Sunday, August 19, 2007

Berry Picking on the Yukon River

The primary subsistence activity of the Yupik Eskimos in July and August is picking berries. The vast tundra of southwest Alaska is literally covered in berries in late summer—salmonberries, blueberries, blackberries and redberries, the Native people love them all. Berries are the main source of vitamin C in the traditional diet, and are usually either made into jam or frozen for later use. Last year I wrote a post on berry picking here.

Berry picking is not an idle or a casual activity. It is pursued with a focus and intensity that is surprising to the uninitiated. Whole families travel by boat or four-wheeler to their traditional sites for “berry camp” and spend weeks at a time camping on the tundra and picking berries all day long. We have sunlight for about 18 hours a day right now, which makes for a lot of picking.

The entire family takes part, men included. Berry picking is not “women’s work.” A family of six or eight people will hope to bring home at least twenty gallons of berries to be put away for winter. As most of the berries are tiny, less than a centimeter in diameter, it takes a lot of berries to fill a five-gallon bucket.

And picking them gets to be back-straining work after a while. All the berries grow on ground-cover type shrubs which are about six inches tall. Picking requires walking slowly, fully bent over at the waist with hands moving quickly. It is no wonder that we see more people in clinic for backaches this time of year. If the picker comes across a thick cluster of berries, he or she may kneel to pick for while or even sit down and pick around themselves. Some elders carry little camp stools with them to make it easier on backs and knees.

Last week I had two extra days off, which I had not made any specific plans for other than simply being available for life. Henry had family visiting from the Midwest and was off camping with them; Joan and the boys were downstates visiting her family; Dutch does not get nearly as much time off as I do, and he was working. So I decided to make a quick trip to Pilot Station, the small village on the Yukon River for which I am the assigned provider. I had two goals in mind: to take a steam bath with my friend Alice, and to pick berries.

Since this was not an “official” trip, sponsored and paid for by the hospital, I did not plan to do patient care; but any time the people of the village find out that I am there, a few always request to be seen. It costs about $200 round trip to fly between Bethel and Pilot Station, and the folks without Medicare/Medicaid or other insurance must pay their own transportation; if I can see them in the village, it saves them money. I agreed with the health aides that I would spend two half-days seeing the patients who most needed it.

Even short trips to the village require a lot of baggage. Since this was not a hospital-sponsored trip, I did not have the big silver trunk full of supplies or the pharmacy case full of medications. But every visit I bring sleeping bag/pillow, grub box of food, small cooler, rain gear with boots, steam bath supplies (four towels, large basin, hat, washcloth, toiletries), and a case or two of fresh fruit as a gift to the people of the village. This trip I also brought a dozen loaves of fresh bread for the health aides. Even with judicious packing, it was well over the weight limit and added $50 to the price of the ticket. When I see the kids’ eyes light up at the sight of the case of apples or oranges, it is totally worth it.

The flight up was quick and smooth, with a tailwind that took five minutes off our flight time. The company agent met the plane and hauled me and my luggage down to the clinic just as the health aides were leaving for lunch. I used the hour to put stuff away and eat a quick sandwich, and was ready to see patients for the afternoon by the time they returned. A phone call to Alice in the afternoon confirmed my first goal: she was delighted to light the steam that night.

The village clinics all close at 4 pm, and the health aides are usually anxious to get home. They all have families to feed and chores to do. At the hospital we routinely work until 6 pm or later, so finishing the day at 4 always seems early to me. To my great delight, the clinic’s four-wheeler (a.k.a. “Honda” as all four-wheelers are known in Pilot) finally got new tires and is back in service. I was handed the key and instructed in the quirky requirements for getting it started—quirky since some kid tried to start it with a screwdriver in the ignition and really screwed up the keyhole. A little jiggling was required, but I managed to get the hang of it. Gas in the village is $7/gallon, but I was happy to fill the tank and have easy transportation. I joined the numerous Hondas buzzing around the village, joyriding just for the fun of it.

Alice came by the clinic to find me about 8 pm. She had been out on the tundra picking berries all day and had just come in. One of her sons was chopping wood for our steam bath, and she needed to get home and cook up some salmon for them to eat. “The bath should be ready in an hour or so,” she said as she cranked her Honda and sped away. Perfect timing.

