Blueberry Hill

Posted on August 19, 2012

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The chairs at Skiland north of Fairbanks, Alaska hanging over the alpine tundra

Little tundra blueberries are a flavor-packed miracle to experience. I have found them in the tundra of Bristol Bay and interior Alaska, but have had the most luck finding them in Alpine environments. It’s a nice coincidence for me that the best berry patches I have found are adjacent to ski areas I have enjoyed during the snowy months. This has been true of a ski area within the Fort Richardson Army Base just outside of Anchorage, formerly known as Arctic Valley, which now lives on as the skier owned co-op Alpenglow. It is also true of Flat Top peak directly above Anchorage where cross-country and Alpine ski tourers alike enjoy the terrain. Baldy, the peak that presides over Eagle River, a town just north of Anchorage, is sometimes referred to as “the Flat Top of Eagle River” and I have fond memories of picking blueberries with my family that we were able to enjoy all winter long. Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood is enough of a berry destination that it has spawned the annual Blueberry Festival. I must confess that the extent of my berry picking there was to grab berries that presented themselves as I was hiking up the mountain. In more recent years I have been able to find berries at yet another ski resort in Fairbanks. Skiland is a resort that I have only had the chance to enjoy as a berry picker, but would love to see how my skis enjoy the terrain someday.

A few blueberries in hand to give a sense of their size

It is a unique place to approach because the parking area is at the top of the ski hill so skiers are required to ski down to the bottom before ever being loaded into a chair. Likewise, berry pickers hike down instead of up to find their berries. It is nice to see that the tundra is so well established and doesn’t appear to be disturbed by the mountain’s development. If you have never had the chance to spend time walking on tundra, I hope someday you will. The smell is wonderfully fresh and unique. With just the right wind, the smell of it is carried to your senses and for me it conjures up what must be the most wonderful tea in the world. It appears as a much smaller than bonsai forest with the berries showing themselves as disproportionately large tree fruit. Looking at freshly picked blueberries they appear as if they have a coat of frosty condensation on them and I have often wondered what it may be. I imagine sometimes that it is a natural yeast that would lend itself to making a wonderful wine, but I am yet to find a good example of one anywhere.

One blueberry in a tiny tundra forest, Labrador tea is often a neighboring and aromatic plant

I was not able to go searching at Skiland with my kids until at least a week after hearing good reports from Fairbanks area pickers. By the time we went there were no patches with berries enough to keep us from having to walk far for what we were able to get. We did find enough to bake into muffins and color frosting a beautiful lavender hue with enough leftover to freeze into a bag for winter. One trick I learned from a food magazine a few years back was to lay berries out onto a cookie sheet before freezing and then scoop them already frozen into a Ziploc. This prevents the berries from squeezing each other out of shape and squashing their precious juice out of their skins before you are ready for the juice to come out.

Our tiny and dear harvest of blueberries

Berries are a precious fruit; may you find your favorite and gather it abundantly.

Mel

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Posted in: Skiing