Blueberry Days

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Words and Photos by Sarah Freije

There’s a home video of a seven-year-old me picking blueberries our first summer in Alaska. We’d survived a long, brutal first winter with record snowfalls and darkness we weren’t entirely prepared for. I remember my dad was a little manic that first year trying to fill our days with as many stereotypically Alaskan activities as he possibly could, which he then documented for our friends and family in the Lower 48 with a giant VHS camcorder. In the video, between squiggly tracking bars, my mom sits cross-legged on the side of a steep hill, a Ziploc bag full of berries in front of her. My sisters and I aren’t far from her, and we squeal with delight every time we find another patch of berries.

I was not an outdoorsy kid, which seems a little sacrilegious growing up in the wilds of Alaska. But just as my father was slightly over-the-top with his thirst for adventures in the Last Frontier, he was also overzealous in his scare tactics about bear safety. I was convinced that anytime I so much as wandered off a sidewalk, a mama bear and her cubs was waiting to maul me to death, so I chose to stay inside as much as possible — with the exception of berry-picking. 

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Picking blueberries tapped into something deep within me. I loved the connection I felt with Mother Nature, and the idea that with these little perfect blue orbs could sustain me. There was the intense satisfaction I felt whenever I found a low-bush bursting with berries and I loved the way my skin looked covered in dirt and magenta stains. Sure, I was still terrified of bears because I’d been told many times that they were looking for the same berries too, but my desire to have the fullest bucket always won out and I dreamed of all the sweet concoctions I could bake up once we were home.

It wasn’t until I met my husband in my late twenties that I realized how wonderful the wilderness really could be. He liked to clear his mind by taking long walks in the woods and had stories of wild float trips down remote Alaskan rivers. One of our first dates was berry picking on a mountainside outside of Anchorage. He had a gun strapped to his chest and armed me with a can of bear spray. (The only tactic my dad had given us for warding off bears was singing at the top of our lungs so as not to startle them!) A little preparation, the soft ‘plunk, plunk, plunk’ of berries dropping into a bucket, and the thrill of falling in love made me never want to go inside again.

A year-and-a-half later, we were engaged and the blueberry felt like an important part of our story. We’d kissed on a mountaintop overlooking a glacier at our own secret blueberry patch. We learned how to work as a team while maneuvering around each other in his small kitchen, baking pies and dehydrating blueberry fruit leather. We made homemade blueberry jam from gallons and gallons of berries we picked to use as our wedding favors. We even made blueberry muffins at the altar in a Dutch oven where each ingredient represented something necessary in the recipe for a happy marriage.

The first summer we were parents, we climbed into our Polaris Ranger and started up the mountain to our blueberry patch. Our son sat between us in his car seat, squealing with delight as we plowed through mud and fallen branches. Now that I was a mom, I felt more nervous on this trip than I ever had before, and the urge to sing “The Ants Go Marching” as loud as I could came from some deeply ingrained place inside me. But glancing down at my son as he clapped his chubby little hands made me realize I didn’t want to raise him to be fearful of this magnificent place. I’d have to learn to walk the fine line between educating and preparing my son, without straying into just instilling terror. 

Last August we took him berry picking again, just before his second birthday. It was a beautiful hot day as we left the trailhead, but about two-thirds of the way up the mountain we drove out of summer and into fall. There was a sudden chill in the air, golden leaves somersaulted down to the path in front of us, and there was the smell of a forest decaying. Just as we were about to burst through the treeline and out into the open, we rounded a corner and startled a mama moose and her calf. The sight of fur and movement caused a primal adrenaline kick and I instinctually covered my son with my body, but he remained as calm as his dad. He just pointed as the moose bolted off the path, and proudly explained to me it was just like the animal in so many of his books. Maybe my son would be a much better Alaskan kid than I ever was. 

Watching him work through the bushes, armed with the cutest little tin pail, I was surprised at what a natural a toddler could be at picking berries. We never even had to remind him to only pick the blue (and not the red) ones, which is asking a lot of a two-year-old! There was the occasional plunking sound of a berry hitting the bucket, but most of the ones he picked went straight into his mouth. He stopped once to point to a floatplane flying overhead and marveled at the Dall Sheep we pointed out through the binoculars. We even taught him to yell “hot spot!” when he found a good bunch. 

Wedding Jam    Ingredients   8 cups fresh blueberries, washed and drained  5½ cups granulated sugar  1/3 cup fresh lemon juice   Method   Wash the berries. My favorite method for this is to fill a bowl with water and dump my berries in. Then, using my hands, I sift around and around letting leaves stick to my hands. This is a great way to get rid of a lot of the bigger leaves and then you can scoop out the twigs and smaller leaves by hand.  Combine the ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir often to dissolve sugar.  Reduce the heat just enough to maintain a low boil. Cook, stirring often, until the juice thickens, about 25-30 minutes. (This jam will still seem kind of runny, but it firms up as it cools.) During the last few minutes of cooking, skim the foam from the surface of the jam.  Fill sterilized jars. Attach the lids and process the jars for 10 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the jars to a towel and let cool. Makes 3.5 pints.  — S.F.

Wedding Jam

Ingredients

8 cups fresh blueberries, washed and drained

5½ cups granulated sugar

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

Method

Wash the berries. My favorite method for this is to fill a bowl with water and dump my berries in. Then, using my hands, I sift around and around letting leaves stick to my hands. This is a great way to get rid of a lot of the bigger leaves and then you can scoop out the twigs and smaller leaves by hand.

Combine the ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir often to dissolve sugar.

Reduce the heat just enough to maintain a low boil. Cook, stirring often, until the juice thickens, about 25-30 minutes. (This jam will still seem kind of runny, but it firms up as it cools.) During the last few minutes of cooking, skim the foam from the surface of the jam.

Fill sterilized jars. Attach the lids and process the jars for 10 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the jars to a towel and let cool. Makes 3.5 pints. — S.F.

 Listening to him giggle while we cooked cans of soup over the JetBoil, I realized it wasn’t just berry picking that made him seem like he was in his element. He was a natural in the great outdoors because he was a clean slate; he didn’t know there was anything to fear out here. Now that I was the grown-up in the story, it was up to me to decide how I wanted to handle the way he would see Mother Nature and I knew I didn’t want him to be afraid to go outside like I was. 

I certainly haven’t become a master at this. Our summer days are filled with what seems to be equal parts educating him and squelching my own fear. But soon it will be August again, and he will learn that means it is time to head into the mountains with the hopes of filling our pails. If we’re lucky, maybe this year we may bring home more berries than we ate. We will sing songs in the mountains and scream “hot spot” at the top of our lungs, but only because we want to. And on cold winter mornings when the bears are all asleep, we will eat pieces of toast slathered with our homemade blueberry jam and be thankful we went outside.

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Caroline Royce