Finding a Thrill on Cranberry Hill

For many of us in the lower 48, the words “berry picking” conjure up images of a hot summer day at a U-Pick-It farm somewhere off the interstate, a fun weekend activity for the kids and hey, maybe we’ll pick enough to snack on for the ride home.

The tundra of the Yukon River Delta. (Kim O'Donnel)

In Alaska’s tundra country, however, those same two words cast a very different picture. For the Yup’ik Eskimos, who have made the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta their home for nearly 3,000 years, wild berries are a vital component of their largely subsistence diet – a main (if not the main) source of Vitamin C. In this cash-poor economy, berries are a currency, and when the Yup’iks say they’ve gone picking, it’s serious business, to the tune of 20 gallons for one family. The latest wrinkle, though, is the ultra-harsh reality of gasoline prices, which are currently hovering at $7.25 per gallon; to fill a 40-gallon skiff tank is now a $300 undertaking, making berry picking (or moose hunting) almost prohibitive.

Along the river banks is a seemingly endless expanse of tundra plains, soft and kind of marshy, and at this time of year, the berries are a-plenty. By now, the locals told us, most of the blueberries had been picked over, as had the salmonberries (rubus spectabilis), so when we ventured out last week, we were told to keep our eyes peeled for blackberries (aka crowberries) and cranberries (which we would later find out were really low-bush cranberries, aka lingonberries) .

Those little blue balls are wild blueberries. The rosemary-looking plant in the foreground is called "tundra tea." (Kim O'Donnel)

We were a group of four – 22-year-old Maxine, Mikey, her 19-year-old cousin, my Alaska tundra companion Jon Rowley and yours truly. Maxine, who runs the fisherman’s store at Kwikpak Fisheries, and Mikey were co-captains on our river journey to an area called New Hamilton, about 45 minutes upriver from Emmonak.

It was an extraordinarily clear albeit windy day, which made my parka and fleece hat required dress. This was my first time berry picking looking like I was ready to build a snowman.

After docking the boat, we climbed a staircase of rocks that led to the tundra. At first, I focused on the ground, hunched over and in pursuit of splashes of color that would fill my bucket. After feeling a certain twinge in my back, I plopped down onto the earth and resumed my work. At a certain point, I looked up for my berry companions, who had all gone in different directions, and I realized that aside from the sound of my rubber boots squeaking on the marshy mud, the tundra was magnificently and abundantly silent.

Berry pickin' brigade: KOD on left, Maxine in the middle and Mikey on the right. (Jon Rowley)

After maybe two hours, we reconvened and amassed our loot, which amounted to about four cups -- a medley of blueberries, blackberries and “cranberries.”

At our second spot just a few minutes away, we were fairly unimpressed by the spotty offerings of lingonberries, but then Maxine, who had trekked about a mile to a hill in the horizon, urged us to join her for a look at a lingonberry goldmine. As we trudged over the spongy earth, the hill seemingly forever and away, I couldn’t resist singing the Fats Domino song, “Blueberry Hill,” substituting the word “cranberry” as necessary.

The only other musical interruption was the flock of Canadian geese that appeared to quite annoyed by our presence, but otherwise, there was more of that golden berry silence -- priceless, as the Mastercard commercial goes.

Berry bounty: A mix of lingonberries, blueberries and blackberries (aka crowberries). (Kim O'Donnel)

Once they’ve got a berry stash, the Yup’iks like to make
akutaq (say A-Good-Duck), also known as “Eskimo Ice Cream.” A mixture of boiled and flaked whitefish, Crisco (the lard, not the oil), sugar and those tundra berries, akutaq, I’ve been told, takes the edge off a cold winter day, providing a mix of fat, protein and Vitamin C. Unfortunately, I did not have the strange pleasure, but already fisherwoman Ellen Keyes is planning my next trip and an akutaq tutorial.

For now, my freezer stash of lingonberries will be put to good use in a loaf of cranberry-orange tea bread, a homey, not-too-sweet treat that produces a terrific top hat of a crust. This will be a goodie for Thanksgiving week snacks.

A few interesting Yukon-centric Web destinations:

The Tundra Drums, a weekly newspaper serving the Yukon River Delta community

Tundra Medicine Dreams, a blog written by a physician assistant living in Bethel, Alaska.

Alaska wild berry primer

It's chat day; talk to me today at noon ET for this week's What's Cooking.

Cranberry-Orange Tea Bread

From “The Best Quick Breads” by Beth Hensperger

1 ½ cups whole fresh cranberries (or lingonberries)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
KOD note: I also used ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
Grated zest of 2 oranges
½ cup walnuts, chopped
¾ cup orange juice
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted (KOD note: Didn’t test, but I bet equal amounts of Earth Balance spread would be a fine substitute)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 8x4-inch loaf pan or spray it with cooking spray.

Combine cranberries and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade. Pulse to coarsely grind. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, spices and salt. Add orange zest and walnuts. Stir to blend with a rubber spatula.

In a small bowl, combine orange juice and eggs; beat with a whisk until frothy. Add vanilla and cranberry mixture and stir to combine. Pour over dry ingredients and drizzle the melted butter. Stir with a large spatula until batter is moistened and cranberries are even distributed.

Pour batter into prepared loaf pan. Bake in center of oven for 45-50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in center comes out clean. Top of loaf should be crusty and golden.

Turn loaf out of pan and onto a rack, then turn it right side up to cool completely. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature overnight before serving.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 16, 2008; 7:31 AM ET Baking , Travel
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Thanks for the recipe Kim, I was actually looking for a recipe for cranberry-orange bread! :)

Posted by: merluvs2cook | September 16, 2008 11:04 AM

Kim, NoVa, who was looking on your chat today for arrowroot, should try Penzey's in Falls Church. They'll have it!

Posted by: Mel | September 16, 2008 5:41 PM

Is there anywhere to get fresh (or even frozen) lingonberries in the DC area? I have found the preserved ones (like a jam) but would love to try this recipe with fresh/frozen.

Posted by: Tres Amie | September 16, 2008 10:44 PM

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