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Dokken: Morning blueberry-picking excursion offers rewarding time outdoors

It had been a few years since there was a decent blueberry crop where I pick, but this year the stars aligned.

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A pail full of blueberries marks the end of a successful morning blueberry-picking excursion Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, in northwest Minnesota.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald
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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS – If fishing big water such as Lake of the Woods or Devils Lake had been on the agenda, the stiff northwest wind that gave the morning an almost autumn-like feel might have been a buzzkill.

Instead, the wind was a blessing because blueberry picking was on the agenda.

Spending time in the woods this time of year means battling mosquitoes, and the wind — along with 40% DEET — would help keep them at bay.

This would be a perfect day for blueberry picking.

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It had been a few years since there was a decent blueberry crop where I pick, but this year the stars aligned. I’ve heard reports of banner blueberry picking in most of the wooded, sandy areas of northern Minnesota where the berries thrive. Late July through mid-August or so is prime time, and Beltrami Island State Forest has been a hotbed, especially in the area of the Palsburg Fire, which burned more than 4,500 acres of upland timber in April 2015 in a part of the forest south of Warroad, Minnesota.

The forest openings resulting from that fire created ideal conditions for blueberry plants, and blueberry pickers descended in hordes beginning the summer of 2016. Charlie Tucker, who recently was named manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp, was assistant manager of the WMA in 2016, and he described the blueberry boom while showing me around the site of the Palsburg Fire in October of that year.

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“It was fun to see that many people out,” Tucker said in a story published Oct. 17, 2016. “I would come out here, and it would be like, you’d park here, and there’d be somebody there, somebody there, somebody there. And it didn't matter because the blueberries were everywhere.

“How often is it with humans and natural resources that there’s actually enough to make everyone happy? There were plenty of blueberries to make everyone happy.”

A similar story is playing out this year.

And so it was that I set out last Saturday morning from the getaway in northwest Minnesota to see what I could find for blueberries. I wasn’t venturing as far as Beltrami forest, and while the area I’d be picking wouldn’t be as prolific, I was optimistic I could fill a half-gallon pail.

BELTRAMI ISLAND STATE FOREST, Minn.--Driving down a sandy stretch of the Black's Winner Forest Road, Charlie Tucker pointed out a sea of big bluestem, a prairie grass not typically associated with pine forests.

Plus, since my chosen blueberry patch is only accessible by walking, I figured I’d have the place to myself.

I was right.

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Just like other summers with a decent crop, I started seeing blueberries along the edge of the trail as soon as I walked up on higher, sandier ground. I hadn’t ventured more than about a half-mile from the truck, but it was time to start picking.

Anyone who’s ever picked blueberries will attest to the patience that’s required to fill a pail. They don’t grow on trees, for one thing, so that means getting down on the ground and crawling from one blueberry plant to the next.

The key — and I’ve gotten better at this over the years — is to put the berries in the pail instead of my mouth. The picking definitely goes faster that way.

The blueberries on this day were abundant enough that I could plop down in a spot and strip the berries right from the plant into my pail. I’m always stiff for a few days after a blueberry picking excursion, but a pail of blueberries — there’s no comparison between wild blueberries and the store-bought variety — is worth a few days of discomfort in my world.

The bottom half of the pail filled faster than the top half, and I soon found myself scrounging for the biggest, most abundant berries. I’d hoped to fill my pail in one spot, but I eventually had to venture another quarter-mile or so to another open patch in the pines where I knew I’d find blueberries.

Like any successful hunting, fishing or gathering, I suppose, there’s something especially satisfying about a pail full of blueberries. Because blueberries grow on the ground, picking them is a lot more work than picking juneberries — which are past their prime — or the chokecherries and highbush cranberries that soon will be coming into season.

I’m not the fastest blueberry picker in the world, but I was back at my truck within about 2½ hours of hitting the trail.

It had been a rewarding morning — and a nice change of pace as outdoors excursions go.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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