The rains that torment Anchorage residents through the month of July can have had a berry, berry silver lining.
All over the Chugach and Kenai mountains, hikers, climbers, hunters and, yes, even berry pickers have been reporting all that moisture bore fruit.
Chugach State Park ranger Jerry Lewanski calls alpine blueberry crops in the park 'very, very, very good.'
A warm, sunny June and then lots of rain in July make ideal conditions for berries, says Verna Pratt, author of a variety of books on Alaska plants including 'Alaska's Wild Berries and Berry-like Fruit.'
'The first thing is they have to have very good sunny days during the blooming period,' she said. 'That's in late May to June.'
Good weather maximizes the odds for pollination during the bloom.
'Three to six weeks after that, they need good rain,' Pratt said.
The rain makes it easier for the plants to feed themselves, leaving them with plenty of extra energy to pump into the production of plump, ripe fruit.
The combination benefited not only blueberries, but lowbush cranberries, crowberries and other berries too.
Pickers can also venture north to search along the Glenn, Richardson , Parks and Denali highways.
Alaska blueberries come in three varieties:
• Bog, or alpine;
• Early, or blue huckleberry; and
• Alaska .
But keep in mind there are a bunch of options out there to suit a variety of tastes.
Some berries, like lowbush cranberries, are tart.
Others, like soapberries, are bitter.
The edibility of some depends upon the maturity of the plant. Highbush cranberries are tastier before maturity, while others, like northern red currant, are tastier afterward.
Crowberries and alpine bearberries are among the berries that look tasty all the time, but, in fact, never are -- at least not off the plant. Keep in mind that doesn't necessarily mean they aren't good to eat.
Crowberries, for instance, are good for pies and jellies, and bearberries can be mixed with other berries as an 'extender' in pies. This is worth noting because crowberries, which grow on a low, green, shrub-like plant, are often plentiful and untouched in the Anchorage area. They are also said to be best when picked after a good frost.
Then there are berries like the Pacific serviceberry, which are quite tasty all the time, but not always found in great abundance. Locally, these berries are often mistaken for very tasty blueberries, given that they look a lot like blueberries. Their leaves are the giveaway. The serviceberry grows on a plant with a toothed leave. All of the blueberry plants have smooth leaves.
If you don't recognize these berries right off, Pratt's berry book -- organized by color -- is a handy guide. She covers berries many people might not even have thought about picking, like juniper berries.
These blue berries (actually cones) appear on the juniper bush, an alpine evergreen. Pratt says they can be picked, ground and used as a seasoning for meats or a flavoring for making gin -- although a favorite among home brewers and distillers is the trailing black currant, which makes a tasty liquer.
Meanwhile, Pratt says, the northern black currant -- found locally in wet woodlands -- makes a good jelly or jam, and when mixed half and half with blueberries really adds to the taste of a pie.
The only problem with picking these sorts of berries is dodging mosquitoes and other pesky insects, which might be why the bog blueberry, found in alpine areas, is Alaska 's favorite berry. A slight breeze is usually all it takes to keep the bugs off and the picking pleasant.
Look for the best berry patches on moderate southwest-facing slopes. Slopes should not be steep, but angled enough to provide good drainage for rain and snowmelt. This not only makes for the drier, grainier soil that berry plants prefer but also prevents any high vegetation that may steal or block the sunlight from growing on the slope.
Berry plants usually grow best in places well-protected from the wind, especially the north wind. As such, the best berry patches are usually found in a semi-circular valley open to the south or west, or in a hanging valley just up and away from the main channel of winds.
Easily accessible areas, however, attract most of the attention among berry pickers.
BERRY PICKING HOT SPOTS ARE CLOSE TO ANCHORAGE
Rendezvous Peak Trail
This short, easy trail starts from the end of the Arctic Valley Road adjacent to the Alpenglow Ski Area above Anchorage. Take the Glenn Highway to the Arctic Valley exit and follow the switchbacking road for about seven miles to the parking area run by the Anchorage Ski Club.
The trail provides access to an alpine bowl rich with berries. You're likely to find quite a few other pickers here pursuing not only blueberries but mossberries, crowberries and cranberries as well.
Some patches might be picked over, but don't worry. There is usually plenty of fruit for all, and crowds help keep away those other berry lovers -- the bears.
