Pies and jams, jellies and cobblers, pink and purple and blue. Berries are the first fall colors on the Kenai Peninsula, and they grow in abundance near Fuller Lake.
The Fuller Lake Trail in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge begins at about Mile 57 on the Sterling Highway and climbs through lingonberries, high bush cranberries and watermelon berries. Hikers may spot a few red currents and raspberries, and there are plenty of rose hips, too. The bonus, roughly three miles and 1,400 vertical feet from the highway, is the abundance of bog blueberries on the mountain slopes overlooking the upper lake. A recent trip with a berry picker produced 20 pounds in about two hours.
The berry picker is basically a scoop with a heavy wire comb at the opening. Sweep it through the bushes, and the comb picks berries by the handful. Pickers are available from Soldotna Trustworthy Hardware and Fred Meyer in Soldotna. Another handy resource, available from the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Alaska on Kalifornsky Beach Road, is a booklet called "Wild, Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska" by Christine A. Heller.
The berry bonanza begins in the spruce and birch forest near the highway. On the mossy forest floor, look for lingonberries, locally known also as low bush cranberries. Bright red and very tart, they grow low to the ground like Christmas ornaments on bushes with tiny, dark-green leaves. Use them in muffins, pancakes and sauces.
The trail climbs through spruce, birch and groves of aspen and cottonwood. At lower altitudes, watch for high bush cranberries. Those grow in clusters on woody bushes up to chest high. In fall, the three-lobed leaves turn brilliant red. The berries are tart and slightly bitter, each with a single large flat seed. They make good jelly and good munching along the trail.
Do not confuse them with poisonous baneberries, which grow in similar locations. Baneberries may be red or white, and generally grow in a bunch around the top of a long stock. According to Heller, they have several seeds per berry. Her illustrations will help distinguish them from high bush cranberries.
A few red currents grow along the lower trail. Higher up, hikers will find rose hips, good for jelly, and abundant watermelon berries, also known as wild cucumber. Those reach the size of a thumbnail and turn yellow to purplish brown when ripe. They hang singly beneath the long thin alternating leaves of the plant. They have a sweet watery taste.
Berries are far from the only attraction. Approaching the Fuller Lake valley, there are views of Skilak Lake. Then, the trail emerges by a beaver dam at the outlet to the lake at the lower end of the valley. Cast there for grayling.
Hikers cross a bridge over the creek that drains the lower lake. Then, the trail runs about a mile up the valley to Fuller Lake itself. Dall sheep frequent the surrounding mountainsides.
About halfway to the upper lake, an unmarked hunters' trail leaves the main trail and climbs a low saddle to the unnamed ridge that forms the northwest shoulder of Round Mountain. Bog blueberries and crowberries are abundant on the open slope between the main trail and the saddle. There are lingonberries, too. Watch for black bears, which also come for the bounty.
The altitude is about 500 feet at the trail head on the Sterling Highway, about 1,600 feet at lower lake, about 1,700 feet at Fuller Lake and about 2,100 feet at the top of the saddle. From there, it is a long, steep but beautiful hike to a 3,626-foot peak along the unnamed ridge. Another saddle leads hikers over open tundra to the 4,200-foot summit of Round Mountain.
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