The raspberries are ripe and it’s time to pick. These days I only have to step around to the back of our garage to get our fill of the luscious fruit. Where’s the adventure in that? When I was growing up in Northern Ontario, the berries we picked were growing wild. Getting in a supply for the pies and preserves my mother made was one of summer’s major undertakings. As soon as we could walk we were drafted into the family picking brigade. Off we would go with as many plastic pails and baskets as we could carry and there was no quitting until every last one was full or the berries ran out.
Strawberries were always first. Wild strawberries grow in open fields and we would end up on some abandoned farm on a dusty back road where the grass grew tall and the only sound was the buzz of cicadas in the summer heat. I never knew a strawberry could grow bigger than the size of a pea until we moved to Southern Ontario. The enormous strawberries grown on farms down here may be easier to pick but they just don’t taste the same. Maybe the hours we spent on our knees in the grass with the hot sun baking our skin and squadrons of deer flies circling our heads like winged halos lent extra flavor to the fruit. The promise of that first bowl of strawberries and whipped cream was the ultimate reward my mother would dangle in front of us to silence our complaints.
Blueberries were much easier to pick. They grew on rocky hills where you could always find a bit of shade. We would spread out and compete to find the best patch, preferably one where you could sit in the middle reaching in every direction to pick with both hands. My brother, Tom, and I would check in with each other now and then to see who was winning in the race to fill our pails. If the picking was good my mother would want to fill our hats as well. It sometimes took more than one trip to get it all to the car.
Raspberries came last in the season and they were my favorite. We would usually end up covered in scratches but at least we could pick standing up. On one momentous day we hiked through the bush to reach an abandoned gravel pit where the raspberries grew wild. It didn’t take long for us to scatter. Competition is a great motivator. My mother was completely focused on the task at hand and she didn’t pay much attention to where Tom and I went. By then we were seasoned pickers and able to fend for ourselves. Consequently, we were nowhere near her when she got the surprise of her life.
She was leaning forward using both hands to deftly pluck the fruit from the prickly branches when she heard a rustling on the far side of the bush she was working on. She assumed it was one of us and paid little attention. She straightened up to move to a new spot at the precise moment a black bear that had been gorging itself on the late summer fruit opposite her also rose. For a split second they stared at each other from a distance of only a few feet but my mother’s paralysis didn’t last long. The peaceful solitude of the clearing was shattered as she screamed and scrambled backwards, berries flying in all directions. The bear let out a great “Humph” and dropped to all fours to run for the shelter of the trees as fast as its legs could carry it. I think my mother scared it half to death. A scream from her could have that effect.
Unfortunately, it ran directly into the trees that we would have to pass through to reach the car. Picking was over for that day. We stayed only long enough to give the bear a good head start and then we began our march making as much noise as we possibly could. I’m sure the bear was long gone but even so we set a new record for the number of times we sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” at the top of our lungs as we stomped through the brush. I think the lyrics should have been changed to “Bear’s in the berry patch. What are we to do? Scream and shout and jump about, and he’ll be scared of you.”