ALTONA — The arid, early summer that browned lawns and challenged gardeners also made life difficult for the North Country wild berry crop and the pickers who look forward to this time of year.
But the blueberries, raspberries and blackberries that are the main course of the berry season, with wild strawberries the appetizer, are tenacious. Although some pickers report smaller, fewer berries, others have found surprisingly good blueberry and raspberry picking, giving them hope for plentiful blackberries as the season continues.
On the Altona Flat Rock, where the serious blueberry pickers gather, lifelong Altona resident Gerald Sayah said the season started earlier than usual.
“There’s berries out there, maybe a little smaller than usual, maybe not quite as many as some years,” he said, surveying the pitch pine landscape. Sayah, who remembers picking as many as 10 quarts in one day as a youngster, now picks a few pints for himself and his family.
“You’ll find the berries in the shade, around the ledges,” he said, remarking that the season is winding down on the Flat Rock. Pickers in the Adirondacks, where the season is a bit later, are nearer midseason.
Arthur Bouvia of Plattsburgh picks to sell. Squatting over a blueberry patch on the Flat Rock, his tub mostly full, Bovia said he was surprised by the number of berries, considering the weather.
“I didn’t think it would be so good, but it is. These bushes are pretty tough,” he said.
Unlike coddled, cultivated berries, wild plants have a built-in toughness that gives them extra endurance, helping them to take advantage of the spotty rainfall and the morning dew. And wild berry plants are used to growing in sandy, rocky, inhospitable places such as the Flat Rock, which adds to their hardiness.
But in some berry-picking spots, that strength hasn’t been enough this year. Responding to a query on the Press-Republican Facebook page, a few pickers complained of drought damage.
“The bulk of our wild raspberries, black caps and blackberries burnt on the vines and in most cases the vines turned brown and died. … Grandkids came down to pick berries, and we ended up doing it at Price Chopper’s fruit isle,” wrote Eric Edie, who picks in St. Lawrence County.
Neal Burgoyne of Churubusco has also seen the impact of the heat.
“Been eating some raspberries off the plants until last week when the heat caught up with them and they dried up,” he wrote.
But Saranac berry picker Judy Rice has been luckier with her wild plants: “Raspberries here in Saranac are great and plentiful. I have been pulling two quarts a day from my patch. I could pick more if I wanted to bake a little longer and feed the horse flies,” she wrote.
If wild berry plants are tenacious, so are berry pickers. They fight sunburn and deer flies, suffer scuffed knees and pricked fingers, compete with birds and bears. Some do it for money. Some enjoy the hypnotic, methodical kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk of the berries in the pail.
Most pick for the dream of a pie, a jar of jam, a crisp made with berries that are more intense, flavorful and packed with antioxidants than commercial varieties. Whatever your reason, or your favorite wild berry, the season is now under way.
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
— Robert Frost, from his poem “Blueberries”