Stalking the Wild Berry

by Barbara Theisen

boat.JPG (25144 bytes)(picture) Out of Bounds tied up in Georgian Bay's Bad River, where both blueberries and blackberries thrive.

I can’t help smiling as I watch my daughter Kenna adrift in a sea of blueberry bushes. She delicately picks a plump berry. Her hand reaches to drop the deep purple morsel in the basket, hesitates, then quickly plops it in her mouth. I estimate that only ten percent of Kenna’s berries ever actually arrive back home on the boat. My daughter Kate, on the other hand, seems to have calculated some exact "system." I can imagine her counting out "ten for the berry basket, two for me," as her basket quickly fills.

While Euell Gibbons may stalk the blue-eyed scallop, part of our cruising fun includes stalking the wild berry. Although we refer to these off the boat excursions as berry picking, the picking of berries is only part of the fun. These are dusty days, filled with warm sunshine and slow fluttering butterflies. The buzzing of bees harmonize with a symphony of bird song as purple-stained fingers explore the world around them.

Our first berry picking venture was not planned. We were anchored in Covered Portage Cove in Lake Huron’s North Channel and dinghied to shore for a hike. We passed some cruisers who greeted us with a simple "blueberries are ripe." They were not only ripe, they were delicious. Since then we’ve picked blackberries, gooseberries, wild strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries, and even something called a hawberry. Wherever we go, we’ve found that locals and other cruisers have a wealth of berry picking information they’re happy to share.

Once while finishing customs procedures in Meldrum Bay on Canada’s Manitoulon Island, the customs agent asked the girls if they had any questions. "Yes sir, are the blueberries ripe," they asked in all seriousness. "Sorry, blueberries don’t grow on Manitoulin," he replied. "The soil isn’t acidic enough here." The girls smiles disappeared - until he added, "but raspberries are ripe."

But the real rewards of berry picking are not what we bring aboard the berry basket. Perhaps we use berry picking as an excuse to get close to Mother Nature.

holding.JPG (31633 bytes)(picture) Kenna shows off her "basket" full of berries picked in the North Channel's Whalesback.

We came upon a white-tailed doe and her two spotted fawns while raspberry picking. The doe seemed close enough to touch as she silently froze in mid-step. The fawns were immediately enveloped into the verdant vegetation. In an instant the doe too soundlessly disappeared. We were left in breathless amazement. I thought how we leave the hustle-bustle of our lives behind and like those deer are mysteriously enveloped into a quiet world of wonder.

We spent an afternoon watching a beaver repairing his dam during a blackberry season. We returned to Out of Bound with wet shoes, soggy socks and precious few berries that day but the girls can entertain you with tales of just how busy a beaver can be.

The sudden scolding of an irate blue jay brings me out of my quiet thoughts. "I think we’re trespassing on Mrs. Jay’s berry patch," says Kate. We move on. There are plenty of berries for everyone.

I see Kate freeze then peer her head closer to the ground. "A snake," she announces. The look on her face shows her internal tug-of-war between fear of a slithering reptile and utter fascination with this creature. I move closer for a look. "It’s a garter snake. It won’t hurt you." I calculated a risk. "Should I pick him up for you?Or should we just watch him for a minute and leave him be?" I feel my palms get sweaty while I wait for their answer. "Let’s not disturb him," they say. Whew!

We walk along the edge on forest and meadow then down a slight incline. Kenna leads the way. "look at this, Mom," she says in excitement. Before us lies a narrow blueberry patch extending as far as we can see. The girls and I start filling our baskets. The "baskets" are actually old margarine tubs that the girls fill and then empty into one large container with a cover. When a basket is dropped or overturned only a few berries are lost. It saves us the disappointment of watching a whole morning’s worth of berries scatter under bushes.

As the girls wander aimlessly down the patch, picking here and there they seem to become a part of this natural world. I watch a butterfly busily working around Kate. He seems undisturbed by her presence. I catch my breath as he lights for a brief moment on her hand then takes flight with a soft wing against her cheek. That magical feeling of a gentle brush with a monarch’s wing will be remembered long after blueberry season.

porc.JPG (39625 bytes)(picture) A porcupine watches us pick berries.

We’ve been witness to nature’s gentle side and her awe inspiring side. But nature has her humorous side too. There are the brave antics of the chipmunks who sneak as near as they dare, peer at us with big brown eyes then quickly scamper for cover behind a bush. Then back out they come, as if asking us to join them in their game. Once an old porcupine happened upon us. His slow plodding waddle had us all giggling. Even the chipmunks stopped to watch him amble by.

Mother Nature also has her own way of telling you when enough is enough. We had pulled the boat alongside an island’s rocky ledge in Georgian Bay’s Bad River and tied off to some pine trees. Just steps away from the boat the girls and I had picked a heaping basket of both blueberries and blackberries in the same morning. The picking was easy - the blueberries were plentiful and huge. That afternoon while Tom and Kate were out in the dinghy fishing, Kenna and I decided to go for a hike. We brought the baskets with us.

We wanted to hike up to the top of the cliff that stood about 100 feet above the boat. We thought we’d pick berries on the way back down. It was a wonderful walk over smooth rocks, past berry bushes, around a small pond. We ambled back and forth making slow progress towards the top of the cliff, enjoying the day.

It took us about an hour but the view from the top was worth every minute. We spotted the fishermen and set down the baskets to give a wave. Just then a gust of wind sent our old margarine tubs careening down the cliff. They landed at the exact spot we had started our hike an hour before, about two feet from the boat. Kenna and I looked at each other in disbelief and then broke out in uncontrolled laughter. "I guess we have enough berries anyway," I said.

We stretched out on the cliff top, hands behind our heads and watched the clouds drift by. The pleasures certainly go well beyond the picking.

berry.JPG (28960 bytes)(picture) Kate picking raspberries.

Half the fun comes back on the boat. First, what will we do with our berries? Raspberry tarts? Hot blueberry sauce? Blackberry jam? There are muffins, turnovers, pancakes, or pies. Fruit salad, cereal topper, or perhaps tastiest of all, a bowl of berries bobbing in milk.

Blackberries have proven to be the biggest treasure aboard Out of Bounds. One day the girls presented their dad with a brimming bowl of glistening blackberries. "I haven’t seen blackberries that big since I was a little boy in northern Wisconsin," he said. Soon we were all transformed to the woods behind Great-grandma B’s house, picking blackberries with Tom. "I would have done just about anything to get enough blackberries so grandma could make a blackberry pie. I’d have even wrestled a big old blackberry loving bear," he says as he attacks the girls with bear-wrestling tickles. The girls giggle with delight.

"Oh, the smell of Grandma B’s kitchen when she was baking blackberry pie." We closed our eyes and could smell the sweet, fruity aroma. Naturally, Grandma B’s Blackberry Pie was unanimously chosen as that day’s recipe. I watched Kenna expertly roll out pie crust. The girls measured and poured, stirred and mixed. Soon the galley was filled with a delicious smell. "Just like Grandma’s kitchen," said Tom. The girls beam with pride as the golden pie, bubbling with blackberry goodness, is taken from the oven.

"This is great, Mom," say the girls while tasting their blackberry pie. I have to agree, berry picking is great.

Barbara Theisen is a freelance writer from Wisconsin who lives on her own boat with Kenna, Kate and her husband, Tom.

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