Let me tell you, August in the Northwoods in not the most fun time to be there. First off, it’s hot. Which is fine. Especially if you live near a lake like we do. Just run down the dirt road behind our cabin to Lake Moraine and jump in and cool off. Right? Sure, go ahead. We tried it once, me and Allie and Andy. We lasted about ten minutes. The water was great, nice and cool and refreshing. There was light wave action and the lake was pretty was sparkling. Overhead the sky was a deep blue with a few puffy clouds. Perfect, right?
Not quite. To that lovely scene we must factor in the bugs: the mosquitoes, the gnats (black flies) and deer flies and horse flies! Oh, and I forgot to mention the hundreds of varieties of ticks (at least). Man, the blood sucking never ends.
I once read story entitled Eaten Alive about a guy who had nearly lost his mind when he got lost in a dense Northwoods forest and the aforementioned insects attacked him mercilessly and nearly did what the title implied: ate him alive.
And they were bad on that day we went swimming, that was for sure, swarming all over us, getting in our mouths and noses and ears, chewing and biting our arms and legs and shoulders and back. In a word - pure hell. Well, two words, but you get my drift. It was bad. And during the season in August, they’re the worst.
So why we decided to go pick blueberries in August is beyond me, but we did.
“Come on with us,” Meg said, loading Andy and Allie into the Honda Fit. “It’ll be fun.”
I pointed down to the lake. “Don’t you remember that time I took the kids swimming? We were almost…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You were almost eaten alive. I know,” she said, chiding me. Like I’ve said before. I’m not really what you’d consider a woodsman by any stretch of the imagination. Don’t get me wrong, I like being up north, especially in the security of our small town, but when it comes to living actually ‘in the woods’ I’ll leave that to those better suited for it. Like Jack and Linn and Arnie and Amber. And, now, apparently, my wife. She poked me in the side with her elbow. “Come on, Lee.” She turned to the kids. “What you guys think? Should Daddy go with us?”
Their chorus of resounding “yeses” sealed the deal. I went.
From our cabin, we drove to Arnie and Amber’s place on a dirt road for five miles through jack pine forests and bogs, kicking up a plume of dust the entire way. It had been a dry year which knocked back the mosquitoes a little bit, but no matter. The black flies and deer flies and horse flies happily filled the void.
Arnie was with Jack half an hour west cutting wood in the Superior Forest so it was just me and Meg, Amber and Linn and the kids, Andy, Allie, Sam and Willow.
As we drove up, Amber came out to greet us, brushing away gnats (black flies) as she approached. We got out of the car and she hugged Meg. “Glad you could make it.” She waved at me over the roof of the car. “Nice to see you, too, Lee.” She grinned and tossed me a can of Northwoods Off insect repellant. “Meg said the bugs like you a lot. That’s too bad. It must be something in your blood.”
Was she kidding around? Was I genetically predisposed to be an attractive meal to every single flying, buzzing and biting insect known to man? “Really?” I asked, buying immediately into her theory. It made sense in a strange, weird way.
She smiled, showing me her white teeth. Into her second month of being pregnant, she looked happy with herself and with life. “Naw. I’m just kidding.” She smacked at a particular bothersome horsefly. “They like everyone.”
“Don’t worry about it. Spray yourself down with that Off and you’ll be good to go.”
So, I did. Liberally. I also sprayed Andy and Allie who covered their eyes and giggled and would barely hold still. They were pretty excited to go berry picking with Aunt Amber which was their new name for her ever since they were told last month she was going to have a baby. Why they chose to call her that I have no idea.
With the kids sprayed, Amber said, “Okay, let’s get going.”
“Where are we off to?” I asked, brushing away some gnats. The spray worked to keep them off me, like the name implied, but they seemed to hover at a point just outside the range of effectiveness of the spray, about a foot. I guess I’d have to learn to live with them and that bothersome fact. At least they weren’t landing in mass and feeding on me like a human smorgasbord.
Meg was just grinning at my discomfort. “Come on, Lee. Man up. It’ll be fun. A whole new experience.”
Meg was taking to Northwoods life in a big way. Not only was she happily running our home daycare for Andy and Allie and Sam and Willow, she was also forever taking them on field trips out in the woods and fields near us identifying birds, trees and wildflowers. She had happily assisted me in cutting firewood over the winter, taking over for a few weeks when I’d injured myself with the ax, and Amber was teaching her the basics of home caning. Hence the trip to the woods to collect blueberries. Meg and Amber and Linnwere going to make blueberry preserves and blueberry pie. My mouth watered just thinking about eating both of them. So, I was all in, as far the picking went. Hopefully the spray would help make keep the swarming hordes at bay.
Amber drove her rusted out, dust covered pickup. What it lacked in looks it made up for in serviceability. It ran like a top. (Amber was just as good a mechanic as Arnie, maybe better.) Meg and I and Linn crammed into the front on the bench seat while the kids rode in the open back with the admonishment from Amer to ‘keep your butts on the floor’. Which they did.
We drove deep into the jack pine forest, turning right and left at various intersections until I had no idea where we were. Amber and Meg and Linn chatted away about the kids, her pregnancy and canning preserves while I looked out the window. There was nothing but pine trees as far as I could see. Not a building in sight, either. We were on state land so it was just going to be us and the forest and the insects. And, hopefully, blueberries.
After about fifteen-minutes, Amber leaned over and asked me, “Lee, have you ever picked blueberries?”
I shook my head. “No.”
She grinned. “You’re in for a treat.”
I nodded in agreement. “I hope so.” In fact, the further we drove into the forest, the more worried I became. “What about bears?” I asked her. “Don’t we have to worry about them? And cougars, I added. I heard someone saw cougar tracks last week.”
