On the Alaskan Tundra: Picking & Preserving Berries for Winter Months

Blueberries on the Arctic tundra
Blueberries on the Arctic tundra. Photo by Jenny I. Miller.

National Geographic Young Explorers Jenny Miller, Sarah Robert and Charu Jaiswal are embarking on a one-month expedition to Alaska to document food scarcity and a revival of hunting and gathering among young people. Follow team’s updates from the field on Explorers Journal.


On Friday evening we went blueberry picking with Nikki and her four-year-old daughter Macey. Nikki’s grandma, Jennie Omedelina, and Jenny’s Aaka, Helen Senungetuk, were first cousins.  As an Alaska Native (Inupiaq), Nikki grew up picking and putting away blueberries for the winter.  As a child she learned the importance of gathering local fruits and vegetation from the Alaskan tundra from her grandma and continues those traditions. Wild Alaskan blueberries contain a high content of vitamin C and provide a sweet treat for Nikki and her family during the cold winter months.

At 7pm, the sun was still high in the sky; the extended daylight in Nome allows us to stay out longer. We headed out into the country, about 20 miles outside of Nome on the Kougarok Road, past the campsite Dexter. As we began our search for tundra blueberries, we spotted only a handful of vehicles on the road.  Finally we stopped in an area that Nikki predicted would have plenty of blueberries. She quoted a friend’s advice: “Pick where no one would think to pick.”

Nikki pulled a small horn out of the trunk, warning us to plug our ears. She blared the horn to ward off any bears that might be lurking nearby.  Then she began the hike up the hill, enticed by the taste of the waiting berries. She crouched in the bushes, delicately plucking and placing them into a plastic bucket. Picking blueberries is a meditative experience, and the only sounds you hear are the crunching of the tundra under your feet and whistling of the wind.  Jenny, Sarah and I occasionally paused filming to eat a couple. Wild Alaskan blueberries are smaller, but more intensely flavoured than those bought in stores.

Below is a soundscape of us walking on the tundra and an explanation by Jenny of Tundra (Labrador) tea, which is found alongside the blueberry bushes.

Nikki and her blueberries on the Kougarok Road. Photo by Jenny I. Miller.

After Nikki’s bucket was nearly full, she decided to drive back home. She had room for more, but it was getting very cold and her hands were numb from the wind. In the car we joked about Jenny wanting to see a bear, now that we were safely sitting in a car.

Suddenly, Nikki pointed towards a moving brown figure on the hill beside the road. “Is that a bear!?” she exclaims. It seemed to be. Nikki jerked the car to a stop and opened the sunroof; Jenny popped out to get a better look using the telephoto lens of her camera. She spotted three people walking up the hill, seemingly unaware of the bear above them. Nikki frantically honked the car horn, a universal signal in Alaska for “Bear!”

We watched in a panic. But suddenly, the blonde grizzly bear fell to the ground. After zooming in, Jenny noticed through her camera that the people were carrying rifles, and that we had just witnessed a bear taking its last steps – five minutes from where we were picking berries.


You can follow our journey on Twitter and Instagram.

NEXTYoung People Look to Old Ways of Hunting and Gathering


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Meet the Author
The Young Alaskan Hunters and Gatherers team is made up of three people. Charu, Sarah, and Jenny met through the Fulbright Foundation's Killam Fellowships program. Charu is a Biology student at York University in Toronto, Canada; Sarah is a Film and Media student at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada; and Jenny recently graduated with a BFA in Photomedia and BA in American Indian Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle. Jenny is originally from Nome, Alaska and is a tribal member of the Inupiat community.