Flattop Mountain Trail
Just above the Flattop trail parking lot on the mountainside above Glen Alps on the Anchorage Hillside is a rounded knob known as Blueberry Hill. Now, why do you think they'd call it that? Blueberries can be found in, on and around Blueberry Hill. But be forewarned: Most of them are gone now.
'The past two weekends, people almost wore the vegetation off those hills,' Chugach State Park ranger Jerry Lewanski said. 'It was amazing.'
He considers Blueberry Hill and surrounding environs pretty well picked over, but if you venture back along Powerline Pass Trail into the South Fork of Campbell Creek, Lewanski said, you should not have much difficulty finding some good patches.
'There's enough blueberries there for everybody in Anchorage ,' said the ranger, who jokes that pickers who would like their berries tested should drop by Chugach State Park headquarters on the Seward Highway . Lewanski promised to taste test and post the results on the Internet.
South Fork Eagle River Valley Trail
This is, like Flattop's Glen Alps parking lot, another popular destination for pickers, hikers and others. Picking can be good, but access isn't as easy as Glen Alps. You'll have to hike a ways to get out of the last of the spruce trees and into the alpine if you're after the low-bush blueberries.
If you're interested in hiking, the South Fork Trail continues up into the valley for 10 miles to Eagle Lake, or you can swing off onto the Hanging Valley Trail about two miles up. Good berry picking and great scenery can be found along either route. A good idea is to take a nice hike until you find a suitable berry patch, dig in until you've had enough and then head home.
To get to the trail head, take the Eagle River Loop/Hiland Drive exit off the Glenn Highway . Follow it onto Hiland Drive and follow it up and over the South Fork of Eagle River. Just after the South Fork Bridge , turn right onto South Creek and follow it for a short distance to West River Drive . Take a right there. The parking lots is on the left just ahead.
Peters Creek Trail
The trail leads to berry patches on the slopes of Mount Eklutna and Bear Mountain above Peters Creek . Lewanski said this is the place for pickers looking to find a little more solitude. That could be because you have to hike several miles in from the trail head to get to the alpine berry patches.
To get to the trail head, take the Peters Creek exit off the Glenn Highway and then turn right on Ski Road. Follow it for about a mile, and hang a right on Whaley, which will shortly become Chugach Park Road . Take a left on Kullberg, stay with it through several switchbacks, and then turn right on Malcolm Drive . The trail head is about a quarter mile ahead. Parking is limited. Use the cleared space along the right side of the road near the trail head marker. Don't block the roadway.
The trail itself starts as an old roadbed. Follow it for about two miles, being on the lookout for trails to the left. The first of those leads up alders and birch toward Bear Mountain . It climbs steadily for about a mile to the base of a steep climb below the summit of Bear Mountain .
Eklutna Lakeside Trail
At the upper end of the Bold Ridge Trail off Eklutna Lake , there are acres of berries. It's hard, though, to choose between the picking and the sightseeing. There are big mountains all around, with 7,522-foot Bold Peak looming over the valley.
To get to the berries, take the Glenn Highway to the Eklutna exit and follow the Eklutna Lake Road for 10 miles to the Chugach State Park campground. From there, it is 5 miles on foot or by mountain bike, or on specified days, all-terrain vehicle, along the Eklutna Lakeside Trail to the Bold Ridge Overlook Trail. It is a hike of about a mile and a half up this trail to a basin where you can start looking for berries.
Lazy Mountain Trail
the south slope of lazy mountain always has berries big in size and abundant in number. They are often only lightly picked because a steep section of the trail discourages some people from hiking in.
To get here, take the Glenn Highway north to Palmer, and then follow West Arctic Avenue (the Old Glenn Highway ) through town and across the Matanuska River Bridge to Clark-Wolverine Road . Turn east there and go less than a mile to Huntley Road . Turn right on Huntley and then just follow the signs to the Lazy Mountain Recreation Area.
The wide, obvious trail out of the parking lot is the Morgan Horse Trail. Avoid it and take the narrower footpath on the uphill side of the far end of the lot. Bear right, and keep bearing right at a fork a half-mile or so down the steadily climbing trail. The trail is steep, but at a mile and half (2,500 feet) up, there is a picnic table. From here the steepness of the trail moderates, and you can start looking for berries.