Tag Archives: Berry Picking

Just a Berry-Picking Fool

If you wonder where I’ve been lately, I’ve been parenting, and in between that, I’ve been writing, traveling, parenting, berry picking, writing, berry picking, and, wait-for-it!, writing.

But summer is ending here in Fairbanks. Okay, really, once the leaves start turning, summer has officially ended in my mind. So what if fall isn’t “official” until the solstice? That’s just one of the things that doesn’t apply to Alaska. Summer begins to end around the first week of August, when the rains really hit.

This year was no exception. Rains came sweeping in with August, along with the Tanana Valley State Fair held in Fairbanks. Then we had a few warm summery days throughout August, including a nice past week. But we’ve had our fair share of rain, and now the trees are turning, and it’s clear that there is no reclaiming the summer.

IMG_9396

Although the berries in this photo aren’t (to my knowledge) edible, this toadstool was just too perfect to ignore!

I pretty much missed the blueberries this year. I haven’t really picked them before because blueberries aren’t my favorite. I had planned on going with a friend of mine, and our plans got postponed two weeks in a row. So by the time we got out there, the berries were pretty much gone. Although I found a few patches of blueberries in my backyard, they only contained six berries. No, I’m not joking. Blueberries: 6.

An Alaskan blueberry. Quaint, small, unlike our great state.

An Alaskan blueberry. Quaint, small, unlike our great state.

So about the time I realized I missed the blueberry picking, I started recognizing the little bushes with their maple-esque leaves and realizing that they were already turning red. Those happen to be highbush cranberries. And although it was only the beginning of August, they were ripe on the bush and starting to fall off!

I scoured our backyard for high-yield bushes like these! The characteristic maple like leaves of the highbush cranberry turn red in the early fall, and if you know what you're looking at, you can pick them out along the highways and roads here, as they are some of the only red foliage, and turn earlier than most other trees and bushes around here.

I scoured our backyard for high-yield bushes like these! The characteristic maple like leaves of the highbush cranberry turn red in the early fall, and if you know what you’re looking at, you can pick them out along the highways and roads here, as they are some of the only red foliage, and turn earlier than most other trees and bushes around here.

My berry picking instincts kicked into high gear, and I immediately began to forget about blueberries and move on to the highbush cranberries. Although they smell like sweat socks, they make an absolutely fantastic meat sauce. (Okay, my hubby calls it “sock sauce,” but don’t let that fool you. He actually helped me pick some berries so I could make more this year!)

After picking comes one of my least favorite parts: the washing. This little berry resisted its dunking, and looked so adorable doing it I just had to snap a photo. Then I snatched away its little life raft and gave it a good bath. (I also killed all four of the spiders in the bag of berries.)

After picking comes one of my least favorite parts: the washing. This little berry resisted its dunking, and looked so adorable doing it I just had to snap a photo. Then I snatched away its little life raft and gave it a good bath. (I also killed all four of the spiders in the bag of berries.)

After cooking the berries, you have to run them through a sieve. Highbush cranberries have huge seeds in them. Last year I had an old sieve that did not work very well and required several rounds of cleaning it out to finish a half recipe. This year's new, larger sieve worked like magic!

After cooking the berries, you have to run them through a sieve. Highbush cranberries have huge seeds in them. Last year I had an old sieve that did not work very well and required several rounds of cleaning it out to finish a half recipe. This year’s new, larger sieve worked like magic! And yes, they really are that red–no photo touchup here!

Last year, despite having enough berries to do a full recipe of “sock sauce” as my husband so endearingly calls it, I did only a half recipe. I hadn’t made it before–hadn’t really canned before at all–and I didn’t want to waste all the berries on a recipe that no one wanted or that I ruined for lack of experience. However, after sharing my attempt with Hubby and friends, it was received well by all. So this year, I’ve already canned one recipe full, and have enough to do at least one more full recipe (which takes about 12 cups of berries!).

After you process the berries, you're left with a lot of bright red berry juice (not pictured). Then you add spices, onions, and other stuff, and simmer down until it's about the consistency of thin jam. Then can. It's quite simple, actually. Simpler than I remember.

After you process the berries, you’re left with a lot of bright red berry juice (not pictured). Then you add spices, onions, and other stuff, and simmer down until it’s about the consistency of thin jam. Then can. It’s quite simple, actually. Simpler than I remember. Oh, and make sure to ventilate your house well. It stinks.

