and it is time to make a trip to the car for a fresh container. This is the secret of successful wild harvesting: the progress can be so slow and incremental, if you pay too much attention to it you will get discouraged. Instead, let your mind wander and stubbornly refuse to evaluate your progress, and then be thrilled when the handfuls add up to quarts and gallons.
My Mom has some tricks up her sleeve. She has brought small plastic containers, applesauce jars with nice screw-on lids. She is a clean picker, and when she comes across especially good berries she picks them neatly straight into the container, puts on the lid and they are ready for the freezer. Apparently this skill is not hereditary, I am far too messy a berry picker to get away with such a stunt. Instead, I will spend several hours once I get home, rolling the berries down a cookie sheet covered with a tea towel. The leaves, twigs, and bits of tundra will be left behind, and I will fill ziplocks with nice clean berries ready to freeze. I’m not a jam eater, so I freeze them whole, ready to go into smoothies, muffins, and pancakes.
My mind is wandering again, this time to blueberry pancakes. I wish I’d brought a frying pan so we could make some in the morning. We’d mix the batter and pour out the pancakes without the berries, then gently sprinkle them on the raw side of the pancake as it starts to cook on the griddle. This works with frozen berries too, and is so much better than trying to mix them into the batter.
After three days of such musings, all our containers are full, and nightly frosts have turned the berries soft. The seat and knees of my pants are purple and stiff, and my tongue and teeth may be permanently stained. The berries will join the salmon and vegetables in the freezer, each bag carrying the memory of bright autumn tundra, and the taste of sunshine.
Copper River Record October 25, 2018
By Robin Mayo
What cats are actually good for is a debatable topic. They provide warm and fuzzy, if somewhat aloof companionship, rodent control, and entertainment. Both my cats are black, so they aren’t even very good at posing for pictures, most photos end up looking like a cat-shaped void in the fabric of the universe. So to earn their kibble my cats have taken on the responsibility as guardians of my integrity, keeping me honest and looking out for falsehoods.
If you’ve ever come on a WISE hike, you may know that one of my pet peeves is inaccurate names for our local flora and fauna. I cringe a little every time I hear a reference to pine trees, since our evergreens are spruces. When someone refers to mice, I often correct them, saying that most of our tiny rodents are actually voles. And I try to be polite when someone refers to bunnies or rabbits, as our native lagomorphs are Snowshoe Hares.
My cats have decided to school me on the mouse issue. Both cats are avid vole hunters. Redbacked voles are those fuzzy little oblongs we often see scurrying around, characterized by short legs, stubby tail, and you guessed it, a decidedly reddish back.
Thankfully my cats do not present me with gifts of dead rodents, but I do occasionally find remains on the porch or front yard that tell me what they are catching. There are a lot of voles, and occasionally a shrew. But several times this summer I found distinctively long tailed, big footed remains that can only be a meadow jumping mouse. Curious, I did some reading, and it turns out they are not uncommon in this area. Like flying squirrels, their solitary and nocturnal habits keep them secret much of the time.
Meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius) can be found over much of North America, including Alaska. They prefer damp, relatively open habitat to dense forests. Unlike voles, meadow jumping mice hibernate, which may partially explain why we see less of them—they are unlikely to move into our houses for the winter. They are about 5 inches long, more than half of which is their very long tail. The other very distinctive trait is large, kangaroo-like hind feet, over an inch long. Between the tail and the feet, there is no way you can confuse a jumping mouse and a vole if you get a good look.
The most remarkable thing about jumping mice is, of course, the jumping. Normally they hop along in steps of one to five inches, but they can jump up to 3 feet when alarmed. They are diggers who prefer to live underground, and are mostly nocturnal, although it seems like in Alaska they must compromise and feed during the daylight or they would never get fattened up for winter. They prefer seeds, but are omnivores who will eat almost anything. And of course they are an important prey species for hawks, owls, foxes, ermines, and other predators.
So, I stand corrected on the mice! Next my cats moved on to the hare issue, and proceeded to make friends with a very large black rabbit which hangs around in our neighborhood. He lounges with them on the porch sometimes, reminding me that we do have rabbits, although they are not indigenous to the area.
Which leaves Pine trees. I’m going to stay on my high horse for this one, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the cats bring home some evidence of a lodgepole pine alive and well in the neighborhood. Forestry used to give out seedlings at the fair, and they can thrive in the right spot. We are going to have to sit down as a family and have a serious talk about the difference between native, domestic, and invasive species. But I do appreciate the subtle ways they have chosen to manifest their superior intelligence.
Meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius) photo courtesy of Animaltown.com
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.
Wrangell Institute for Science & Environment
WISE is a