Blueberry Alaska

August in Alaska and the blueberries are fruiting, a sign that summer is drawing to an end faster than usual this year. It has been cooler, more rainy, and, because of the pandemic, a more withdrawn summer. The end of summer rituals, however, hold fast.

“Let’s go blueberry picking,” I suggested to Helen, my youngest child. “Before it’s too late.”

She sat at the kitchen counter, looking up, distracted, from her laptop. She had been contemplating the college course catalog, thinking about classes she might enroll in for the fall. In just a couple of weeks, she will depart, leave Alaska, the place she was born and raised in, the home that built her. She is eager to go to the lower 48 States, to embark on the adventure. Her excitement, however, is tinged with worry. “Will it even be a normal college experience?” she asked.

Amid the Covid pandemic, she signed a school contract, one in which she promised to social distance, to wear a mask, to abide by one-way hallways, plexiglass partitions, “grab and go” meals from the dining hall, to not gather with friends in her dorm room. Many lectures will be held online. Some hybrid courses might offer a face-to-face encounter with the professor. The planning is still tenuous.

“I’ll never make any friends.” She sighed, shutting her laptop, and went to bed early. She was not holding her breath.

My heart ached for her. She had hollered and whooped when she received her college acceptance letter, staring solemnly at a second letter describing a scholarship award. Her smile had lit up her face. All was well with the world then. It was a surge, after a high school senior year that ended abruptly, classes finishing online. She had to abide with a high school graduation that took the form of a car parade, with friends at a distance and a diploma sent in the mail. Contrary to her usual companionable nature, she could not even celebrate with her friends, hugging everyone in sight.



In the morning, we drove to the heights of Murphy Dome, packing in dogs and water bottles and plastic containers. We picked up our friend Rebecca and her pup on the way out of town. Spirits lifted, the day promised sunshine and extended vistas from the slopes. Rebecca chatted with Helen in the car, about Oberlin College and the dorm room in Burton Hall that Helen had been assigned to, on the coveted fourth floor, with its dormer windows. Helen’s face brightened as she told Rebecca about wanting to take courses in biochemistry and philosophy, about playing soccer, about the bedsheets and desk lamp and posters she wanted to ship to college. I caught my friend’s gaze in the rearview mirror and smiled.

On the higher slopes of Murphy Dome we found wild, lowbush blueberries growing in abundance. We made our way along a trail, stooping down towards the carpeted blueberry patches near the woods, relishing their deep indigo color. The dogs, bounding ahead, returned to “help” by eating berries right off the twigs. When we reached a wide, alpine meadow we sat, reaching out for the berries that surrounded us, taking in the vista of the hills falling away below us. Our talking segued into companionable silence as we methodically picked, lost in our own thoughts. I didn’t think so much about picking the blueberries for their health benefits: lowered blood pressure or improved cognitive functions or essential nutrients. I gave little thought to the culinary pleasures of jam or pies or muffins they could result in. Instead, I celebrated the fruit and its harvest more for the sake of spending a closing afternoon with a daughter on the verge of leaving home and an old friend who has been as much of a mother to her as I have.


Helen will shine at whatever she attempts to do once she leaves home, I told myself. She will flourish, regardless of obstacles, like the tart blueberries that grow, hardy and cold tolerant, on the Alaskan mountain.

She is ready to go, I realize, even if I’m not.





Beyond Alaska

Helen, my youngest child, sits at the kitchen table on a Sunday evening, college applications spread out, fan-like, in front of her.  She turns to look at me, doubt clouding over. “What if they don’t accept me?” She has worked on her personal essay for days now, reshaping, rephrasing, trying to convey in a mere 650 words to an admission board the worth of her life.

I want to smile and hug her.  Of course they will, I want to tell her. You have excelled in your classes and scored highly on the SAT test.  You will tell them your story and win them over in an interview. You are young and strong. The world is beckoning to you.

Soon it will be her turn to leave.  She is ready to go, to the Lower 48 States, not because she doesn’t love Alaska, but because of practicalities. Fairbanks has yielded to her everything it could. She has tapped into every academic resource that living in a small town on the edge of wilderness could offer.  Her competitive soccer playing has dwindled, as players “age out” and teams to play against grow scarcer, far away, in Wasilla or in Palmer or in Anchorage.  She is brimming for more, she explains.  Proximity to the urban bustle of some larger city.  The cultural enrichment of museums and musical performances.  The social amenities of shopping malls and clubs and restaurants. A college or university that will offer her fresh courses, diverse topics, a new challenge. The opportunity to live on her own, resourceful and independent.

I share her excitement, smiling at her exuberance, encouraging her to go.  At the same time, I swallow. When has time started to gallop so?

“I should tell them about Alaska, don’t you think?” she asks aloud, even though the essay she has written follows a different prompt.

I nod.  It is the place that shaped you.

A Last Frontier, but she and the other kids, growing up, didn’t really know what that meant.  It is something visitors to the Far North said, something that is etched onto the license plates of cars. For them, Alaska meant waiting at snowy school bus stops and sledding down steep driveways. It meant looking out for the northern lights on dark winter nights, whenever they remembered to do so.  In the summer months it meant campers parked on gravel bars, and fishing for salmon in swift rivers, and going to the Tanana Valley Fair.  It meant combing the hillsides for blueberries in the fall and walking with dogs through the boreal forest. The usual. A typical childhood for them.

This time next year, in the fall, she will be honing her own path, wherever she finds herself.  In time, perhaps, after the exuberance of cities and universities become commonplace and their novelty tapers, she will remember again the land she left behind, bountiful in landscape and wildlife and adventure, the place she had given little thought to while she was growing up in it.  One day she might, even, return north.