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Woods, water & worse/Jim Junttila

Pickin' and grinnin' in the berry patch

August 14, 2009
By Jim Junttila

It started innocently enough; slowly, almost imperceptibly, the white blossoms seduced the bees, then fell to the ground. Green berries took on that first blush of pink. A few ripened to that deep, rich, velvety red. Then suddenly, before we knew it, our outer fringes were overgrown. Overnight, under the cover of darkness, Raymbaultown, Bumbletown, Helltown, Hubbell and Lac la Belle were berried in thimbleberries, or close enough to sound the alarm.

That siren you hear at noon and 10 p.m. in Calumet and Laurium is the Pail Warning, alerting citizens to not get too close to encroaching overgrown berry patches without a pail to pick your way out. At different times of the year, they're gale warnings or hail warnings.

There's a bumper croppa berries threatening the Keweenaw, and our bucket brigade of plucky pickers are near exhaustion. I know people who have picked a hundred pounds of thimbleberries since they first ripened in the last week or so, and haven't even put a dent in the patch. Outa town emergency reinforcements from as far away as Aura, Liminga, Pelkie, Toivola, Tapiola and Ontonagon are arriving daily, buckets overflowing, at The Jam Lady, Eagle River. Pickers call 337-4164.

"The economic downturn has a lot more people out picking than usual" said Paul Mihelcich, The Jam Lady, who's actually a guy. His grandmother, Genevieve Butkovich, started the family business about 70 years ago. "She made mostly wild berry wine in those days; jams and jellies were lesser products. Somewhere along the line a cultural shift took place."

"The KBB, Keweenaw Berry Belt, runs right around the Keweenaw, ripening first on the east slope, then later on the west slope. No matter where you look, we're bursting with berries in all five directions; northa, southa, easta, westa and backa town."

Thimbleberry season should last another 2-3 weeks. Pickers earn $9 a pound for uncleaned berries, $10-15 a pound for cleaned ones.

"Don't pick berries in metal coffee cans," the Jam Lady tipped. "The berry juice can leech out a metallic taste, You don't want that in your jam, do ya?" Nothing but berries and sugar goes into his product line.

It's also a primo year in the berry patch for Barbara Perreault, Barb's Favorite Jams & Jellies, Centennial (337-3634). "Billberries, blueberries, raspberries, pincherries, red and black cherries and sugar plums were plentiful, but have pretty much come and gone, or are on their way out," Barb said.

"This is the best crop of thimbleberries I've seen in 10 years," she added. "It takes about four pounds of berries to make a dozen 8-ounce jars of jam. Her recipe is pure and simple, nothing but berries and sugar.

Barb's favorite jams and jellies include wild strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, bilberry, cherry, chokecherry and sugar plum, some with rhubarb. She also makes grape jelly with grapes grown in Traprock Valley; crab apple, peach, green and red pepper jelly, chow-chow and relish.

I'm a big fan of all of the above, but I must admit I'm more of an incidental berry picker than a deliberate one. I might take a pail along and pick a pound or two on my way in and outa a brookie stream. At the Yellow Dog Plains, the river flows deep and slow through acres of blueberries and ferns.

"Ever see a thimbleberry on the bottom in a brookie crick?" Paul asked. "You never will, either," he added before I could say no. "That's because the brookies eat 'em quick. I've put a thimbleberry on a hook and dropped it in there. A fat brookie snapped it up before it hit the bottom."

What kinda Finn am I? (to be sung to the tune of "What kinda fool am I?"). One who likes berry-eating brookies and eggs with a side order of blueberry pancakes. This time of year, I'm not just a Huckleberry Finn, I'm a Huckleberry Hound kinda Finn. I grew up picking blueberries at the camp at Big Traverse. They went into delicious homemade yams and yellies, muffins, pancakes, leipa, nisu and pannukakku. I'm still a picker and a grinner, but prefer the high bush kind you don't have to bend over so far to pick.

I'm still a fool for anything with blueberries or thimbleberries, especially when somebody else does the picking. Next time you're in downtown Calumet, try the Blueberry Hill Thrill Float at the Conglomerate Caf. And nobody does berrified breakfast like the Suomi Cafe, downtown Houghton.

"Wait til you try my new Buckleberry jam," said the Jam Lady. "It's what happens when blueberries and huckleberries get together," he added. "It takes about 200 berries to make an 8 oz jarra jam."

You can pick berries to your heart's content at Blueberry Bob's Blueberry Bog backa Rice Lake near Big Traverse, or you can pick wild berries all over the place. I learned at a tender age that the biggest, sweetest ones grow next to the outhouse.

Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at jjunttila@chartermi.net.

 
 

 

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