Close-up of a hand picking a berry
(Photo: Johner Images/Getty)
The Outside Guide to Awe

While Foraging in Alaska, We Found a Delightful Surprise

Even a familiar place can deliver a dose of the unexpected

Close-up of a hand picking a berry
Johner Images/Getty
Laureli Ivanoff

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After parking our flat-bottom riverboat against the hard mudbank on the tidal flats, we walk just over a mile. It’s a 65-degree Alaska summer day. The sun radiates heat directly above us, and a slight breeze keeps the mosquitoes away from our hands, face, and mouth—mostly. We are crossing the tundra. Thin grass blades bristle the bottoms of our pant legs. With every step, we sink five inches into the squish of lichen and generations of composted vegetation. We’re in Unalakleet, a fishing and hunting community at the heart of the Norton Sound in northwestern Alaska. My husband and I are in search of fields of orange, where the work begins.

We bend over, pick, stand up, step, bend over, pick, stand up, and on and on and on—all in an effort to fill our white plastic buckets with a tart, sweet berry the Inupiat call the aqpik. Its flavor might best be described as a cross between an apricot, a lemon, and an orange, but the precise sensation of the seedy, juicy aqpik touching the tongue and throat is unique. Eating just half a cup of aqpik provides as much vitamin C as four oranges. We store the berries in ziplock freezer bags, thawing them months later, when the winter wind blows 20 miles per hour for days on end and we need a little sunshine pick-me-up.

Plucking the velvety, fecund berry from a stem that shoots out of the thick, squishy carpet is like picking a ripe raspberry. But it’s also nothing like that, because we’re in coastal Alaska, and everything worth eating here grows low to the ground in acidic soil. Ripening in the straight-down July heat, the individual berries reach up from the earth. Their wide, forest-green leaves soak in the sun’s rays. The berry sits at the top of the proud, top-heavy plant, practically shouting at you with color.

As I bend over to pluck three aqpiit from their stems, I see something I’ve never seen before. In the middle of a patch of rust-red moss the size of my softball mitt, wet, shiny polka dots catch my eye. They look almost tropical, kind of alien. My face relaxes and my eyes widen—I’ve found something new on this land where I grew up. Setting my bucket down on some firm lichen, I bend my legs for a closer look.

Fuchsia polka dots covered in a clear liquid beckon. They’re seated atop eyelash-size fuchsia stems. Fifty minuscule rays of goo splay out from a neon green-yellow paddle leaf smaller than my pinkie nail. I think of Dr. Seuss. I feel the smile behind my eyes dance to my face, through my jaw, my neck, and down to my belly. Where I’d once been deep in the space of meditation specific to picking berries, I am suddenly in wonder. Nothing else matters. It’s just me and this tiny being, no taller than the tip of my finger, with six of its partners shooting out from a comforting, soft sphagnum.

What is the liquid dot on each stem? Is it toxic? Will it burn my skin?

I touch it anyway. Feeling a bit sorry for disturbing the little plant on this hot, sunny, perfect July day, I apologize aloud. Sure enough, the liquid on my fingertip is sticky.

Ooh, are you carnivorous?

I examine another neon green paddle with another 50 polka dots splayed out. A tiny bug is stuck on a few stems, also coated in goo.

We have carnivorous plants in Unalakleet.

I holler to my husband: “Come look!”

He stands up from his picking crouch, smiles his distinctive smile, and walks over to me.

I point at the plant, tell him I think it’s carnivorous, that I’ve never seen it before. He hovers over and I’m happy to have another person to enjoy this moment with, expanding the experience. By individually connecting with this tiny plant, we become more connected to each other.

When we arrive home a few hours later, I place our plastic buckets, full of berries, on the kitchen table. Then I immediately google “carnivorous plants in Alaska.” I learn that the one I spotted is called a sundew. It supplements its need for nitrogen and other nutrients by catching insects, releasing enzymes to digest them, and extracting what it can’t get from the tundra soil. The sundew is often found in boggy, wet ground, like our tidal flats.

My body buzzes. My cheeks are tight with a smile, my eyes relaxed. In the middle of my kitchen, I picture the spunky little plant that reaches out from the moss, waiting, hoping, and luring tiny winged pests.

Tired from walking, and satisfied with our haul, my whole body gives thanks, knowing this land can still surprise me.

From July/August 2023 Lead Photo: Johner Images/Getty