Saskatoon berry expedition turns nostalgic

If I look closely, my fingers may still have those purple stains on them from saskatoon berry picking as an adolescent on the farm at Basswood, Man. However, I did not volunteer for berry picking, rather it was coerced. Mom would have led me to the patch by my ear, if necessary.

It was often on August Sunday afternoons in the 1970s that she and Dad would load up their six children and every honey pail available. They’d drive 15 kilometres toward a tested patch from the previous year, or follow up a tip they had picked up. It was usually along the Little Saskatchewan River Valley.

Mom and Dad had filled the car trunk with paper-lined apple boxes for the anticipated haul. Somewhere among that would be cake or cookies for the drive home.

We’d pile out of the car, and in groups of two or three, head into the bushes, promising not to wander too far and to stick together. And yell if there was any trouble, but that never happened.

As a kid, berry picking always began with enthusiasm. Hey, a trip away from the usual farm haunts, new territory to explore, playing/fighting with siblings. However, there was the annoyance of this pail hung by baler twine around the waist. Our parents had an expectation of work.

The routine was always the same. The voices of siblings saying, “they’re better over here,” or “have you found any?” And then it became quieter as the vulnerable berries gave in to little hands plucking them off the stems and into the pail. The drumming of berries was brief as they soon filled the bottom and began to pile up.

Along with Mom and Dad, the “stars” were my two older sisters, Helga and Linda, who actually seemed to enjoy picking berries.

In half an hour, the adventure had descended into drudgery. Procrastination met its favourite cousin — excuse-making. “I’m thirsty.” “There are bugs.” “I saw a snake.” Or the clincher, “A mosquito bit me. Ouch.”

These whines held little traction with our parents. Mom allowed the younger brothers, Tim and Ron, to circulate and gather the picked berries and ferry them to the car trunk boxes. Or the youngsters brought water and cake. But mostly, they played. I could hear them laughing. At that moment, life was not fair.

After about three hours, and success within sight, Mom and Dad wound down The Great Saskatoon Picking Operation. But even then, they stopped and picked remnants as they walked toward the car. It was only when the white Chev Biscayne began to move that we could be sure we were done.

A brush with juiciness while on a bicycle ride leads to purple riches. | Mark Kihn photo

I remember everyone being happy and chatty on the way home. Our parents had secured vitamin C loaded fruit for the winter, and we children had persevered through a berry-picking trial.

The next day on the dining room table, we began cleaning the berries using pie plates. One of Mom’s memorable containers was a metal baby bathtub in bright blue. It must have held 12 ice cream pails full. A heaped tub defined the great accomplishment. Mom would get busy sterilizing one- and two-quart sealer jars for the canning production.

Her large, 14-inch stove-top pot appeared. The saskatoons, sugar, and water went in, and the berry brew started to bubble. On August days, the hot kitchen became hotter. I couldn’t stand the heat. I had to vacate.

Mom would often add cut up rhubarb just to keep things interesting — and healthy.

One batch after another came out of Mom’s cannery at about six jars per batch. Henry Ford would have envied Mom’s assembly line. Sterilized jars, wire racks, glass lids, rubber rings, the fruit, the big pots, boiling water — it all came together — and everything was scalding hot. The fruit had to cook and those jars had to seal.

The aroma was wonderful. I imagined myself in a jam factory.

Soon the kitchen counter was covered with jars, cooling and awaiting Mom’s check for a perfect seal. By mid-production, we children would drift away into bed, not caring if we ever saw a saskatoon berry up close again.

I recall waking up in the morning and in the kitchen would be this glorious array of full jars everywhere, maybe 100. A dream?

Mom said that when she finished the last batch she clicked off the stove, turned out the lights, and headed for bed. She may have mentioned the end of the production — around 2 a.m.

Two years ago, and 45 years after those family berry-picking escapades, I must have caught a strange fever.

Why else would I pick saskatoon berries endlessly for a few weeks? The call of the wild (berry)? The allure of concord grape-sized orbs of juicy purple delight? Who knows?

Ripping along on my mountain bike on Calgary’s Nose Hill, I had brushed against a skinny tree bent toward the path.

Along with the leaves, I could feel the clumps of berries against my arm. That could only mean big berries and plenty of them. That night, I dreamed of saskatoon heaven.

The next day I returned with an ice cream tub, thinking 1.5 litres would be a nice sampling. All my youth-picking experience came into play. I had that tub full in 20 minutes. Wow. I returned later and in 50 minutes, I filled a four-litre ice cream pail.

Like an undisciplined gold prospector, I couldn’t keep the good news to myself. I washed 500-millilitre yogurt containers, filled them up, and handed the treasure off to friends. They were amazed at these great-tasting berries.

“For your night-time ice cream temptations, or for your morning breakfast cereal,” I told them.

A few had never tasted saskatoons.

One grateful friend led to another, and then to neighbours, and then to my church pastor. Hey, better than tossing a chicken into the offering plate. Before I knew it, I had picked and handed off 15 containers, and solidified 15 friendships.

I even developed and then had a friend design a logo: “Uncle Mark’s Nose Hill Saskatoons.”

The word “saskatoon” is an Anglicized version of the Cree, “misaskwatomina.” They are also known as shad berry, service berry, or june berry.

In more southern locales, such as middle American states like Kansas, June can be a picking month, said Paul Hamer, owner of the The Saskatoon Farm, just southeast of Okotoks, Alta.

I mentioned my newfound berry enthusiasm to Mom. She could hardly believe I was berry-picking on my own. As proof, I handed her a 500 ml container. And then she began to munch and reminisce about those summer days on the farm long ago — just as I had hoped she would.

How to find saskatoon berry bushes:

  • Their roots crave water, so check out the sides or bottoms of ravines, ditches, low spots.
  • Their leaves need sunshine, so search the sunny edges of tree groves.
  • Keep an eye peeled in spring for bursts of white blossoms, the flower of the saskatoon trees/bushes.
  • Stay away from cow pastures; grazing cattle are hard on the berry trees.
  • Use two hands, and secure a wide-mouth pail to your waist, or even set it on the ground nearby.
  • You can tie a tree branch down with a loop of twine and then step on the twine, leaving both hands free.

Saskatoon berry picking tips:

  • Use two hands, and secure a wide-mouth pail to your waist, or even set it on the ground nearby. An ice cream pail works well for size, stability. You want to be able to fill it. It provides motivation, but filling it is not daunting.
  • You can tie a tree branch down with a loop of twine and then step on the twine, leaving both hands free. If you find clusters of berries, let them roll slightly as you pull. It allows the stems to detach with lesser effort, or berry squishing.

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