She was still cooking when I arrived, so I sat down and watched. Most Yupik food is either baked or boiled. But Alice is a modern woman—she has an electric skillet. One of her boys had brought in two silver salmon, and she cut the heads off and removed the guts and egg sac intact. Then she cross-cut the fish into steaks, dredged them in flour and fried them in a half-inch of oil. She cooked the egg sac the same way. Her husband and three sons ate fish almost as fast as she could cook it. Pilot bread with margarine and blueberry jam rounded out their meal.

The steam bath was crackling hot. Alice had invited one of her married daughters and an elder woman to join us. I knew them both, though not well. We had a delightful time talking and telling stories, and time flew by. Before I knew it, my watch read well past midnight. I jumped on the Honda and was back to the clinic in a flash.

Alice had said she would meet me the next morning around 11 to go pick berries. I saw patients for about two hours, and then donned Gore-Tex pants and knee boots. The weather was sunny and clear, but tundra is often wet and boggy and the trail is known for being muddy. I had the Honda fired up and ready when Alice showed up with another elder I knew, Annie, riding behind her. The daughter who had steamed with us was also coming, along with her husband who would be our protection. He had a rifle loaded for bear—literally. Black bears have been seen recently in the area we were going to.

So we took off on three Hondas, and I would soon be glad that I did not have a passenger. It was some really rough riding to get far enough away from the village that the berries were untouched. We were traveling on open tundra, up on high bluffs overlooking the Yukon River. Over hills and through valleys, bumping over tundra tussocks and squishing through hub-deep mud bogs, the trail lead us steadily downriver for over an hour. Often the bumping and dipping made it more comfortable to ride the Honda standing up with knees bent to absorb the motion.

Eventually we got to the spot Alice wanted and scattered out to start picking. Her son-in-law scouted the area and reported no bears present. Annie found herself a promising spot and sat down amongst the berries to pick from a seated position. The rest of us walked and picked, walked and picked. It was a beautiful spot, so I was taking photos as well. We had come so far downriver that we could actually see the village of St. Mary’s in the distance.

After a few hours of picking I needed to start back, as I was catching the late plane home that afternoon. My one-gallon bucket was less than half full (I’m not a fast picker) and I was happy with that amount. But Alice insisted on giving me all the berries she and her daughter and son-in-law had picked also; she wanted me to go home with a full bucket. I was delighted and grateful for her generosity.

The trip back was just as rugged as the trip out had been, but did not seem as long. I was more confident in my Honda-riding skills by then, which helped, though still glad not to have a passenger. The experience reminded me of riding a mechanical bucking bronco. It was huge fun, and I can’t wait to do it again. That will probably have to wait until next summer; the berries are just about gone for this year.

My Yukon berries filled a one-gallon freezer bag with about a quart left over. I froze the gallon and made blueberry cobbler with the quart. Since that trip, Dutch and I have been picking blueberries on the tundra in front of our house, and I have to brag that they are just as big and juicy as the Yukon berries. We put a second gallon in the freezer and the rest have gone directly into use. Last night I baked a blueberry pie, and this morning I made blueberry pancakes for breakfast. We easily have another gallon of berries out front; I may have to call my grandmother for her jam recipe. It is a good thing that Dutch loves blueberries as much as I do.

Photos by The Tundra PA

1. Detail of tundra growth.

2. Alice's daughter. Classic picking posture.

3. Open tundra berry fields. St. Mary's in the distance.

4. Alice and Annie.

5. Annie picking berries.

6. Loaded up Honda. I've seen as many as 8 people on one at once.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of blackberry pickin' from my part of Alabam, though we didn't ride 4 wheelers, just walked down some deserted lane to a patch noone else had hit yet, and fought the chiggers for them. The rattlesnakes were what we had to watch out for rather than the bears! I keep enjoying your adventures. Keep sharing!

Corliss from Chattanooga

Thursday, August 23, 2007 4:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Caroline said...

Cool blog! Seriously, really interesting world you live in. I've never been to Alaska...perhaps someday though. It sounds amazing though. I look forward to following this blog! Not often you find 'em that are as well-written and ALSO interesting as yours! Thanks for posting on my book review. Hope to see you again...

Saturday, August 25, 2007 7:53:00 PM  
Blogger Mother Jones RN said...

Great pictures. Thanks for sharing them with us.


Monday, August 27, 2007 9:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Vern Kulm said...

I loved your article. We lived in Pilot Station for two years and have dear friends there. We go back for two weeks each summer with a mission team and have a Vacation Bible School for the children.
Vern from Montana

Wednesday, October 03, 2007 6:20:00 PM  

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