Wild Berries of the Great Lakes

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If you are an outdoor and nature-loving person, most likely you have picked berries at some point in your life.  The more time spent outdoors, the more one learns to appreciate the world around them.  Berry-picking reaps so many benefits.  Not only can you make incredible jams, preserves, and pies, but if you couple berry-picking with other outdoor excursions such as fishing, photography, bird-watching, or hiking, you will discover the wonderful, complex living thing this world of ours is. 
There are many berry cookbooks, but this one is particular to berries in the Great Lakes areas of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and Ontario.  Every berry lover who lives or visits these regions will use and treasure this book.  It combines the information of an experienced field guide and the joy of a cookbook.  You will learn about 22 berry and fruit species, while being inspired by the author’s delightful stories about growing up in Michigan and his family’s berry-picking adventures.  There are recipes for jams, jellies, pies, cordials, breads, puddings, preserves, and more.  There is also a handy berry-ripening calendar to help you plan your outings. 
I am partial to the wild blueberries and thimbleberries of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  I am counting the days until my husband, Bill, and his cousin, Benny, go in search of the berries.  They take time out of their fishing to pick berries.  I think it’s because they know I will make their favorite wild blueberry jam, which is to die for.  Thimbleberries are much harder to find and pick.  If  you have never tasted one, it’s like a raspberry, but much smaller, with ten times the flavor of a raspberry.  It’s like some mad scientist went crazy with a raspberry.  Unfortunately, they are very hard to find.  Your chances of even getting 2 quarts worth of berries is slim.
Typical blueberry blossom and fruit
Typical Thimbleberry blossom and fruit
As fun as berry-picking can be, one must still watch out for some of the hazards.  First and foremost, never pick or eat a berry unless you know for sure that it is not poisonous.  If you have any doubt – Don’t Eat It!  If you are not sure, consult a book or plant expert.  Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are leaves to avoid while picking berries.  You could be itching for days if you come in contact with these pesky leaves. But to me, the biggest hazard of berry-picking is bears. Big bears, little bears, any bears; and blueberries are their favorite.  That’s why I leave wild blueberry picking to Bill and Benny.  They have guns, and I would just scream.  However, there is some protection you can take with you while picking wild blueberries and the possibility of encountering a bear – find a Karelian Bear Dog.  This incredible dog is not very well known around the country, but has such a fascinating history.  It is a Finnish dog, which explains why there are so many in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where many Finns settled (including my husband’s Finnish grandparents).  In Finland, the dog is a national treasure, as the dogs helped the Finns fight against Russia in the Winter War, and the Russians were responsible for the dogs’ near extinction.  The entire breed of Karelian bear dogs that exist today is traced back to only forty dogs that were found and saved after the war.  The dogs helped the Finns find the Russian troops in the dark winter Finnish forests.  When the Russians realized it was the dogs that were finding them, they killed thousands of them.  Because it is such a limited genetic pool, the Karelian line is quite pure.  The dogs will hunt literally any kind of animal, but especially bears,  with absolutely no fear, no matter the size.  A bear dog is only about 50 pounds and 19-23 inches in height, which makes its ferocity even more fascinating.  As aggressive as this dog is with animals, it is the opposite with people.  The dogs make the most wonderful family pets and are gentle and kind with humans.  The dogs would think nothing of sacrificing their lives to protect their owners.  I would love to own a bear dog, but they need so much space to run, I don’t think we would be able to keep up with them.  Most need to run about 10 miles a day, and if confined for any period of time, will chew their way out of anything. 
A Karelian Bear Dog puppy
Full grown Karelian Bear Dog
Even if you don’t have a bear dog for protection, be sure and pick some berries this summer.  Maybe a berry farm would be easier, but certainly not as adventurous! 


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