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I count 53 plastic bags in our freezer, each filled with 10 cups of wild Wisconsin berries: strawberries, blueberries, huckleberries, raspberries and blackberries. This tally doesn't include those eaten during picking, during packaging, baked in outstanding pies, muffins and breads, or shared with family and friends. For a berry picker, the warm weather brings a succulent harvest watered by the rains, ripened by the sun, and free for the taking in handfuls or by pails-full!
Friends who learn of our enthusiasm and tremendous success in the berry patch usually ask where we find them. The truth is we find them throughout the Northwoods and we are always scouting new spots. There are thousands of acres of state and county land in northern Wisconsin with wild berries. We use a county plat book to locate public lands, and each year we walk and drive their roads searching for wild fruits. We have followed cross-country ski trails and driven through paper company land that is open to the public. We always respect "no trespassing" signs and never cross fences to find berries. Rural roads and highway rights-of-way, especially up onto the hillsides, are also excellent picking spots. We avoid the shoulder and ditch areas where winter salt runoff, pet walking and herbicide treatments make the berries less desirable.
We get great tips listening to the old-timers. Some can no longer pick, but are eager to share their berry stories. Our dear neighbors John and Veronica, both in their nineties, have directed us to many berry patches. We, in turn, share berries with them and delight in seeing the sparkle in Veronica's eyes as she smiles and says, "Oh, goodie," then clutches a container of berries close to her as if it were gold.
We're also asked what we do with so many berries. We set aside an ample amount of fresh fruit for eating and for pies or jams we expect to make within a few days. The surplus is prepared for the freezer by cleaning off leaves, quickly rinsing off tiny bugs and draining the berries well. One extra step with strawberries and raspberries – spread them onto a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan and place the sheet into the freezer until the berries firm up. That keeps the berries separated once they are frozen and makes it easier to pour and measure them later. I do not add sugar to the berries and use gallon-sized plastic bags for storage. I also double bag them to prevent condensation. In our opinion, the jams and baked goods made months later from berries frozen in this manner are every bit as delicious as those made with fresh-picked berries.
I make special jams by combining different types of berries, and adding orange rind, cinnamon or robust red wine to a batch or two. I prefer to make jam the old-fashioned way with no fruit preservatives. These tasty treats are a welcome gift, especially to those who have never tasted wild berry jams.
Mid-June is generally the beginning of the berry season in northern Wisconsin. The wild strawberry is the first to ripen and the most difficult to find in quantity. My husband usually bows out of picking wild strawberries. He tells me it takes a lot of patience, more than he has. I look in open fields, old garden areas and on sandy roads. I pick the berries as clean as possible and pass up the berries that rest on the ground; sand is difficult to remove and this berry is very fragile. Often I find only a cup or two of wild strawberries until the next outing, but it is worth it to me. Be persistent, strawberry pie is wonderful!
Blueberries and huckleberries, then raspberries are next to ripen, all in July and August, followed by the blackberries into mid-September.
Blueberry and huckleberry bushes often grow close together in open areas, on sunny hillsides and burnt-over areas. I suggest sitting while picking these to make it easier on your back. The blueberry is lighter in color; the huckleberry tends to be deeper blue, almost purple. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the two, but they are both delicious. Books from your public library can be helpful in identifying Wisconsin berries.
I call the wild raspberry a "diamond in the rough." Its specific, tangy flavor deserves tender loving care. We use a fine mesh colander to hold this berry. The holes provide ventilation. We've found early morning picking out of the sun is best; the berries stay in good shape, and we can avoid mosquitoes.
Last year we discovered a premier raspberry patch adjacent a public boat landing. How effortless can it be? They were huge and we returned several times to pick them. The prior year, no berries were there. Not all patches bear fruit each year, so be sure to check your favorite haunts several times a season.
Blackberries are most plentiful in our area. The bushes are about four to five feet high, which makes for comfortable picking, and they are easy to find. The berries are generally largest and juiciest early in the morning. We have picked several gallons of blackberries in just a few hours. I had to laugh when my son arrived home shortly after we returned from a berry-picking outing and was greeted by mounds of blackberries covering the counter tops. He stepped back abruptly in amazement and joked, "You know Mom, you could really tick off the bears."
If you have any concern about bears gathering their breakfast while you pick, follow this tip I got from a DNR bear expert: Carry a small can filled with a few pebbles. Shake the can when you hear a suspicious sound, or whistle or sing loudly. Since I cannot whistle, and singing "Jingle Bells" loudly in the middle of a berry patch in the hot sun does not appeal to me, I am more comfortable staying just a few feet away from the car. I leave the door unlocked for a quick escape. Do as you wish.
My berry-picking partner is my husband, who also likes to spend a lot of time outdoors. It's been fun for us to pick and pass the time in interesting conversation. If you see two people in awkward positions trying to anchor themselves to a hillside while picking berries, honk your horn; it's probably us!
My special buddy, seven-year-old grandson Jacob, likes to pick. This little guy has spent hours with me in the berry patch. We pass the time playing a game we call "Duck." The first to hear or see a car yells, "Duck!" and we hide behind the bushes. Jacob says this keeps people from seeing us and picking berries from our secret patch after we leave. He often complains that my butt shows when we hide. I shall always treasure this precious time with him.
Now that it is berry season, dig out your old pants, a long-sleeved shirt, comfortable shoes and high socks. Buy an inexpensive straw hat with a wide brim to keep the sun out of your face and the bugs out of your hair. don't use chemical insect repellent, but take along paper toweling soaked in vinegar to wipe on your skin, or mix one tablespoon of vanilla extract with one cup of water. Both help ward off gnats and mosquitoes without running the risk of transferring chemicals to the berries.
Attach twine to a plastic pail (be optimistic) and hang it at waist level from around your neck. Place two or three large cookie sheets with edges in your vehicle and park in the shade. When your container gets heavy, empty and spread the berries onto the sheets and return to picking. Spreading berries in a thin layer prevents crushing and allows any little critters the freedom to crawl away before cleaning. Don't worry, they will not go very far.
As a young girl, my dad instilled in me a love for the outdoors and a respect for nature. I had many wonderful experiences in the time we spent together. During the summer months, he would remind me to carry a container so I could pick berries as I walked along Highway 51 to visit him at his work place. Then we would share his lunch and my berries. I was fortunate to share berries with him for more than 50 years before his recent passing.
If you live in the country, the berries are almost at your doorstep. Lucky you! If you live in the city, take the time for a country drive and a berry-picking outing. Search the rural roads and do not forget the wayside areas. Locate the closest state or national forest and take along a picnic lunch. Keep the picking fun, enjoy exploring the outdoors and savor the fruits of nature that are yours for the taking.
Barbara Estabrook writes from Rhinelander.