If no other sign for the looming change in season convinces, the multitudes of blue-black crowberries ripening along the highway in Kasilof should be an obvious herald for fall.
The cool breeze, rain and possibility of sweet rewards lured the Shangins — Leora, Miranda and Severin — to a spot near the mouth of the Kasilof River where lowbush berries lay in patches, hidden by the tall grass along the sand dunes.
“We were wondering for a while, ‘I wonder how the berries are doing in Kasilof’ and since we’re on our way to the (Kenai Peninsula Fair) we thought we should pull over and check them out,” Leora said.
Her son Severin wandered between his mother and grandmother, popping crowberries into his mouth and occasionally flicking them into the family’s rapidly filling bucket.
The rain made damp work of the process but Leora, who group up in the small Alaska Peninsula village of Perryville, said the weather made the berries perfectly ripe.
She can recount the cycle of local berries just as quickly as her hands flicked a berry picker across the ground, scooping up the plump crow berries; avoiding the unripened cranberries.
“These are the first berries to pick, the second will be the blueberries — but I haven’t seen any low-bush blueberries here — and then the last berries are going to be the cranberries,” Leora said.
While the patches of berries don’t compare to the large open tundra Leora recalls from her village, the day’s harvest is still promising.
Miranda wandered over to empty her brimming picker as Leora talked about the cycle of subsistence food gathering.
A tinny-voiced Usher blasted from a speaker tucked into a pocket of Miranda’s hoodie as the two conferred briefly.
“Where is the bucket? Is it full,” Miranda said.
“Yeah, I told (Severin) to go ask if there’s another,” Leora said.
“We only brought one bucket, we should have brought more,” Miranda said before smiling and turning away. “I’m going back to my spot.”
It’s a tradition for the Shangins to go berry picking every year, always with a partner or two.
“It is always a family thing, you never go out alone,” Leora said. “In the village it was a bear thing. We’re just like ‘I ain’t going alone,’ you’re coming with me.”
After the crowberries, also known as black or mossberrys, are harvested, the family will take them home, clean them and make akutuq, an ice-cream like dessert that Severin insists is the best kind of ice cream in the world.
Miranda laughed as she looked at her son’s face and hands, made purple by the berries he picked off of the ground and popped into his mouth.
“I used to be like him,” she said. “Our village is along the coastline, so we get sea urchins and stuff... when I was a kid too, I used to sit on the shore and eat before I filled my bucket.”
Leora and Miranda agreed that the berry picking — about five gallons worth a year — was a good supplement to their diets.
“It’s like the most natural kind of food that you can consume, rather than store bought,” Miranda said. “Berries are expensive, especially organic.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org