Amber smiled at me. “Lee, this is their forest. We’re the interlopers here. We’ll go in, do our thing, pick our berries and get out. As quick as we can, okay? It should be fine.”
Good advice, but why was it the only word that stuck in my mind was ‘should’?
“You’re the boss,” I said, trying to lighten the moment.
She grinned. “I am. Stick with me.” She pointed to Meg. “Like you wife says, it’ll be fun.”
Meg looked at me and smiled. “See?”
A few minutes later Amber pulled the truck off the side of the road. “Okay, everybody out.” We did as we were told. We were in a clearing in the forest. The ground cover looked to be nothing remarkable, just low growing grass and fragrant wintergreen, a plant common in the area.
“This is it?” I asked skeptically.
“Yep,” Amber said. “Look closely.”
I squatted down so I was close to the ground and did as I was told. After a minute my eyes adjusted to what I was seeing. “Oh, wow,” I exclaimed. “Incredible.” I’d never seen anything like it. We were standing in a blueberry patch that stretched through the clearing as far as I could see. I stood up. “Amber, this is amazing.”
She grinned and put on a wide brimmed straw hat. “It is, isn’t it? I’ve been picking here since I was a girl. Back then, I’d come with my mom and grandmother. It was my great grandmother who’d discovered it, maybe a hundred years ago.”
“Wow,” was all I could say.
Next to me Meg said, “Um, Lee? You might want to close your mouth. The bugs, you know.”
“Let’s get going,” Amber said. She handed out gallon buckets to each of us, kids included. Then she directed us. “We’ll just work through the clearing.” She looked at the kids. “Pick, don’t eat.” They nodded solemnly. “And stay together.” She looked at Meg and me and Linn. “Everyone.”
“Okay,” we all said.
Then we got to work.
I have to say, it was fun being in the forest with no one around but us. After the wildlife got used to us we heard birds singing, woodpeckers tapping on trees and squirrels chattering nearby scolding us. I especially liked hearing the wind blowing through the pines like a loud whisper.
The berries were on low growing bushes about a foot off the ground. The kids made their way easily through the huge patch, but us adults had to bend over. It was hard work and sweaty work, but Amber kept us entertained with stories of her youth growing up on the Turtle River Reservation. She had a horse named Quicksilver that she rode every day and even entered barrel riding competitions in local rodeos. “I don’t ride anymore,” she told us when we asked her about it. Not enough time these days. Maybe when the kids are older.”
Meg and I glanced at each other. Amber was a good, kind and caring person, and we were both thinking the same thing: that we hoped that dream could eventually come true.
We’d been the clearing for about an hour and each of our buckets had been emptied once into a larger container. We’d moved away from the road deeper into the pines, staying together and working hard. Now that we had been picking for a time, the rhythm of the task was Zen-like. And, like I’d been told earlier by Amber, it was pretty fun.
But then the bear showed up. Yeah, a bear. A black bear with a cub. It was Willow who saw it first.
“What, honey?” Willow glanced at her daughter.
Willow pointed. “Look.”
Amber stood up and followed where her daughter was pointing. “Oh, my god.”
Meg and I stood up. “Shit,” I said.
“Shush,” Amber admonished me. “She doesn’t see us. Their eyesight isn’t the best. Plus,” she tested the breeze with a finger, “the wind is blowing away from her towards us, so she’ll have a hard time smelling us.”
Meg grabbed my arm and whispered. “Just do what Amber says, okay?”
Which was good advice, because my mind had gone blank for a moment. Meg knew me well enough to know that when it came back, all I would think of doing was grabbing the kids and running for the truck.
Cooler heads prevailed. Amber took over and whispered to the kids. “Andy, Allie, Sam and Willow, listen up. Walk very slowly to me.” Which they did. While they were doing that, Amber turned to us adults and said, “When the kids get here, we will all walk as quickly and as quietly as we can to the truck. Okay?”
“Okay,” we whispered.
“The key is not to startle her. Okay?”
“Yes,” we whispered again.
And that’s what we did. We held out kids’ hands and hurried through the woods. I had Andy and Meg had Allie and we all still held onto our buckets, which was pretty amazing when you thought about it.
I glanced over my shoulder once. The momma bear, as Amber called her, and her cub were methodically working their way through the berry patch moving away from us. If they’d seen us, they’d ignored us. Incredible as it may seem, the entire experience, which could have ended horrifically, ended quite well.
Later, back at Amber’s we were sitting around her kitchen table having coffee. The kids were outside looking at the two goats Amber kept for making cheese.
Amber took a sip from her mug, “Well, that was the last thing I expected. I mean there are bears out there for sure, but usually they stay away if they sense humans in the area.”
“I’m just glad no one was hurt,” I said.
Amber took a bite of her cookie and chewed thoughtfully. “You know, we haven’t had much rain. Maybe the momma and the little cub were chowing down on those berries for a little extra moisture or something.”
“Do you see many bears?” Meg asked.
“Not really. Like I said, they’re around, but they really do stick to themselves.” She paused. “As long as they have enough food.”
I looked at the gallon buckets of berries lined up on the kitchen counter. And the big container bulging with berries on the floor next to it. “Well, I’m glad we did it. Picked the berries, I mean. It was fun to be in the woods and it was cool to see the bear and her cub.”
Amber winked at Meg and said, “We’ll make a woodsman out you yet.”
They both laughed. I kind of got it, I think.
Oh, and those blueberry preserves and that blueberry pie? They were the best I’d ever tasted. Meg told me she thought seeing the bear and the cub might have had something to do with it. You know what? I think she might be right.
About the author
Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in nearly four hundred online and print publications. His collection of short stories “Resilience” was published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing. Additional stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
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