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BRAD DOKKEN: Blueberry trip stirs memories

If there’s anything more excruciating to a kid than picking blueberries, I can’t imagine what it would be.

On this I speak from experience.

My grandma, Laura Johnson, lived for picking blueberries and enjoyed it the way I enjoy fishing or traipsing through the woods in the fall hunting ruffed grouse.

Picking blueberries was her passion.

She’s been gone nearly 40 years, but it’s still impossible to think about her without thinking about blueberries. I can laugh about it now, but picking blueberries never ranked very high on my list of fun things to do as a kid growing up on the Minnesota-Manitoba border.

 I served my time in the “berry woods” — as Grandma fondly called it — just the same.

 The worst thing about picking blueberries as a kid is just how long it takes to make any progress. Wild blueberries, while sweeter, are maybe half the size of the store-bought variety, and it takes a fair bit of dedicated picking just to cover the bottom of the pail with blue.

When picking blueberries with Grandma was on the agenda, every excursion lasted several hours. That’s an eternity when you’re a kid who’d rather be just about anywhere else than in the “berry woods” picking blueberries.

As for Grandma, she was too busy picking to pay much heed, and both of her hands were a blur as she plucked berries off the plants and into her rapidly filling bucket like it was the easiest thing in the world.

If there’d ever been a blueberry-picking contest, I’d have put my money on Laura Johnson.

Grandma’s willpower also was better than mine, and she resisted the temptation to snitch the bounty before it ended up in a pie or some other tasty concoction.

By comparison, I was a master of the “pick one, eat two” berry-picking technique, an approach that doesn’t do much for filling a bucket.

I always used a small pail to pick blueberries instead of the 1-gallon ice cream buckets my grandma and dad used in the woods. The bottom filled up faster, and the pail’s narrow opening made it harder to reach in and sample the pickings.

I still can see that pail and the dings in its white, baked-enamel finish like it was yesterday. It always hung at the ready on the back porch of the house, just waiting for the next excursion to the “berry woods,” which usually was a sand ridge a couple of miles west of Grandma’s house or a place we called the “Morken Swamp” just across the border in Manitoba.

Either place, you knew you were in for a long day.

Blueberry picking mostly fell by the wayside after grew older and had more control over my destiny. As a college student, I made occasional treks into the “berry woods” with my dad, and while he could find his way around a berry pail with the best of them, he didn’t approach blueberry picking with nearly the zeal as his mother-in-law.

By that time I was older, too, and the excursions were more bearable.

I thought about Grandma and that white enamel pail last Sunday when I joined Gretchen Mehmel and Jeff Birchen and their son, Joshua, 15, and daughter, Johanna, 9, for a berry picking excursion in Beltrami Island State Forest. Mehmel is manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area and agreed to show me a few berry picking spots for a story you’ll find elsewhere in this section (or website, if you’re reading this online).

As the story indicates, this summer is proving to be another excellent one for blueberries in northern Minnesota, and the prime picking should last another two to three weeks. The reason, Mehmel says, is last winter’s abundant snowfall, which protected the plants, a spring without killing frosts and ample June rainfall.

I hadn’t picked blueberries in more than 20 years. And while I still can’t get myself to use an ice cream pail, I managed to pick nearly a gallon of the tasty wild berries.

The mosquitoes were horrendous, but my time in the “berry woods” wasn’t nearly as excruciating as I remember it being as a kid. There’s even a fair chance I won’t wait more than 20 years for my next berry-picking excursion.

Grandma most certainly would approve.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send e-mail to