Last year I was learning canning for a few reasons. One of them was my return to Alaska, and my attempt to make the best of a difficult situation. The other was simply a desire to do something. I really struggled last year after the birth of my son, and coming up with little projects that didn’t require a lot of time, that I could possibly do with him, and that made me feel slightly productive, was my way of coping in some small way.

I’m glad I taught myself this little skill. It’s really quite simple, and the benefit is a Christmas gift and tasty sauce that I can share with those I love.

Advertisements

Alaska Licensed

I always find it mildly frustrating the differences between state laws. While I understand that states can give its inhabitants more freedom than Federal laws, certain differences in laws, such as traffic laws or laws governing drivers license renewals, for instance, always strike me as odd.

IMG_0166-2.JPG
This was me at DMV, reading Charles Dickens. Because what else do you do at DMV?

Case in point: when I moved to Washington State almost five years ago, getting my Alaskan driver’s license turned into a Washington driver’s license involved simply sitting at DMV and bringing in a piece of paper (a letter or bill addressed to me) proving that I had an address in Washington State. I was immediately issued the license. Here in Alaska, if you haven’t had an Alaskan driver’s license issued within the past year (e.g. it was expired for at least a year), you must retake the written driver’s test of 20 questions that come randomly out of the DMV driver’s manual. Now I have a temporary license and will get my permanent one in two weeks via mail.

Either way doesn’t really bother me. Having to retake a test, although annoying, is reasonable, as road laws can vary slightly state to state. But it’s interesting to me that one state doesn’t require a written test, just a valid license from another state, while this state requires the written test.

Regardless, on this wintry day, where I woke up to both a screaming baby and a light dusting of snow, I am now officially licensed to drive in Alaska.

I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t have to take a road test, although the snow hasn’t stuck and was gone by mid-morning. The first snow in Fairbanks (and probably any another Alaskan town) brings its share of traffic accidents and foolish drivers.

I’ve been trying hard to live in denial about the approaching snow though, ignoring the forecasts of snow (I mean, how often are the weathermen wrong?) and instead getting out of doors and soaking up the feeble rays of winter sun.

I spent this weekend enjoying fantastic times with amazing friends. I taught a beautiful woman who has lived in Alaska for ten years what lingonberries are and how to pick them (not that it’s hard!). But we had a great time in the woods, trying to ignore the late-season bugs that fell in our hair and down our backs, and trying to pretend we both aren’t in our thirties with bad knees as we trekked around squatting in the woods. (Let me assure you, my knee was swollen the next day.)

These friends of ours are moving to Outside in two short weeks. They have lived in Anchorage for the last eight or so years, and, of course, they leave for the outside world as we return to this small town of Alaska. It was bittersweet to see them this weekend, knowing that it would be our last in-person visit for who knows how long. But it’s always harder to be the one left than the one leaving. For the one leaving, everything changes. You start fresh and have something to look forward to–many new people and new experiences. For those left behind, nothing changes except a gaping hole where your friend used to be. I know we are the kind of friend that will see each other again, but it is certainly sad to see them go, especially so soon after our return to Alaska.

IMG_0152.JPG
A delectable dessert our friends introduced us to: espresso poured over coffee. Um, YUM!!

The First Frost

If I haven’t posted lately, it’s because several things have been happening at once. 1. It’s started snowing and more snow is in the forecast. 2. We got our first frost on the 21st. 3. I’ve been madly picking lingonberries (i.e. low-bush cranberries). 4. I’ve been unpacking. (One day, I do hope to be done with number four.) 5. I’ve been on the hunt for winter clothes for my baby.

The snow, thankfully, did not stick. But I was concerned for a little while there, as the flurries were fast and furious. There are still some trees with leaves on them, and snow now would not be kind to those trees. But those snows delivered the cold temperatures that brought the first hard frost to my backyard overnight, which is what I was waiting for in order to begin picking lingonberries.

IMG_0077

Have you ever seen anything more gorgeous than berries ripe for the picking?

Now, every nap time, I am to be found either outside picking more berries, or inside washing, sorting, and freezing berries. Berry picking is backbreaking work. And the actual berry picking is only a part of that. It’s nearly as time consuming (especially with an infant) to remove all the leaves, stems, bugs, and other debris out of the berries once you’ve picked them.

