It’s almost too late in the season for harvesting wild berries. Already the leaves of blue berries and high bush cranberries have turned red, yellow, or orange. We can’t expect to find berries on any of these plants. In the past years, on ground drained by Fish Creek, we have discovered ripen low bush cranberries this time of year. This morning, as Aki catalogues meadow scents, her other owner and I hunt the creek muskeg for bitter-sweet cranberries.
It should be pouring down rain on the muskeg. But the weather is dry. There is a pale, high layer of marine clouds above the mountain ranges. This would usually wipe out the detail of clouds and sky. Today, we can enjoy a subtle grey patchwork in the sky.
We hunt the muskeg but can only find a dozen cranberries on the meadow’s surface scattered like forgotten waste.
Yesterday morning we were mugged by a bear. It’s was the pleasant, perhaps too casual bruin that we caught a few days before shaking apples out of our tree. Yesterday, it toppled over our wheelie bin and cheery-picked our garbage. Then he strolled away, swaying from side to side as he headed towards the next garbage bin.
After sampling our garbage, the bear walked right past our neighbor’s bin. Later I learned that she fills it on the morning of trash day with kitty litter. After the bear walked on, she dropped in the real garbage.
This morning the bear has moved on to a neighborhood this is having its scheduled garbage day. We are left to skirt piles of bear poo and pick up scraps that it left behind. I can’t get too mad at the culprit. Since the local berry crop failed and few salmon made it to the downtown spawning stream, they are forced to search our garbage for the sustenance they will need to hibernate through the winter.
This late in the summer, we need to head into the mountains to find ripe berries. That’s why the little dog and I are searching the edge of a mountain meadow for blues. A pair of Stellers’ jays complain about our presence and them move fifty meters away. When they stop squawking, we can hear the chirp-like call of a ptarmigan.
We will never spot the ptarmigan but do find small, but well-endowed caches of blue berries. Most are large and plump with juice. Some are shaped like little balloons. A few are home to worms that will abandon their berries after we dump our harvest into a mixing bowl of salt water.
This is one of my favorite times to cross a mountain meadow. Many of the berry plants display the reds and yellows of autumn. A choice few take on an almost lavender shade. It’s easy to spot the blue berries hanging on plants already in the end game that comes before the fall monsoons.
Rain drops sparkle like costume jewelry on each blueberry leaf. Blue berries hang among the sparkles like planets in a model solar system. I have to step around red-tinted bear scat to reach the berries. The bears must be ignoring blueberries and concentrating on the red-colored high bush cranberries.
Before seeing the bear poop, I had been feeling a little guilty about picking berries that the bears might need to get through the winter. I never worried about that in past years when the bears had plenty of salmon and berries to harvest. But the red salmon they usually fatten up on have not returned to their spawning grounds and this has been a bad berry year.
After picking a quart of berries, I follow Aki onto a bear trail and walk to the edge of a small forest pond. A high bush cranberry bush dominates a small island in the middle of the pond. The limbs of the bush stretch out over the pond ‘s surface, which reflects the red leaves. The reflected leaves are the color of claret. The original ones are as pale as paper mâché.
We need at least another liter of blue berries to get through the winter. This late in the season they are becoming hard to find. But two days ago, I received a hot tip from someone with fingers stained blue by berry picking.
To act on the tip, Aki’s other human and I load our bicycles, picking buckets, and the little dog into the car and drive almost to the north end of the Juneau road system. The weather man promised us a dry afternoon. After assembling the bikes, we headed up the trail that cut through salmon berry brush and devil’s club already starting to yellow, just as rain began to fall.
The tipster told us to ride past 1930’s car rusting alongside the trail and the two spots were the trail almost touches the river bank. After that we should cross through a long, long stretch of devil’s club to where a fiddler’s green for berry pickers spreads out from both sides of the trail.
At the start of the berry patch we looked without success for berries. All we saw was wet berry bushes, empty of berries. In a few minutes of riding past barren bushes I spied little blue spheres hanging on a bush six meters off the trail. My cotton pants were soaked through with rain water by the times I reached the patch. Aki’s other human thought to wear her rain pants. Aki and I had to ignore water soaking through to our skin. The little dog was a good sport as long as we feed her berries. But after her two humans had gathered their liter of berries, she was ready to return to the car.
We are deep in the Troll Woods when Aki alerts, stiffening as she points her noise in the direction of recent motion. Then she barks. I stop berry picking and look where she is looking. Expecting a bear, I spot a gang of thrush, maybe ten of them, dive bombing blueberry bushes. The bushes bounce up and down as each bird flies away. They bounce again each time another thrush flies into them.
After thinning out the fruit on their targeted bush, thee birds fly over our heads and attack another one. I had suspected bears or people had plucked most of the bushes clean. But the bear poop we passed to get here was grass green, not berry blue. It must be the work of the tenacious thrush.
Because I can’t find any blueberries, I snatch a huckleberry and pop it into my mouth. While expecting the usual insipid flavor, I am surprised by its rich, fruity taste. A blue jay screams abuse at us as I consider grabbing another berry. But Aki is ready to move on, so we do.
We head down to the beach, through an old growth forest soaking with recent rain. Few, if any of the berry bushes we pass have fruit. In any other summer, I’d except that the berries are having an off year. But the pandemic has forced more folks into the woods, where they can avoid contact with those with Covid. This might be the explanation. When I spot berries, they are growing too high above the ground for a person to reach.
Yesterday Aki’s other human and I stumbled upon a moose and her two calves. We were walking along a trail near Anchorage. I was thankful that Aki was back in Juneau, getting the royal treatment from our friends. A momma moose once killed a man in Anchorage for coming too close to her calf. After we took a wide swing around the moose family, they returned to their wild, grassy feast.
I am thinking about our near-moose experience while picking berries near Juneau. We are harvesting this patch because it has not been visited by bears this summer. The berries are plump and plentiful, just as a hungry bear might prefer. The place is remote. The bear could expect privacy while he ate.
I sit on the moss-covered floor to pick, bringing my berry bucket into Aki’s range. The little dog take advantage by stealing berries or a few seconds. She only does it once, even though I did nothing to discourage her. A half-an-hour later I learn the reason for her reticence. A small army of tiny worms crawls out of the berries on which they recently fed. When we get home, we will wash the berries in salt water, which will drive out the remaining worms.
The rain stopped this morning but the forest is still soaked. The leaves of blue berry bushes glisten. They darken the fabric of my rain pants when I brush against them. We take a meandering forest trail to reach the berry patch.
These are not Aki’s favorite kind of adventures. She has to get her exercise on the walks in and out of the forest. For more than an hour she is reduced to guard duty, ready to chase away ravens, squirrels or bears. Every few minutes I let her nuzzle a few berries from my palm.
The bushes bordering the patch are weighed down with fruit. But those further in have been stripped clean. Recently, a bear dropped a huge, blue pile of scat. I turn around and head for another patch.
Today we test Aki’s patience. The moraine blueberries are finally ripe. Aki’s other human and I intend to bring some home.
Last year the bears harvested our favorite patch before we reached it. We had to step around bear scat to pick what was left. Today, we see no evidence of bears but lots of berries.
Aki moves back and forth between her humans. We try to teach her how to pull berries off low lying bushes. Instead of learning, she boops our legs with her nose until we give her a palmful of harvested berries.