Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Search for Wild Berries: A Classic Alaskan Activity

Any food expert can tell you the health benefits of berries.  But in case you need a refresher, consider the low calories, high fiber content, they're a great source for vitamins and minerals, and in some cases berries provide antioxidants to help your body fight inflammation and free radicals.  Some experts recommend that you eat two to three types of berries each day for maximum health benefits.  Lucky for you, you're planning a trip to an Alaska bed and breakfast this August or September, when the berry season is at its height!

The great news is that wild berries grow abundantly in Alaska!  With over 50 species of wild berries, you can find them on almost any walk, hike, or even drive around the state when they're in season.  Each day of your stay, it might be possible to find your ideal daily berry-booty, and then some!

Where do you find berries?  Look for areas where the ground has been cleared for building, or where a fire has occurred recently, as berries are the first step in reforestation after a traumatic land-clearing event.  Look at edges of the road, bogs, and south-facing, sunny slopes.  Each berry has its own habitat, so if you look for specific types, of course you'll want to check in the appropriate place.  As a very loose guide, here are some of the more popular berries in the state, and where you can find them.
  • Blueberry:  Grow on bushes in woodland and traumatic clearings, and are even sweeter in the higher elevations.
  • Salmonberry:  Similar to the raspberry with colors ranging from red through yellow and grow on open slopes and roadsides.  Beware the prickers!
  • Nagoonberry:  (Also called dewberry and wineberry)  Grow in damp woodland and traumatic clearings - especially areas with recent fires.
  • Cloudberry:  Look for these peach-colored, lobed berries in boggy areas.
  • Northern Red Currant:  Look for these bushes near streams and thickets from low meadows to the woodline.
  • Crowberry:  Grow on evergreen shrubs (that look similar to rosemary) in bogs, alpine meadows, and even in the woods.
  • Cranberry:  Both high bush and low bush varieties of this tart berry grow around wooded areas.
  • Currants - Look for both red and black varieties in moist woodlands and clearings.
  • Raspberry - Grow in clearings, dry meadows, and on the edges of wooded areas.
  • Serviceberries - These 6-16' tall shrubs grow in dry exposed areas from sea level up to sub-alpine areas in thickets and borders of woods.
  • Wild strawberries - Look for in clearings and meadows.
Of course, with the good, comes the bad.  Wild berries are a staple diet supplement to the many bears and other wildlife that live here, so be very aware of your surroundings.. and don't be afraid to make some noise during your search to hopefully scare the wildlife away!  There are a few strains of berries that are very poisonous to humans and animals alike, and should be avoided at all costs:
  • Baneberry grows in woods and on hillsides, berries are red or white, opaque, with shiny surface and black dot.
  • Devil's Club - bright red berries.
  • Wild Calla - The plant's flower looks similar to the calla lilly.
  • ANY white berry in Alaska is poisonous!
Sure, most of us know the strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries.  But what of the rest?  How do you tell a crowberry from a nagoonberry from a baneberry?  If you lack the confidence to identify some of the less-known varieties, you have a couple choices.  Most booksellers in the state have some type of berry identification guide available to the public.  Also, some guide services offer part-day hiking trips that go through prime berry-picking locations.  Your innkeeper can point you to businesses and individuals offering guide services in the area.

Member inns of the Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska welcome you during berry season!  What better way to enjoy Alaska than to take a walk around the area after a great breakfast, gather up some berries of the season, and return to your inn accommodations to enjoy the fruits of your labor!


... So you've brought berries back with you.  Now what?

Berries are best when eaten the same day they are picked.  You can rinse the berries clean and eat right away, plain, or with some whipped cream or ice cream!  However, if you're feeling creative, you can ask your innkeeper for access to the kitchen - or build yourself a fire either outside or in the fireplace - and try a couple of these easy recipes:

Berry Smoothies/Shakes:  If your innkeeper has a blender, purchase some ice cream and milk, frozen yogurt, or Greek yogurt and blend in the berries.  This is, of course, the most classic use for berries in the United States!
Berry S'mores
There's nothing like tart/sweet berries with chocolate and sugar - why not add them to a camper's favorite?

Graham Crackers
Large Marshmallows, toasted over fire or in the broiler
Chocolate Bars
Fresh Berries
  • Build your s'more with a few berries between your marshmallows and chocolate bar!
Recipe inspiration from a Real Simple recipe.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Aurora Borealis in Alaska: Art Exhibit of Nature

If you've ever needed a reason to visit Alaska during the winter, we have a doozy: the Northern Lights! Just about the only thing to get even Alaskans to leave the warmth of their homes in the middle of the winter night, the aurora borealis is at its brightest and most brilliant between December and March during our notorious long, dark nights. While the spectacle is most frequently seen further north in the state, occasional shows can be witnessed as far south as Juneau. No matter where you vacation in The Last Frontier, there is always a chance to see these dazzling shows during the winter!

When you see them, they might seem like great big ghosts in the night. Their eerie colors flutter in the night sky like giant celestial curtains in green, pink, red, white, and purple. It is no wonder some early Alaskan inhabitants, including the Kwakiutl and Tlingit tribes, thought the aurora were dancing spirits of the dead.

In layman’s terms, auroras are created when solar ions become trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field and collide with our atmospheric particles, emitting a colorful glow. Because these solar ions tend to congregate around the Earth’s North and South Poles, the aurora is more easily seen the further north and south you go. However, if a large amount of solar ions are trapped, the anomaly is easily seen further away from the poles.

A bit of trivia: auroras in the north are called aurora borealis (lights of the north), and in the south, they are called aurora australis (lights of the south).

How do you guarantee you’ll see the aurora during your visit to Alaska? Unfortunately, you can’t. However, if you hear a news story about a solar flare or storm during the winter, there is a good chance that the Northern Lights will be bright and beautiful that night. The best times to see the phenomenon is between 11:30 pm to 3:30 am during clear skies, so if while staying here in the winter, you happen to awake in the night, be sure to have a look outside... just in case. You can also keep an Internet-eye on the UAF Geophysical Institute (or sign up for their email alert) to get an idea of when to look during your Alaskan vacation.  Many of our inns also offer a wake-up service to call you or knock on your door if the aurora are displaying actively and you've asked to join the viewing:  it's not an unusual sight to see B&B visitors wrapped up in their robes with parkas over the top and bare feet in boots, standing in the driveway or parking lot, all looking up at the night sky!

So if you have ever hesitated to visit Alaska during the winter because of the cold, definitely reconsider! Your cozy winter getaway at one of our BBAA member inns just be highlighted by one of the most beautiful natural displays you’ll see in your lifetime!