Wild Blueberry Hunting

??Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!??
Robert Frost

This summer’s wild berry crop has blessed us with abundant black raspberries and blackberries, their seeds deposited by creatures a few summers ago in our yard, along our rock retaining walls and in a once-hoped-for garden stolen from me by a persistent and destructive woodchuck. When the last blackberry thorn extracted its blood price from my arm, its bounty tucked away in the freezer, my mind turned towards the next harvest – blueberries.

Unlike past summers, we won’t be journeying to northern Maine, exploring Bar Harbor and Acadia coastal beaches, enjoying whale-watch excursions, sailboat rides, lobster dinners around the campfire – a black tie and white linen affair back in Minnesota where I grew up – and my favorite activity, wild blueberry picking. It’s the blueberry picking I’ll miss the most, the daily ritual of rising first-light-of-dawn, heading out into fog-enshrouded seaside fields, steaming mug of coffee in one hand, berry bucket in the other, in search of fresh berries.

Truth be told, the 6-hour drive to “remote” northern Maine is nerve-wracking, vacillating between tedious bumper-to-bumper traffic barely crawling along, and the shock-and-awe of vehicles roaring past, speeds in excess of 90mph. Romantic images of remote northern Maine are simply that – notions and illusions of a long-gone era. But still, a summer without freshly-picked wild blueberry lemon-kissed blueberry pie, sourdough pancakes or blueberry muffins seems unimaginable.

I’ve been searching the internet, “wild blueberry new england”, inspired by others claiming this year is a “…bountiful year of wild blueberries – a bumper-crop, New England slopes covered…”.
No one, however, is providing GPS coordinates.

Trying another approach, I posted a request to a local homeschooling list, wondering if anyone there was willing to share “…locations for picking wild blueberries….”. Amazingly, one kind soul responded, giving specific directions to a “huge area at the end of our road with more blueberries then we will ever be able to harvest.” Unfortunately, she sent her response to the entire list of nearly 800 members instead of replying privately, as requested. Several hours later she posted a plea for “…everyone to please, please, please find another blueberry picking area because we’ve never had this much traffic on our road and the area is now picked clean….”.

While I had pleasant conversations with several large processors in northern Maine who harvest huge quantities of wild blueberries (millions and millions of pounds, flash-freezing them in the field to ensure optimum freshness, which can be shipped for $2/lb, plus shipping) they disclosed to me, after some amount of my assuring them I am not an Organic Nazi, that while they weren’t heavily reliant on pesticides and herbicides, they did use pre-emergent fungicides on their fields. While their testing revealed no residual carryover, I am not ready to give up on the idea of completely chemical-free wild blueberries. I live in New England where blueberries are referred to as an “invasive” ground cover! And as “invasive” as they might be, another issue in harvesting them was not to be “invasive” myself, picking on private property or having to cross private property.

Some farmers and land owners are offering access for a fee, ranging anywhere from “donate what you can” to the eye-blinking price of $5 per pound. A few phone calls to several of the these options, I discovered that both required walking, not driving over farm fields, and then navigating half-amount of “challenging and difficult terrain”. I admit to thinking that maybe a little bit of pre-emergent fungicides wouldn’t be THAT harmful in my diet – certainly less harmful than a twisted ankle or broken leg…

Snapping myself back to reality and remembering the goal, “wild, organic”, I heard from a friend of a friend of a friend about a relatively new, “certified organic, Pick-Your-Own” farm that discovered there was a demand for wild, chemical-free blueberries, the very same ones covering the majority of their land. Phoning for directions, I discovered they charged the jaw-dropping price of $13/lb. The blueberries were $8/lb and in addition, they insisted that everyone had to purchase a 5-lb storage box from them which they felt was “the best way to transport the berries”.

“So, if I bring my own containers, and you weigh whatever I pick, and you watch me pack it in my own coolers, on ice…”, I started asking, thinking out loud and piecing together what I’d heard. “No, I’m sorry”, the woman said, “I know it seems very restrictive, but we have found this is easier for us.” Translated, that meant, they had a system, and enough people were willing to pay $13/lb for wild, organic blueberries, that she didn’t need to modify her “system”.

While this could seem like an obsession to some, I don’t feel I’ve reach the point of giving up. Not yet, anyway. Somewhere, I’m convinced, there’s a little patch of blueberry-bearing invasive ground cover just for me.

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