I have very fond memories of picking blueberries growing up. Over the summers as a kid, I remember going to Dzen’s (a pay-to-pick blueberry farm in CT) with my mom and picking as many blueberries as we could fit in the large cardboard box (something she still does to this day). I remember raking the bushes with my hands and eating them by the handful. Absolutely delicious! The only problem was my mom would get upset with me when I did this because we hadn’t paid for them yet and they weren’t washed. Nonetheless, whenever I eat a handful of good blueberries, my mind takes me back to those times as a kid.
Fast-forward a couple decades and we are in Fairbanks, which is known for their wild blueberries. Every year at the beginning of August the blueberries become ripe and the locals get to picking. It seems like everyone has their favorite spot whether that be behind their house, Skiland, Murphy Dome, or their own secret place. Some people stay local, while others swear that going a couple hours away gets you away from the crowd, and avoids the blueberries from being picked over. They key is clearly finding a good spot and being the first one there once the blueberries are ripe.
Looking back, the thought that all the blueberries could be picked already by everyone else is laughable. There are so many blueberries all over the outskirts of town that if you’re motivated to find some, you most certainly will. Nevertheless, we were anxious to find a good spot and pick some of our own. Our first attempt was a bit spur-of-the-moment over the last weekend in July. We were doing chores and going to yard sales, when we decided we should give picking blueberries a shot. We drove 20 minutes outside of town to the Blueberry Preserves. This is a large plot of land that was purchased simply to protect it from development, and is known for being a good spot for blueberries. Off we went in sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt with a couple of plastic bags. In my mind I envisioned a free version of Dzen’s back home! It turned out to be a very boggy area (at one point my foot sank into the water up to my calf) that did not have many blueberries. Perhaps that’s because we stayed close to the road and they were already picked, who knows.
The good thing was we were determined, and decided enlisting local help/advice was our best option. The next day we drove out to Skiland with Regine. Skiland is 30-40 minutes outside of town and is supposedly filled with blueberries. Regine got us excited by telling us that in years past she just parked her car on the side of the road and picked gallons right off the road – awesome! To Regine, the blueberries at Skiland were a bit disappointing. Perhaps this was a bad blueberry year as people were saying. However, Leigh and I were thrilled. We picked 4 lbs of blueberries in approximately 4 hours, and the novelty of picking blueberries certainly fueled our excitement.
The next day we drove out to Gulkana Glacier with Regine, another professor named Vlad, and a group of summer students (a post will be coming soon about that trip). While we were waiting for students with Vlad we mentioned the “lack” of blueberries at Skiland. To our surprise, he said the blueberries were terrific at Murphy Dome. That was all we needed to hear to start planning our next trip. A couple days later in the evening, we drove out to Murphy Dome, parked where we saw a bunch of cars, and into the woods we walked in search of an even better blueberry patch! Just 20 feet into the woods and there were blueberries everywhere. This had to have been what a good blueberry patch looked like. We picked for a couple hours, and ate our fair share, and walked away with another 4 lbs of blueberries!
The next day over lunch I told Regine the good news – Murphy Dome was filled with blueberries, so we should all go out again over the weekend. And that we did. Unfortunately, the same spot that we’d been to just days before seemed to be fairly well picked, so after an hour we decided to try our luck further up the road near the top of the dome as Regine recommended. We walked quite a way to find a spot, but it was well worth it. The view for starters gave a “Sound of music” feel with rolling hills and mountains as far as the eye could see, and clear blue skies to go with it. And here was the first time that Regine said we’d finally found a good spot. You could sit for half to a full hour in one patch and be picking constantly. Leigh and I walked away with another 12 lbs.
Picking blueberries is a bit different compared to the picking I grew up with at Dzen’s. The blueberries we found were all in little shrubs right on the ground, so you were constantly bent over. Furthermore, a really good patch might have ~10-20 blueberries on it that you could rake through with your hands, but for the most part we had to pick each blueberry separately. Alaskans typically use a blueberry picking tool that allows you to rake through the shrubs (perhaps next year we’ll invest in one if it’s a good year). The blueberries themselves were also a bit different. On average they were much smaller than the ones found in stores, but what they lacked in size they made up for in taste. These were the strongest tasting blueberries I’ve ever had, and they were more tart than a typical blueberry.
You might be wondering what we could possibly due with 20 lbs of blueberries. Here in Fairbanks, we’ve really been amazed by how much people live with the seasons and live off the land. The reason everyone picks blueberries is because they freeze them and save them for the winter. The ideal way to freeze them is to lay them out on a baking pan and put them in the freezer that way they freeze individually as opposed to freezing as a big mush. Leigh took the lead on this, so I will give her all the credit and all the thanks when we start eating them as a treat in the middle of the winter. We have about 8 lbs of them stored this way. Leigh turned another 4 lbs of blueberries into a jam to go with yogurt or pancakes. She combined them with a bit of sugar, cooked them down, and put them in jars. Now all we have to do is make some pancakes once it starts getting cold here! Lastly, with the remaining 8 lbs of blueberries, I’ll be using them for a blueberry American wheat ale that’s currently fermenting. Hopefully that will be one more nice way we can enjoy our summer harvest down the road.
Leigh joins me in writing about our adventures living in Alaska.