Berry Good Time of Year: A Picker’s Guide

“I can’t tell you where my patch is or else I’d have to kill you,” says Rosanna Strong, when I call her up to chat about the upcoming cranberry picking season. There’s an audible wink in her voice. But make no mistake, Yellowknife cranberry pickers are a famously territorial bunch.

“You hear about pickers blindfolding people to take them into their patches,” says Strong, the owner of Strong Interpretation, a tour guide company, and a berry picking aficionado of many years.

EDGE: “Is that literally blindfolding or figuratively blindfolding?”

Strong: “Oh, it happens.”

“When there’s a good season, it’s like everyone has OCD, Obsessive Cranberry Disorder,” she continues. “Everyone is twitchy and secretive about their patches. They don’t start with hello, it’s ‘how many cranberries did you get?’”

This picking season — set to begin around Labour Day Weekend and run through to October —we can expect a veritable wave of OCD, as people throw on their boots, grab their buckets and head out on the Ingraham Trail.

“I’m talking hundreds. The affliction goes viral whenever those red cranberries get good,” says Strong. “This summer had the exact right combination of rain, heat and bugs to get a bumper crop.”

The last solid crop was four or five years ago. In the intervening years, OCDers had to refine their search to bogs and wetlands and adjust their palates to less-prized berries. This year, however, cranberries proper are looking to make a comeback. Here are a few tips to make the most of the short but delectable season.

Where to look?

“They can grow in little rock crevices, really anywhere where moisture gathers,” says Strong. “Look for areas where there’s moss and some shade.”

Although they grow everywhere, Strong’s advice is to not pick cranberries within a kilometre of a road, especially along the Ingraham Trail which has had significant road work done this summer.

“There’s a lot of salt used on the highways, and they’re spraying the road with dust retardant and water… I know a lot of people pick raspberries along the highway, but plants uptake a lot of dust.”

You also don’t have to restrict your picking to the road system; if you can track down a boat, there are plenty of islands with cranberry troves.

“We usually pick on islands in Great Slave Lake,” says Sandy Auchterlonie, a long-time  Yellowknife berry picker who recently moved to Pender Island, B.C. “This poses a different set of challenges for berry-picking. We need to wait until after the first frost on a calm, hopefully sunny day.  As you can appreciate those days are few. Therefore, when I get the chance, I pretty much have to be an obsessive berry picker. Don’t ask me to stop for lunch or to take a picture or to enjoy the day. Just let me pick. I will revel in the experience on the way home. Tired but satisfied with my haul.”

When to pick?

Some patches ripen more quickly than others, and there’s little doubt many OCDers are already checking their stashes. In most places, however, the berries still need a bit more time to lose their hints of white and green.

Strong also likes to wait until the first frost of the year: “A frost concentrates their flavour and sweetens them up. It’s the same principle as ice wine — when they leave grapes on the vine until the first frost — it gives them a softer, sweeter taste.”

Whenever you decide to go, remember the season is short. It changes year to year, but expect to pick your last berries by mid-October.

Don’t overpick

If you’ve found the cranberry motherlode, it might be tempting to go into OCD overdrive — but a little restraint goes a long way. It’s basic ecology here: if you pick all the berries, the plants won’t be able to reproduce.

Here’s Strong’s easy-to-remember picking equation:  “One for me, one for the bush. One for me, one for the bear.”  

Be prepared and stay bear aware!

Speaking of bears: be careful. They’re out in force this time of year, stocking up on food ahead of hibernation. As Auchterlonie puts it: “They’re looking for berries as well, and sometimes you’re competing with them. And they’ll always win.”

Because she picks on an island out in the lake, Auchterlonie has never encountered bears. But if you’re picking along the Ingraham Trail, it might be a good bet to bring bear spray, or perhaps some noisy dogs.

Strong, for her part, often goes picking with her cat.

“My dogs are useless. They get bored after an hour and start running around. I have my guard cat. If she gets uncomfortable, I know there might be something around.”

Likewise, if you’re heading way off the beaten track, especially on a boat, make sure you bring warm clothes, extra food and perhaps even a tent. You never know when the wind and weather is going to change and you may end up having to hunker down for a night.

Culture

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