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Column: July blueberry excursion yields tasty rewards

Brad Dokken

So I went blueberry picking last weekend—and enjoyed it.

The bucket of blueberries now in my freezer definitely made the few hours I spent in the woods worth the effort. Wild blueberries are smaller than the store-bought version, but taste-wise, there's no comparison; wild blueberries are that much better.

Plus, I've found, there's a satisfaction that comes from leaving the woods with a full bucket of blueberries that's difficult to describe.

The idea of going blueberry picking without being forced to do so, and having a good time in the process, was something I never would have predicted as a kid. In those days, blueberry picking was pure torture because I didn't control my own destiny.

Instead of picking for a couple of hours, we'd be in the woods for hours on end. Eating three blueberries for every berry that ended up in the pail probably didn't help, but filling even the small pail I carried back then took forever.

Every minute in the woods took an hour, it seemed; it was excruciating.

I'd much rather have been fishing. Or at the dentist having a tooth filled.

I never appreciated it as a kid, but I grew up in a part of the world where blueberries were—and still are—abundant when spring weather conditions are right. An ill-timed May frost can wipe out the entire crop, but when the stars align—as they did this year—the forest floor can be carpeted with blueberries if you know where to look.

Without getting too specific, I've had my best success in small openings among stands of jackpine trees. Find that, and chances are good you'll find blueberries nearby.

Such was the case last Saturday, when I parked the car and headed down the trail to one of my favorite northwest Minnesota blueberry spots. Some years, the trek means slogging through water before reaching the higher, sandier ground blueberries prefer. This summer, by comparison, conditions are relatively dry, and even the low spots along the trail were easily accessible.

Drier conditions also meant fewer mosquitoes, but I still slathered up with 40 DEET just to be safe. Unlike fishing, I pray for wind when I'm blueberry picking.

I hadn't walked far when I came across several juneberry bushes along the edge of the trail. If I'd been there a week earlier, I likely could have picked a bucket of juneberries, as well, but the juneberries I encountered last weekend were shriveled up and too far gone for me to bother picking.

Still, I couldn't resist stopping to sample a few, and they tasted better than they looked.

But the blueberries beckoned.

About 15 minutes into my walk, the bushes, oak and poplar trees that lined lower parts of the trail gave way to higher, sandier ground and the jackpine trees I knew I'd find.

I looked down, and sure enough, the ground was blue with berries.

I'd waited two years for this; a hard frost in May 2017 had all but wiped out last year's crop, and I didn't pick a single blueberry.

Last weekend's excursion didn't yield the best blueberry picking I've encountered since I took up the pastime again a few years ago, and I obviously wasn't the first picker, either human or ursine, to hit the patch.

I didn't find a spot where I could plop down and peel blueberries into the bucket in clusters, but it was good enough to keep me from venturing farther down the trail in search of bluer pastures.

Working an area maybe 100 feet square, I filled my bucket in a couple of hours.

I picked another half a pail later in the weekend, but that will probably be it for me as far as blueberry picking goes this summer. The season is fleeting, and the berries likely will be done before I again have the opportunity to venture back into the jackpine woods.

Still, blueberry picking has become a newfound rite of summer. A rite I'm glad to say I now actually enjoy.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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