by Bryan Bearss
After a great summer of blueberry or raspberry picking, it’s time to change gears and think about fall’s other recreational pursuits. As you bundle up and head outside, don’t forget to pack an extra container for a detour along the trail to harvest an autumnal berry bounty. While frost and cooler temperatures have driven the blueberries out of season, cranberries are now just coming in season. Lucky for us, Alaska is home to a trifecta of the tangy fruit: Bog cranberries, low-bush cranberries or “lingon berries,” and high-bush cranberries. All three of these variety are red, and all mature by late August, but are better to be picked in late September through the end of October when flavors have matured in the cooler temperatures.
Now that our mornings are crunchy with frost, cranberries all around the state should be ready, so here’s a quick Cranberry 101:
Bog Cranberries. These true cranberries are a common sight in the delicate bogs and muskegs throughout Alaska. They are identified by a long trailing vine with small, leathery leaves and little red berries that sit almost directly on the ground, or moss. Unlike blueberries, bog cranberries grow individually with a dozen grouped in a 1-2 square foot area.
Low-bush Cranberries. Like the bog cranberry, the low-bush, or lingon berry, is common in the bogs and muskegs, or around other open habitats. They are a diminutive leafy shrub that grows in clumps, producing a hand full of small, red, and very tart berries (pucker-up alert!). Unlike the bog cranberry, berries of the low-bush variety are slightly elevated off the ground.
High-bush Cranberries. High-bush cranberries are not true cranberries, instead belonging to the honeysuckle family. When mature, they grow on an 8-15 foot bush, with leaves are very similar to those found on a maple tree, but with a heavily-wrinkled surface. The fruits are nearly round, bright red, and quite tart like a cranberry.
Better be berry aware! Berry picking does come with dangers, namely in the form of poisonous varieties and wildlife. When picking berries, a good rule to follow is to ask an adult; trail guide, parent, teacher, or ranger if you are not 100% sure of the berry type. Note: ALL white berries in Alaska are poisonous. One look-alike berry is the baneberry, which can either be white or red with a black spot. Not sure? Let them be.
Cranberry season also coincides with bears making one last push for food before hibernation, and the season of the moose rut (sort of like a big dating game, when male moose can be very cranky). Your safest plan is to pick cranberries in groups. Make a point to talk, sing, wear a bear bell, and always be aware of your surroundings.
It is also advisable to harvest away from roads to avoid contamination from dust or oils kicked up by cars, and to be respectful of private property.
There are berry hotspots throughout Alaska, and while the location of some are held close as forever family secrets, many others are on public land and discovered with persistence and a bit of hiking.
The parks and green spaces around Anchorage are loaded with harvest opportunities including Flattop Mountain Trail, Arctic Valley, Rendezvous Peak Trail, Bird Creek, and Kincaid Park.
Outside Anchorage, some of my favorite places include the area near Sheep Mountain Lodge, Turnagain Pass, Johnson Pass, trails leading to the Little Su River, trails throughout the Kenai Peninsula, Denali National Park and Denali State Park.
Cranberry sauce and Thanksgiving go together like peanut butter and jelly, but there is so much more that can be done with this fall harvest. Anything you do with domestic cranberries can be done with all three wild cranberry species, although extra caution should be taken with the large flat seeds in the high-bush cranberry. Try a vacuum-seal and freeze for winter recipes; canned and turned into jellies or juice; baked in muffins, pancakes, or pies; or dehydrated and eaten as a tart snack.
High in vitamin A, vitamin C, beta-carotene, and antioxidants, Alaska cranberries offer a wealth of health benefits no matter how they are consumed!
MORE CRANBERRY INFORMATION
Useful trail guides:
Alaska’s Wild Berries and Alaska’s Wild Plants Guide for general berry picking locations
Alaska’s Wild Berries and Berry-Like Fruit, by Verna Pratt
Alaska Cooperative Extension Service – Berries