PAT NEAL: A very berry Fourth

This is the season wild creatures wait for all year. When we can walk in the woods and meadows stuffing our gullets with free food. It’s berry season.

It began with the salmonberry. That harbinger of the salmon named for its color, which reflects the varied colors of the salmon. The salmonberry is a taste of the woods, sweet, sour and mysterious.

Berry picking is a ritual practiced since the first people got here. It is a cycle that begins with the salmonberries in summer until the cranberries freeze in the fall.

Berries were one of the first items traded by the Native Americans to the invading Europeans.

In 1790, the Spanish Captain Manuel Quimper met some Elwha canoes off the mouth of the Elwha River, with whom he traded for berries and salmon.

Back then, mariners typically survived on a rationed diet chiefly composed of ship’s biscuits. This was a tooth-breaking bread made with flour and water that might be dissolved in brine or coffee in the morning so you could eat it. Soaking allowed insects infesting the biscuits to float to the top. That is, of course, if the bread wasn’t eaten by rats first.

A diet of biscuits, with wine or beer and some salted meat or fish ensured a rate of scurvy among seamen during the Age of Exploration that typically ran from 40 to 50 percent of the crew, ultimately killing an estimated 2 million sufferers.

Left untreated, which it usually was, scurvy left the sufferer with bleeding gums, madness and ultimately death by bleeding and infection. While cases of scurvy are unheard of these days, you can’t be too careful. Eat your berries.

While I would never use this valuable print space to spread fear, innuendo and conspiracy theories, it is my duty as a wilderness gossip columnist to warn of an impending berry crisis.

The salmonberries are small, few and far between. The thimbleberries and wild strawberries are only blossoms. The black caps are microscopic.

All of which adds up to a berry famine for the weeks to come. To the wild creatures, this is a devastating development that could affect the ability to hibernate.

For human berry pickers, this is a disaster.

The latest regional forecasts and windshield surveys have predicted that, due to climactic shifts, weather changes and other stuff, there will be no blackberry pie this Fourth of July.

The importance of blackberry pie in the celebration of the birth of this great nation cannot be overstated. It’s a message to the world that no matter how bad this great experiment we call democracy is failing, we can still sit down together at the end of the day and have a steaming hot piece of blackberry pie.

Picking a wild blackberry pie on the Fourth of July is a benchmark of what’s right with America.

This year, unfortunately, the berries are late.

By blackberries, we are not referring to the watery, seedy and invasive Evergreen and Himalayan berries ripening in late summer, no.

That’s not saying this journalist hasn’t, in the interest of journalism, sampled the various pies, crisps and tarts made from the tame wild blackberries just to be polite.

Sometimes, you have to go to the dark side to see how the other half lives and know, but for the grace of God, we’d bake a pie of bogus berries.

Not on my watch. You would have to pry the berry bucket from my cold dead fingers to get me to pick tame blackberries, but then I couldn’t because I’d be dead.

Happy Fourth anyway.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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