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Picking berries on the Chippewa National Forest

Youth collects berries on the Chippewa National Forest, Minnesota. USDA Forest Service photo

MINNESOTA – Working on the Chippewa National Forest, you see the patterns of seasonal recreation use, you also see the traditions of families enjoying the national forests. It’s well known that there is a ritual to the Minnesota walleye fishing opener in May or the opening of deer hunting season in November. In between though, there is a more subtle group who wait patiently all year for the summer berry season.

The perfect combination of conditions in 2018 led to an excellent crop of just about everything you could gather on the Chippewa National Forest. While the cold spring may have held back the morel mushrooms, the berries were early and surprisingly abundant. Wild strawberries, raspberries and the highly sought-after blueberry.

Blueberry pickers are notoriously secretive, but the bumper crop this year had people sharing the more accessible areas (but never giving up their best blueberry site).  To pick blueberries, you must find a site under the pines, in acidic sandy soil. A little shade, a little moss is good to hold moisture in.  The diehard blueberry pickers’ start early in the morning, before the heat of the day hits. For others, the picking starts in the early evening, as the deer flies slow down.  Pickers have their favorite buckets and favorite hats!

You are either a fast and dirty picker, meaning your bucket fills with berries quickly, but it also contains leaves and sticks, or you are a clean picker. A bucket of solid blueberries with no sticks or leaves is a beautiful thing. Either way, berry picking is therapeutic, a bit of quiet meditation in the woods to just slow down and use all your senses. Note that flash of blue color as you walk under the jack pine. Taste that sweet blueberry, there is nothing that compares to a wild blueberry. Hear the wind in the trees overhead, the feel of pine needles and soft moss underfoot. Enjoy the scent of the woods after a July rain.

The annual trek to the berry patch means time with family. Picking blueberries is time connected to the forest. Connected to the traditions. Look at the star on the top of a blueberry and remember the story that this berry is a gift from the heavens, dropped out of the sky.  Once home, the pickers take time to clean the berries, culling the green leaves or green berries from the batch.  Ready for muffins, or miini-baashkiminasigani-biitoosijigani-bakwezhigan, a blueberry pie (the longest word in Ojibwe language).  Other berries are put in bags and frozen, because people in northern Minnesota know, Minnesota’s wild blueberry holds in the taste of summer. And on some cold winter day in January, we grab a handful of those frozen berries and remember July.