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Archive for June 23rd, 2009

It is blueberry season in the Ozarks, and so I have been out gathering my yearly supply of blueberries.   The babies that we planted are way too young to make a crop, so we avail ourselves of the U-Pick patches in the neighborhood until they mature.

The U-Pick patches are characterized by long rows of carefully tended and meticulously mulched high-bush blueberries separated by exquisitely mowed grass.   It is hotter than the hinges of Hades around here right now, so we try to get up nice and early and be at the patch to pick when they open at 7 a.m.  So you stroll through the dewy grass, pick perfectly ripe berries the size of the end of your little finger, eating as many as you wish, and listen to the birds and swat an occasional mosquito or fly.  In an hour and a half, I can pick a couple of gallons.

It is always at this time of year that I start thinking about what it was like to pick blueberries in Alaska, a completely different sort of experience.   First of all, there are the blueberry “bushes”.   The first time in my life that I went to a commercial blueberry patch, which was located in the state of Washington, I felt I had entered some sort of Alice in Wonderland fantasy where the giant shrubs covered with blueberries had drunk the bottle labled “Drink Me.”   I could not believe that these giant masses of arching canes making an almost impenetrable jungle were actually blueberries.   They were, I realize now, inhabiting a farm that had not been pruned in any way for over a decade.  But still, it was a far cry from the plants that I was used to finding blueberries on.   The blueberry “bushes” in Alaska are rarely more than three or four inches tall.  The berries, while delicious, are much smaller too.  If I found one that was as much as 1/4 inch in diameter when I was picking in Alaska, I felt I had found a monstrously large berry.  Around here, a berry that small is hardly worth the effort to pick it and put it in your pail.

The plants in Alaska are not found in carefully tended fields either.   Their preferred habitat is muskeg. They can also be found on the slopes of foothills near mountains.  Both places are equally well supplied with squadrons of starving mosquitoes and flocks of tiny biting flies the natives call “white socks” because of the white stripes on their legs.   You can see those stripes clearly when you notice the little flying bastard taking a chunk out of your body — right before you smash it dead.

So the differences in the blueberry picking experience are vast.   But one of the vastest of the vastnesses is the fact that in the Missouri Ozarks you don’t ordinarily have to worry about competing with grizzly bears for your harvest.

Now I recall a lovely late-August afternoon when I decided I wished to pick blueberries.   I drove out into the permafrost muskeg area north west of town where I generally was able to find a good patch, and there was not a single blueberry to be found.   We had experienced some squirrelly weather in the spring, so I guessed that we hadn’t had a decent berry set that year, sort of wrote off getting any blueberries at all.   The next day I was talking with one of my friends, and she mentioned that down McKinley Park way (this was before we restored the Athabascan name for the mountain — Denali) the bushes were just loaded.   It was a substantial drive to get there from Fairbanks, probably right around 120 miles.   However, in Alaska, distances are so great that a trip like that was truly only a little day trip, not some sort of pilgrimage.   I didn’t have a lot to do the next day, so I hopped in my little Saab and scooted on down there with my berry picking pail.

I found a spot that looked likely, doused myself with Cutters (mosquito repellent), walked around a bit, and ascertained that there were certainly lots and lots of blueberries.  So I set off picking.   As these things go, you tend to hunker down in a good spot, pick all the berries that you see there and then stand up to stretch and move along to another patch.    Since I was all by my little loneliness, and enjoying that very much, I was pretty quiet.   Once you have the bottom of your bucket layered with berries, you make hardly a sound as you pick berries and drop them into the container.

So, I picked and picked, and after several hours I had achieved a remarkable harvest of around three quarts of berries, which looked to me like quite a number of pancake and muffin treats later on during the winter.   (I never bothered to imagine that I would ever be able to acquire enough blueberries to do something so arcane as make jam.)  Of course, it being August, there was no danger of the sun going down on me any time soon, so I thought I’d sort of stand up, get a good stretch in, and survey where I had gotten to over the course of my meanderings and which way I ought to head to get back to my car.

As I worked the patch I had slowly ascended the rolling ridge where they were growing, and I had nearly reached the top of it.  There was a stiff glacier-cooled breeze coming over the crest of the ridge I was on, and so as I picked I had worked my way along the ridge rather than going over the top.  I was sheltered and warm, and yet the breeze was helping keep the bugs at bay.  When I stood up, however, my head and shoulders were up in the wind and I could see over the ridge and down the slope behind.   I looked around, enjoying the view.  The mountain had shed its veil of clouds and was laid out in all its stark icy and rock splendor before me.

“Man, oh man!”  I felt motivated to yell.   “What a beautiful day!”   I prepared to burst into a quick rendition of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” even though it wasn’t strictly morning.  My shout of joy had disturbed the other blueberry picker who was sharing the ridge with me.  He had been working the breezy side, and the brisk gale that was blowing had blurred the sounds of his activity from me.  He threw his head up, startled by my outburst, and gazed deep into my eyes.  He was big, blonde, handsome and muscular.

He was also a grizzly bear  It would be fair to say that it was a toss-up as to which of us was more surprised by the presence of the other.  I suddenly lost the capacity to breathe or move.  He fixed me with a stern gaze, then gave me a “There goes the neighborhood” look, and lumbered off down the ridge towards a drainage filled with a willow jungle.   He disappeared into the shrubbery, and I managed to pick my eyeballs up off the ground and get the hell out of there in the opposite direction shortly thereafter.  I did not spill my berries, nor did I forget them in my haste.

But it is an experience and a vision that I will never forget as long as I live.  Every time I pick blueberries,  I think about that beautiful, fat bear, and how disgusted he was by his noisy neighbor.

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