Friday, July 28, 2006

Picking Berries in Alaska

Today is still Saturday, 28 July 2006.

Follows an e-mail to your author. Privacy yada yada. Tis so beautiful your author throws to the winds all journalistic considerations. Sue me.

It is the beginning of berry picking season in Alaska. Please be
forewarned that it is my single-minded intent to convince you that the
prosaic imaginations this opening statement might generate in the minds of
the innocent and suggestible persons of goodwill do not do full justice
to the actuality of the total experience.

The first wild berries to ripen are the salmonberries; so-named in
southwestern Alaska among the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, a region
encompassing roughly the area of the combined states of Ohio, Indiana
and Illinois. To get some idea of the terrain, imagine the state of
Louisiana with the average height of vegetation at about ankle level,
devoid of trees, with occasional shrubs reaching perhaps to mid-calf, but I
mis-speak. Actually, the vegetation reaches mid-calf to mid-thigh soon
enough if you don't keep moving due to your rapidly sinking into the
spongy layer of waterlogged peat immediately below the surface vegetation
until your feet come to rest on the layer of ice that comprises the
foundation of the tundra.

Alaska is not particularly blessed with much diversity of insects due
to the apparent fact that the apex predator of Alaska probably hunted
them to extinction. This predator of which I speak is of course, the
piranha of the tundra, the Alaskan mosquito. In the same sense that
Darwin's Galapagos finches evolved from a single species to fill the various
available niches on the Galapagos Islands, the mosquito has evolved to
fill the available niches in Alaska. They range in size from being big
enough to stand flat-footed and fuck a turkey down to a species of a
size that can fly at speeds in excess of Mach 2 through mosquito netting
with their wings trimmed for optimal speed in a dive.

What they lack in discrimination, they make up for in numbers. I have
witnessed a cloud of moderately famished females drain the precious
bodily fluids from one unwary cheechako who never got so much as a hand
raised to slap them away and before his dried husk had fallen over, they
bodily lifted his friend and carried him off to snack on in their lair
at leisure, but I digress.

Salmonberries are a staple food of the tundra people and nothing brings
greater joy than the prospect of an extended camping trip to the tundra
to gather them. They are a traditional source of water soluble
vitamins and trace minerals. A five gallon harvest of salmonberries for a
household should be considered as a minimal survival level fo a year.
Salmonberries resemble boysenberries in forrm and size being somewhat
rounder like a blackberry. Their color resembles the color of canned pink
salmon, thereby the name. For another brief digression, there is
another wild berry found in more upland terrain in Alaska that is also
referred to as a salmonberry. Its habit, form and size is much like a wild
raspberry and in appearance and taste generally resembles overripe
yellow raspberries.

The salmonberry about which I sing, grows in low lying parts of the
tundra next to ponds, lakes or connecting sloughs. The gentle reader
should recall that water seeks its level, that the entire tundra is a
wetland and that as every plumber knows, water runs downhill. The biology
student will also remember that stagnant water is required for the
successful incubation of mosquito eggs and the development of mosquito
larvae. One might appropriately then consider the salmonberry patch to be a
vibrant stew of mosquito larvae and vegetation below patrolled by
legions of expectant adult mosquito mothers, mothers-in-waiting,
mothers-to-be, mothers-in-law and a host of mosquito motherfuckers above.

A few mosquitos does not intimidate the determined berry picker. We
laugh - ha, in contempt of the flying syringes because our evolved
cerebral cortex is more than equal to the challenge. Clothing is the answer.
However, it is not simply a layer of clothes that will do the trick.
No way Nanook! A mosquito can penetrate kevlar like a sharp knife
through warm butter. The answer is layers of clothing. Now if you are
thinking that if a mosquito can penetrate Kevlar, then what would a few
layers of clothing do, you would be right. However, body movement and
the different rates at which the various layers of clothing move causes
the sucking parts of the mosquito to flex and bend, making for a most
uncomfortable feeding experience and causing suckus interruptus.