But, the carrot hanging down in front of me is all the things I can make with my lingonberries (and high-bush cranberries and chokecherries). My mother has a killer cream cheese lingonberry bread recipe, which I have fond memories of growing up with. It was a yearly tradition to wait for the first frost, then go out behind our property to a nearby lingonberry patch and pick until our hands were numb, or our bags were full.

I’ve missed that bread since leaving Alaska.

IMG_0078

Our backyard is covered in these little gems.

So about four hours of squatting in the leaves, kneeling on the ground, digging in leaves, sticks, and other debris, staining my jeans and hands with cranberry juice, chapping my knuckles until they bleed, and allowing my son to nap in the backpack carrier, led to about two gallon bags full of lingonberries in the freezer.

To someone from “Outside,” this may not seem like a lot. But lingonberries are much smaller than their Thanksgiving cranberry cousins. Perhaps 1/3 to 1/4 the size of the typical Ocean Spray fresh cranberries you find in Fred Meyer in November. And oh, so much better. It’s true that small fruits often pack more flavor, and these are flavorful little berries.

Although the demise of fall and the snow in the forecast makes me incredibly sad, I try to focus on the benefits of this first frost. The lingonberries are quickly falling off their stems and rotting, and so I return to the crisp days out of doors to pick some more, ignoring the pain in my knees and back so that I can stock up my berry supply. Because once that snow falls, it’s not leaving for a very long time.

 

Berry Picking

One of the nice things I’m finding with this house we just bought (literally got the keys September 3, 2014), is that there are a TON of berries in our backyard. Of course, this means that it’s pretty much a wild backyard, and when our son grows up, it will be hard for him to go outside and kick a soccer ball around or even throw a ball for the dog.

But right now, I am enjoying the plethora of berries. Since we moved back to Alaska at such an unfortunate time, when the leaves are falling off the trees and the short summer is already at its demise, all I tend to see is the death of summer and the quickly approaching harsh winter. Every day for the past week or so, since I discovered the mass of high-bush cranberries we now own, I have packed up my son in the baby backpack and headed out of doors for at least 30 minutes to pick berries. Or until my back starts to hurt or said son begins to cry.

High-bush Cranberries, some I missed!

High-bush Cranberries, some I missed!

To be honest, I’ve never really done a whole lot with high-bush cranberries, and I have no idea what to do with them now. All I know is that I washed, sorted, and destemmed about four cups of them yesterday in about four hours. (Thanks to my son for that one, too.) But that’s okay. Berries freeze. Because really, what all this berry picking amounts to, is the fact that I may have to wait until next year to get enough to do anything with them. Or enlist help before it frosts over.

Although, after the first frost, that means low-bush cranberries are ripe. And, even though the leaves have fallen, making them harder to find, these lingonberries are well worth the effort. My mother has a killer cranberry cream cheese bread recipe, and it calls for a whole lot of lingonberries. So, if you can’t find me for the next couple of weeks, that either means I’m out picking berries, or in the kitchen canning/baking/cooking with berries, or I’ve been snowed in (but let us hope for one of the two former options–I’m casting my vote for a late, short winter this year).

Lingonberries are the deeper red berries, almost a merlot color, in the forefront of this photo. I can’t remember what the other, oranger kind are, except that they are poisonous.

Lingonberries, almost ripe for the picking!

Lingonberries, almost ripe for the picking!

But it’s not just cranberries that I’m in a picking frenzy over! The original owners of this house planted about five or six chokecherry trees around the property, and I’m delighted! I grew up with a chokecherry tree in my backyard about fifteen miles away from where the house we purchased, and it’s delightful to be reminded of watching that chokecherry tree grow into the beast it now is (and my “new” little chokecherries have nothing on that behemoth of a tree).

These ones were out of reach, or I would have snatched them too.

These ones were out of reach, or I would have snatched them too.

Although it's a bit late to be picking chokecherries (I think), the original owners of this house planted about five chokecherry trees, much to my berry-picking pleasure!

Although it’s a bit late to be picking chokecherries (I think), the original owners of this house planted about five chokecherry trees, much to my berry-picking pleasure!

And since I’ve distracted myself long enough from washing and destemming berries or otherwise being productive, that’s it for today. At least until the mountain comes out and I manage to get a photo. (And I’m really bumming over the fact that I left my camera downstairs when a golden eagle flew by my window while writing this post.)