ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL – Come July, fending off paranoia is important to maintaining one’s sanity while blueberry picking in this neck of the woods.
With a plastic bucket in the front seat of your vehicle and another in the back, you head out, watching your rearview mirror intently. Leading a interloping picker to a favorite patch is akin to treason, and is to be avoided at all costs.
At stake is a winter’s worth of delectable jams, pies and cobbler.
So trust no one.
Such was the mind-set that governed John and Jodi Weyrauch and me on Tuesday. The afternoon had been warm, the sun high, and the sense that blueberries were ripening wafted through the boundary waters like smoke.
June’s messy weather had retarded everything, including maturation of the North’s tastiest wild crop, and doubtless ruffed grouse, squirrels, bears and various songbirds, robins and cedar waxwings among them, have tapped their paws, or feet, waiting, as we have, for berries to mature.
Now that time had come, or we thought it had, and we donned hats and long-sleeved shirts shellacked with enough DEET to qualify us as a Superfund site.
“We’re friends and all,’’ John said before we left. “But I have to ask: Are you carrying a GPS or other locating device?’’
“Frisk me,’’ I said.
“We can’t be too careful,’’ John said.
“I wouldn’t tell my mother about this patch,’’ Jodi said.
Clambering into John’s truck, we headed either east or west along the Gunflint — a description as specific as I’m allowed to give.
A normally mild-mannered patent attorney, John soon assumed the persona of a big-league ball manager in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, score tied.
Chewing what appeared to be his lower lip, but might have been snuff, he glanced left, then right, following these with a stealthy hand signal to Jodi, which she acknowledged with a soothsayer’s nod.
Then, suddenly, John jerked the vehicle to the side of the road and allowed a couple from Illinois to pass.
“That was close’’ John said.
“Vanity plates,’’ Jodi said. “Dead giveaway.’’
Maybe an hour passed. Then we made one turn, and another, before rumbling into a rocky burn-over area from the big 2007 fire.
“This it?’’ I asked.
John made a quick slashing motion with his hand, across his neck.
“When we get this close,’’ he said, “we go silent.’’
These weren’t highbush cranberries we sought, or lowbush cranberries, both of which are popular with grouse and other Minnesota birds.
Nor did we want wild plum (which doesn’t grow in northeast Minnesota anyway), nor any of the state’s other berries, among them frost grape, gooseberries, chokecherries, raspberries, blackberries or pin cherries.
Nor were we seeking serviceberries, or Saskatoons, which also grow wild in Minnesota, and which, when congealed as jam, make even Wonder Bread a delicacy.
Said Jodi: “If the blueberries are ready, we’ll have blueberry pancakes for breakfast tomorrow morning.’’
Last spring, John and I put up 8 gallons of maple syrup, a sacramental portion of which was along on this trip, and this sweetener, combined with fresh blueberries and John’s secret pancake recipe, with its mascarpone cheese, would be incentive enough for us to bow our backs, and pick.
Finally, we departed the vehicle, toting buckets in the manner of offering plates. These after all were hallowed grounds, and the carpet of low-lying bushes that sprawled before us suggested we had reached the promised land.
But alas, this year, even in mid-July, blueberries in the state’s far north weren’t ready for picking. Not on Tuesday. Not all of them, anyway.
Instead, only the odd one was ripe, a dark blue.
So we picked delicately, moving gingerly among the bushes for an hour or so, putting together enough crop for our next breakfast, with leftovers sufficient for a couple dozen muffins and perhaps a pie.
“If the sun keeps shining like it is today,” John said, “the blueberries will be ready in a week at most.’’
Along with bears, birds, and squirrels, we’ll be there when they are.