There is no escaping Newton's third law however. On a calm day in late
July when the mosquitoes have entered the frenzy, the ambient
temperature will be in the mid to high seventies occasionally rising into the
low 80s. Recall that layering clothing is the same technique for
dressing warmly in extremely cold conditions due to the insulating properties
of trapped body heat in the air spaces contained by the layers of
clothes. This causes the body to perspire. Mosquitoes are attracted by
scent. The more perspiration, the more scent the more mosquitoes. It is
impossible to pick berries while wearing gloves. Clumsy netted head
gear similar to a beekeeper's apparel interferes with efficient
gathering. Did I forget to mention that salmonberries at the apex of ripeness
are somewhat less firm than a blackberry or boysenberry and their skins
are somewhat more tender. Salmonberries bruise easily and the
efficient gatherers hands become sticky with berry juice almost immediately.
The picking motion then consists of the following kinesthesiology:
while bending over at the waist to reach the ankle high plants and
gradually sinking into the tundra wearing the kind of rubber boots that a dairy
worker who mucks out cattle stalls wears, that do not breathe or
provide any arch support, pick a berry, put it in the berry bucket, slap
mosquitoes on exposed picking hand with bucket holding hand, slap bucket
holding hand with berry picking hand, wipe sweat off face with sleeve,
swat mosquito from face with berry picking and berry juice sticky hand,
repeat 563,782 times, give or take.

I forgot to mention, getting there is half the fun. One does not
simply pile into the car, buckets in hand and drive down to the local berry
patch, nor does one walk out the back porch into the idyllic Alaskan
meadow and share nature's bounty with the bears in peace, love and
harmony. The tundra is reachable by air if one has floats and more money
than sense. Otherwise, the tundra is only accessible by boat. So, the
gear is packed. Gear includes a wall tent, a mother-in-law, a favorite
aunt, your own children and spouse, a brother-in-law, assorted cousins,
nieces and nephews and perhaps a few of the family pets, food, sleeping
bags, assorted firearms, gill nets, a lantern, cook stove, a 55 gallon
drum of gasoline, a 30 gallon gas tank, a 12 gallon gas tank one or two
6 gallon gas tanks, boat motor oil, fishing poles, extra clothing,
berry buckets, pots and pans, flatware, cups, dishes, bait, ammunition and
other sundry necessities. The ideal size boat for a trip to the tundra
is a 16 foot skiff with a 25 HP outboard motor. If your boat is that
size, then the load may be reduced by the amount of the 55 gallon drum
of gasoline and 2.3 cousins or nephews.

Travel begins by leaving the village by way of the mighty Kuskokwim
River, which at this point of its flowage is approximately a mile wide
with a channels that are 30 feet deep and about 10 feet wide. The
remainder of the river width may vary from 6 inches to 24 inches deep
depending on location and the status of the tide. When the prevailing wind
reaches approximately 12 miles per hour, the waves on the river begin to
whitecap. Keep this arcane fact close at hand. After about a half hour
of travel at top speed in ideal river conditions with the current, one
comes to a slough off the main river that leads to the first lake of
approximately 15 that must be navigated before reaching the traditional
picking grounds (note that we will pass miles and miles of visible,
lush, ripe berry patches for which there is no legal, moral or ethical
restriction against stopping and picking). The name of the premier lake of
the series is named "Piss Me Off" lake. It is well named. It is over
a mile in length and its depth is such that it has a channel carved by
the .0321 mph current that is one inch deeper than the remainder of the
lake bed. The channel is over 8 inches wide at its widest point. The
channel is unmarked by anything other than custom. To reach the
channel upon entering the lake, one must pilot the boat at maximum speed in
order to keep it up on plane and keep the propellor just beneath the
surface of the water through 2 unmarked switchbacks that pass between
underwater reefs and come out of the last switchback with the boat in the
center of the channel and then stay in the channel until reaching the
slough connecting Piss Me Off Lake with the first beaver lodge lake a
mile and a half distant. In the event that the propeller touches the mud
bottom of the lake, the boat will descend from plane and the lake will
be too shallow to get the boat back up on step. In fact, the lake will
be too shallow for the propeller to idle the boat across the lake. The
recourse? Please understand that turning around and going home is not
an option at this juncture without risking eternal opprobrium against
the family for seven generation. It's a good thing we remembered to
pack the oars. Understand that we are not going to row. Nope, its time
to recall the Wonderful World of Disney, Davey Crockett and Mike Fink.
We pole our way across the lake.

After passing many lakes and connecting sloughs, all of which look
exactly the same having each the same number of beaver lodges marking the
entrance to the lake, we at last arrive some 4-6 hours later at our
destination where we pitch camp in eager anticipation of the picking.


Anonymous earthboundmisfit said...

Whew - and I thought my trips to the peyote fields were grueling!
Those must be SOME berries he's hunting!

4:19 PM  

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