Adventures in Blackberry Picking

I feel primeval; all this free food available as long as I’m willing to spend a little time harvesting it by hand.

When you’re vacationing in northern New Hampshire, simply looking at the mountains is not enough; you’re supposed to climb them. But sweating up and down a steep trail is not my idea of fun. Bliss is staying at the bottom picking blackberries. It must fulfil some hunter-gatherer instinct in me. I feel primeval; all this free food available as long as I’m willing to spend a little time harvesting it by hand.

A couple of weeks ago I parked at the bottom of a well-worn path up one of the Presidential peaks. With a knapsack and boots I looked as though I was ready for a challenging ascent, but I was actually headed for some serious berrying at the base of the mountain. Only a few yards in, the trail opens onto a huge powerline thruway where, unencumbered by trees, the wild blackberry bushes have taken over.

Picking blackberries is not for the delicate. The bushes are thick with nasty thorns, far worse than raspberries, and the thorns seem to proliferate on the branches heaviest with berries. Boots, jeans, long sleeves, and a hat are absolutely necessary if you want access to the biggest, juiciest berries, which are always deep within. Even so, there’s no way you will emerge unscathed.

You never see the berries right away. It happens every time I head into a new spot: At first you’re tempted to move on, thinking that these bushes aren’t very fruitful, but you don’t. You wait. They’re there, and you know it, but your eyes aren’t ready yet. Then, all of sudden, boom, you catch sight of a branch laden with the shiny, dark purple berries. When that branch is picked clean you turn around and boom, there’s another one. It’s like those 3-D pictures that initially appear as a mass of squiggles until your eyes suddenly refocus and an intricate scene pops from the page.

In dense patches where bushwacking into the inner sanctums is next to impossible, I look for flattened swaths where bears have already been. They must sweep through at night, swiping pawsful as they pass. But they miss plenty, leaving ridiculously easy access to berries you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.

The hardest part about berrying? Stopping. I always bring more containers than I think I’ll need, and if the picking is good, I can’t resist filling them all. When that’s done, I start filling my stomach. There’s always another fat berry just around the next bush. When I do finally leave, my pack filled with the spoils of my war with thorns, I feel victorious. Blueberry picking seems like such wimpy stuff in comparison.

The real joy, though, is in the eating. By an accident of pure serendipity, we ran out of vanilla ice cream one evening, early in our vacation; all that was left in the freezer was a container of coffee ice cream. No all-night delis up there in the north woods to solve a minor problem like this, so we roughed it and went with the combo. One bite of the slightly bitter coffee ice cream with those winy, wild blackberries turned into one of those “Duh!” moments. Why hadn’t we tried this before? Vanilla is now ancient history.

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