Blueberries the ultimate wild food experience while camping in BWCAW

Forest fires are just part of the natural cycle, and while the people are sad to see change, it’s all part of life. Large stands of mature trees give way to exposed bedrock and soil that wildflowers and fast-blossoming trees quickly occupy.

It takes a human lifetime to become a forest again, but the time in between is not one to neglect because there’s a lot of beauty to be had in a reinvigorated forest. There’s also a lot of deliciousness, but more on that in a bit.

Those who pay attention to activities in the northwoods might remember the 2006 Cavity Lake fire that burned more than 31,000 acres along an area west of the Gunflint Trail near Seagull Lake. It destroyed most of the mature trees in the area and renewed a cycle of forest regrowth that has played out for millions of years.

For people who visit the area, it was a sad change of scenery. I’d gone through the heart of that impacted area three years in a row prior to the fire and remember large stands of majestic pines lining the shoreline of lakes like Seagull, Alpine, and Jasper.

I returned to that area just last week and the difference amazed me. Accompanying me was my wife, who’d gone with me through the area twice prior to the fires. Our 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter joined us. They were making their first “genuine” BWCA canoe adventure. (They’d been canoe camping before but it was a walk-in portage/one-lake trip that was cut short by bad weather. They’ve also been into the BWCA multiple times, but motorboat camping on a lake where that’s allowed.) What makes a BWCA trip “genuine” is multiple lakes and portages.

While it was sad to see the large pines gone, it was incredible to see the new growth, and it will be fun to watch the forest cycle continue. One thing that really stood out to me was how green everything was from the understory on up to the ever-expanding canopy.

Part of that green understory is an annual bumper crop of blueberries at the peak of their ripeness beginning in late July and continuing through the first few weeks of August. That’s when the raspberry bushes really emerge.

In either scenario, it’s a taste experience not to miss and one you can’t duplicate with store-bought berries, even the organic “wild” variety. There’s something about hauling yourself several miles over lakes and portages to harvest the berries yourself.

“Everything tastes better in the Boundary Waters,” my daughter said as she ate the fajita dinner I’d prepared our first night. Outside of the BWCA, she doesn’t really go for fajitas.

After a day of paddling and portaging to reach the heart of the BWCA, my family and I awoke to venture to a secret site we’d found that was loaded with blueberries. The burnt remains of trees were strewn about on the ground and some still stood, skeletons of a forest long gone. Laid out on that rock hillside, fully exposed to the sun, was a multi-acre area of blueberry bushes among other varieties of plant life.

The four of us spent about an hour picking about two quarts of succulent blueberries, barely touching the overall supply in that spot. We probably picked a gallon that morning, but only half of it actually made it into the bag. It might not sound like a lot, but considering the relatively minuscule size of a wild blueberry, it was a healthy supply. We wanted to leave plenty for others who were lucky enough to find it, not to mention any area bears – they seldom raid food packs on a full stomach of fresh blueberries.

Our goal was to use half of the berries that morning for blueberry pancakes, then keep the remainder for blueberry pancakes the next day. We were successful in achieving both goals.

For those who have never had a wild blueberry from deep within the BWCA, or any other wild, mostly unaccessible area, it’s a life-changing experience. The berries are much smaller than store-bought berries, but the flavor is many times more intense. Nutritionists consider blueberries a “super food” because they are loaded with antioxidants.

For me, fresh blueberries found along the portage trail served as a much-needed boost. On one longer portage, after hauling a pack and canoe one way and returning for a second canoe and pack, I stumbled upon a small patch of unpicked blueberries. I reached down and harvested a handful, popping them into my mouth as I walked. I felt like Popeye downing a can of spinach at that moment and finished the portage with the canoe and pack feeling lighter than I remembered.

Get out there while there’s still time or make plans for this time next year. It’s something you can’t duplicate anywhere. You just have to go out there and get them yourself.

Don’t forget to bring along some pancake mix and plenty of maple syrup. There’s no better way to begin the day than with fresh pancakes loaded with wild blueberries.

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