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In Search of Salmonberries

Hannah Colton/KDLG

July brought an early and abundant salmonberry season for some of Dillingham's most devoted berry hunters.

Each July and August, dozens of Bristol Bay residents take to the berry flats. Some are casual gatherers, picking handfuls here and there… others set out to put up volumes of salmonberries to rival the year’s salmon harvest.

KDLG’s Hannah Colton tagged along with some avid Dillingham salmonberry pickers during this early and abundant season…

Audio transcript: 

*four wheelers idling… birds chirping*

Around 9 in the morning, Kim Williams meets up with her sister-in-law Liz Johnson and aunt Judy Samuelson. This is day ten of salmonberry season for this team, and Williams says it’s been a good haul so far.

"How many bags you put away? 37… Counted ‘em last night? I got 40… I think auntie Judy’s got us beat."

They load plastic buckets and quart-sized Ziploc bags onto their four-wheelers. *4-wheeler sounds* Williams leads the group onto the tundra, picking her way between swampy patches. She’s heading toward one of their closely guarded berry spots.  

Late bloomer.

"We have spots that we go and regularly look at, cause we’ve been there for 30, 40, at least 30 years… cause I’m over 50…. We have spots that we go back and check. Some years they’re there and some years they’re not."

Last year was an off year, with no salmonberries to be found. Williams says heavy wind and a late frost killed the delicate blossoms.

"These berries are really fragile. They’re a white blossom – a lotta rain can knock the blossom off, the wind… lot of things can happen so they don’t berry."

This time around, conditions were apparently right, and early. Williams says they started scouting for berries on June 9th, a week and a half earlier than usual.

"We always know that when you hear the cranes out on the berry flat, berries are ready. And when the fireweed is blooming, berries are ready. That’s the sign to tell you to go look. This is the earliest we’ve looked, eh Jud?…"

Credit Hannah Colton/KDLG
Judy Samuelson, Liz Johnson and Kim Williams take a mid-afternoon rest after leaving one patch of berries picked nearly clean.

The morning’s destination is a prime berry spot the ladies have visited before. We arrive to find the flats thick with the big, bright orange berries that Williams says they favor.

"We want ‘em big, we leave the small ones. We don’t like’em white, we don’t like ‘em with black dots, we don’t like’em hard so you have to clean ‘em…. Yeah, they have to be just right."

These flawless berries could sell for $100 a gallon or more. But Williams says, they won’t put them on the market.

"We never sell. – I did sell one year, my old ones, when I had like 80-some bags -- *laughs* -- We’re not hoarders! *big laughs*"

Credit Hannah Colton/KDLG
Kim Williams with part of a day's haul.

William’s says her berries will go straight into her father’s freezer. Her family will enjoy a year’s worth of akutaq, the dessert of berries mixed into Crisco and sugar.

"Usually for my family we take out 2 bags when we’re gonna have a meal of salmonberry akutaq, and I take blackberries or blueberries and I add it and it stretches it... Now, auntie Judy she likes just strictly salmonberry akutaq. But she’s a picking fiend!" 

The three women pick the area for several hours, with a light breeze keeping the bugs off. Before leaving for new territory, they try to tally up their haul from this one spot…

"44! 11 gallons! That’s really good! 11 gallons out of here… That’s cool. That’s lots, no wonder our backs are hurting!"

By late afternoon, they’re running low on Ibuprofen and freezer space. About time to call it the end of a successful salmonberry season.

Credit Hannah Colton/KDLG
Half the fun, says Kim Williams, is exploring new country.

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This story originally aired as part of KDLG's weekly news magazine, Bristol Bay and Beyond