One of the best things about summertime in Juneau is picking berries. Blueberries, huckleberries, salmonberries, nagoonberries, and my personal favorite, highbush cranberries — the woods are full of them, just waiting to be picked. All you need is the right gear and technique.
Most important of all, you need raingear. Even if it’s not raining on the day you’ve set aside for picking, it has been raining lately, so the berry bushes are wet. Count on it. Rubber boots are also recommended — for some reason wild berries all seem to grow in or around hidden pools of standing water.
Then you’ll need a bucket to collect the berries in. Forget about plastic bags — they’ll only squish your berries up into a juicy pulp. Of course, you could skip the cleaning step altogether, and make your jelly on the trail. Just throw some pectin into the bag and shake it periodically as you gather the berries, and you should be ready for the old PBJ by the time you finish picking. But the orthodox picker uses a bucket.
We have a metal berry bucket with a lid, which raises the perennial question — to cover, or not to cover. If we use the lid we can keep mosquitoes and other flying beasties out of our potential pie filling, but the lid does prevent the worms that came with the berries from deserting them. If I had to choose between a mosquito fly-by and a worm in residence, I’d go with the mosquito every time.
Now that you’re geared up for berry picking, you need to find the berries. If your quarry is blueberries or salmonberries, no problem — these bushes line the roadsides and fill the woods, and your neighbors will likely point you to the best picking spots. But if you seek the prized nagoonberry, undisputed queen of berries, you’re on your own. No self-respecting Southeast Alaskan berry picker will knowingly divulge the secret coordinates of their nagoonberry patch. Forget about everything you ever learned in kindergarten — there is no such thing as sharing when it comes to nagoonberries. If you want to pick them, you have to discover them for yourself. End of story.
Once you’ve settled on a berry patch, the fun begins. Now is the time to display your signature berry picking technique. There are three main types of berry pickers. First, you have the Conquerors. Like Julius Caesar, their motto is “veni, vidi, vici.” They come to the woods, see a berry bush and feel the need to conquer it. They will systematically strip a bush of every edible berry before moving on to the next. You can identify these serious pickers by the brilliant purple stains on their fingers and hands.
The second type of berry picker is known as a Counter. Deeply competitive by nature, they strive not to conquer the berry bushes, but to best their companions in the final count. They have a tendency to pick under-ripe or even wormy berries, just to bolster their volume, all the while counting each berry as it drops into the bucket. They will shrug off any doubts as to the purity of their haul with the catchphrase, “the solution to pollution is dilution.” Beware any pies or jellies offered to you by Counters.
Last, you have the Grazers. For them, berry picking is an outing; a chance to roam about the woods and sample the bounty nature has to offer. Berry picking is as much about munching as it is about collecting. “One for me, one for the bucket,” is the motto of the Grazers. Their mouths and their fingers tend to be equally stained with berry juice. Few Grazers ever get to the pie-making stage, unless they augment their wild berries with the supermarket variety.
Whether you’re a Conqueror, Counter or Grazer, chances are that you will take at least a few berries home at the end of the day. It’s up to you whether you soak the berries to speed the worm exodus, or choose to simply roll them down a board to separate the mushy from the firm. In any case, feast on them with pride — just don’t tell anyone where you found those nagoonberries.