Note: much of the information for this blog is from the Gwich'in Tribal Council Department of Culture and Heritage website (linked below).
On August 2nd, I was fortunate to be invited out berry picking with a couple of biologists, local to Inuvik who I had been networking with through the Gwich'in Renewable Resource Board. In search of aqpiks and blueberries, we headed out onto the tundra with a handful of their friends, just a short jaunt from Inuvik. It was a breezy afternoon with a sprinkle of rain which kept the bugs away and the temperature wavering around a modest 10 degrees Celsius.
Aqpik is the Inuvialuit word for Rubus chamaemorus. I have heard them most commonly referred to as cloudberry, although the plant goes by many names. The Gwich'in word for this berry is nakàl and it is sometimes referred to as yellowberry or even salmon berry. The berries themselves are highly regarded among communities, and the leaves can be used to treat skin conditions such as burns, bee stings, and insect bites. Aqpik is an arctic species, so I have never had the pleasure of trying them. A lush, pale orange fresh signals a perfectly ripe berry and the flavour is quite mild: sweet with an almost creamy-meaty accompaniment. My understanding is most people like to cook with them and make preserves, but I enjoyed them fresh off the plant.
Blueberries are a personal favourite of mine. You may have heard of bog blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), which is the common species up here. The Gwich'in word for this plant is jak zheii or jak nalyuu. If you're looking for a flavourful, sweet berry with a tarte punch, this is the one for you! I pick blueberries often in the interior of BC, but this is actually a different species. Although quite similar, the bog blueberries have a unique flavour of their own.
Crowberry is the common name I grew up using for Empetrum nigrum, which is commonly referred to up here as blackberry. The Gwich'in word for this species is dineech'ùh. In my experience, these berries have been almost inedible in terms of flavour and texture, however while out on the tundra I picked a handful to try and they were simply wonderful. These plants are powerful medicine for stomach aches and colds - all parts of the plants can be made into a tea to treat these ailments. Another interesting traditional recipe I'm keen to try is making these berries into a jam using whitefish broth, blood/liver/hearts, and then sweetened with sugar. I'm certain this preserve is incredible for your health and equally as tasty!
Bearberry (or Bird's Eye), Arctostaphylos rubra, is another new species for me and they are now up in my top favourites due to their juicy sourness. The Gwich'in word for Bearberry is dzhii ndèe’ or shih jak. These berries are often used in pemmican, which I have yet to try out.
My all time favourite berry is also plentiful up here: Highbush cranberry, Viburnum edule, or dinjik jàk in Gwich'in. These tarte, flavourful, earthy berries are a juicy treat and the leaves can be crushed to treat skin abrasions. In the later season, the leaves turn from a bold green to a deep purple/red - a beautiful symbol of the changing seasons in my eyes.
I've only scratched the surface of the edible berries in this area of the world in this post. The Gwich'in Tribal Council's Department of Culture and Heritage has a great website to learn about all things up here. Be sure to check out this page for information on all the local berries and their uses!
It means so much to me to be out on the land learning about the area, cultures, and meeting local people. I am grateful to have been invited out for this experience and will continue to be scanning for berries on all my adventures up here.