Why Berry Picking in Alaska Is the Summer Trip You Need to Take
In Alaska you can go off-trail, and that takes some getting used to. In most national parks, the idea is to be an observer. You respect the world around you by staying in the area provided for you, allowing the wildlife to stay uninterrupted. In places like the Great Smoky Mountains, the mountains I grew up going to, the adherence to these rules creates a loving reverence of the world around you; you feel unnecessary in the wild, making your time there feel almost sacred. Your footprints become softer, your voice quieter. You take nothing, and you leave nothing; anything veering from the path feels intrusive.
But Alaska’s different. The mountain ranges of southern Alaska lie in the Ring of Fire, and, like the Alpide’s Himalayas, they are geographically young. You can tell they’re new the moment you get there, because nothing feels like it’s quite in place yet. The landscape is massive and stunning and dominant, but the millions of years it took to calm the Appalachians is missing. My first night there in August 2016, I sent a text describing the landscape to my mom: “It’s a lovely new house, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it.”
The newness leaves you in an interesting spot. You’re no longer an awe-struck guest, tip-toeing through the trees so as not to wake whatever ancient mysteries are swirling around you. In the jagged burst of a mountain next to a lake next to a glacier, you’re almost an equal, figuring out this nonsensical terrain alongside it. You start to feel the lonely determination that you and Alaska share now: if no one else is going to come up here and make a trail for you, you’ll have to do it yourself. The tundra understands because it’s been on its own for even longer, forced to crouch down from winds when no trees would bother growing, ignored by hikers entirely when the seasons change.
Instead, you work together, as two of the newest things on earth. When the guide taking me on a hike to the tundra reached out and grabbed at a berry along the trail, I was less surprised than I would have been in the lower 48. Here, it made perfect sense that the protein bars and sandwiches in our backpacks would be either too much or too little for the long haul, and that nature would provide.
The wild berries of Alaska are a secret, perfect reward for making the trek north. While other fruit and vegetables grow a little tasteless, mostly due to lack of sunlight, the extreme climate seems to focus entirely on making the most outrageously delicious berries possible. The low bush cranberries, found virtually wherever, were better than any I’ve ever tasted. The wild blueberries, which I’d had from freezer aisles but never from a branch, were magic. The raspberries, which I’ve never even liked, became favorites, too. Other berries I’d never heard of but now feel like an expert on include watermelon berries, which taste not like watermelon but like candy imitating watermelon; salmonberries, which are salmon-colored but not salmon-flavored; and, rosehip, which isn’t a berry at all but is just as available, though tastes more like a mealy apple than a rose. You can eat these and more, if you’re willing to walk through mud and moose tracks and occasionally step into what you think is a bunch of low trees but turns out to be an actual swamp.
One thing Alaska does have prepared already is a moral: Nature is nature, and nature provides, if you’re willing to work it. The reclaiming of Denali under its real name was a victory for many reasons, but once you see it, if you even get to, the need to get as far away from the conquering mentality of so-called explorers of the past becomes clear. Denali National Park, like the rest of Alaska, is sprawling, unattainable in an almost comical way. It’s a terrain that demands total honesty from its inhabitants; to pretend you’re more capable than you actually are would lead to dire results. The real barriers in Alaska, it’s clear after a while, aren’t the rules set by man but by the land itself. You’re allowed to go off trail when you’re on it because it’s simply impenetrable for so much of year. Likewise, berry season, which spans only from July to September, has no reason to be any longer because even fruit works with supply and demand.
I made it to the top of the tundra in the first week of August, hands stained from blueberries, boots caked in mud. It’s freezing the second you hit the clearing, and the wind never stops. My hiking party and I climbed to the top of a rock and set up for a windblown picnic: sandwiches and cookies packed at the base. Next to my backpack, a bronze circle was drilled into the rock, a plaque from the Geophysical Institute of Alaska. After a while, our guide stood up, pointing to a peak much higher than we could climb; a caribou was watching over us, or, more likely, something much more interesting than a group of humans lounging in exhausted triumph.
There was no rush, our guide reassured us as one member of the party started to pack back up. There was plenty of time—and space—for all of us to linger.
Here’s where to eat, stay and berry-pick while visiting the Alaskan tundra:
For guided tours of the berry-filled tundra, as well as kayaking, white-water rafting and boat tours of the stunning Resurrection Bay, get in touch with Alaska Wildland Adventures. Their guides will take you everywhere you never knew to ask to go, including in a sea plane over a glacier (if the weather works.) For a luxury take on backcountry living, book a stay at the Backcountry or Glacier lodge, where you'll be treated to family-style meals and cocktails made with glacial ice—the kind that's supposed to melt, though, not the big stuff.
If fully-furnished lodges and chef-cooked meals aren't what you were picturing when you journeyed to the Alaskan wildlands for three to four days, pitch a tent at Exit Glacier and do the roughing it for yourself. Either find a spot at the incredibly well-maintained campground, or pitch your tent directly by the glacier itself. For a truly local experience, grab a six pack of Denali Brewing, empty the cans into a fish net and set them up in the glacial stream—Alaska’s version of the cooler.
This Seward restaurant and bar is a tourist destination, yes, but with good reason. With waterfront views and an extensive menu of freshly-caught fish, it's a great place to end a day of boating or hiking. Make sure you try the halibut cheeks, but don't expect to enjoy a sunset on the porch unless you're ready for an extra-late dinner—Alaska’s hours mean you're in daylight for most of the 24-hour cycle.
For a more off-road meal, try Salmon Bake. Hidden away from Seward's waterfront, this little restaurant keeps the fish totally fresh for the seven or so minute drive, sending out warm, excellent meals in a comfortable, Northern Exposure setting. Halibut is a real treat in this area, and their ale-battered chunks of it are not to be missed, but you might let yourself be surprised by the fish tacos, as well. Of course, the real move here is the Salmon Bake dinner itself. Don't stress about the size; these meals are built for winter.
Alaska is home to a ton of great breweries, but try not to miss 49th State Brewery. There are two brew pubs: one in Anchorage, one in Denali. If you can get to Denali, go there. Located just a few miles from the spot where Chris McCandless entered the woods for his fateful journey, now memorialized in his diary Into the Wild and the subsequent movie, the brewery is home to the recreation of Chris's bus from the film. Grab a Solstice IPA, listen to whoever's playing that night and contemplate what it must be like to truly believe you can conquer Alaska, just because you're some guy.
Before you leave Anchorage, try Moose's Tooth. Supposedly some of the best pizza in the world, it takes the same advantage New York does when it comes to bread: excellent water. Try the wild mushroom and wonder briefly if you could live in Alaska—they really do have everything.