PAT NEAL: The hunt for blackberries

THERE ARE FEW outdoor activities more enjoyable than picking wild blackberries. By wild blackberries, I don’t mean the exotic berries that ripen along every roadside at the end of summer, no. We’re talking about the little ones that grow out where the wild things are — the further from the road the better.

They are just now getting ripe. This is a good year for blackberries. After months of rain that swelled the berries to a trophy size, a shot of sunshine has ripened them to perfection. Blackberries are good canned or frozen but nothing beats them fresh.

Blackberries grow largest in partial shade, but they are sweetest in full sun. It is almost impossible to ruin blackberries no matter how you cook them — but you have to pick them first.

That means you have to find a blackberry patch. Blackberry vines are easiest to spot in the spring, when the blossoms can turn the ground white as snow, but you can’t make a blackberry pie out of blossoms. You have to wait until those blossoms turn into berries, and pick them before the bears do.

Bears can see in the dark, so they can pick around the clock. Bears are not as picky as most people about picking blackberries. They’ll eat the unripe green and red blackberries along with the black ones.

Bears will munch down a hornet’s nest if they find it, leaving the surviving hornets in a foul mood for the next unfortunate berry picker that stumbles along.

There’s very little left of a berry patch once the bears get done with it. You should find another blackberry patch.

Of course, it’s always a good idea for anyone engaged in an outdoor activity to inform someone where you are going and when you plan to return, just to be safe, unless you are a blackberry picker. Then you will trust no one.

There is no point in letting the search and rescue do-gooders in on your blackberry patch.

In a good patch, you might pick a gallon of berries a day.

Find a really good patch and you can join the hallowed ranks of the 5-gallon-a-day club.

Blackberries grow best in burns and clear-cuts. If you find a good berry patch, chances are you can thank a logger.

It takes a couple of years for the berry vines to start producing. By then, the slash, the tree limbs and tops that were left over from logging, should be just rotted enough to break when you step on them.

Other plants will have grown up as well. The stinging nettles and devil’s club are the wild blackberries’ best natural defense. While these native plants are known to contain a pharmacopeia of medicinal properties, you won’t care when you get caught in a patch of them.

Devil’s club is an evil plant that resembles a whip shaped cactus with some thorny leaves on top. The stem of the devil’s club can be 8 feet long and hang down the mountainside as thick as dog hair. Try pushing your way through a devil’s club patch and they’ll push back like a thing alive. Just casually brushing against one of these plants will coat you with spiny little souvenirs, which should fester nicely with a rash of stinging nettles and lacerations from the blackberry thorns.

Berry picker’s hands often look like they’ve been mauled by a bear. Maybe they were.

You cannot let the bears, hornets, devil’s club or nettles scare you out of a blackberry patch.

It will all be worthwhile when the pie comes out of the oven.

_________

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 patnealproductions@gmail.com.

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