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Dokken: Late-summer foraging is getting under way across the Northland

It took decades, but I finally made my peace with blueberry picking in 2014, a banner season for berries.

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Blueberry season is at hand in the forested areas of northern Minnesota.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS – Foraging season is hitting its prime, and now is the time to hit the woods in pursuit of blueberries and delectable fungi such as chanterelles and Hen of the Woods mushrooms.

I haven’t gotten out to see for myself, but reports from reliable sources suggest it’s a good year for blueberries. Most of this happens on the Minnesota side of the Red River, of course, and areas with pine trees and sandy soil – especially spots with edges along forest openings – offer the best potential for finding blueberries. Beltrami Island State Forest, about 2½ hours northeast of Grand Forks, is a perennial favorite for many people, and while expert pickers can be quite tight-lipped about their favorite blueberry patches, a bit of exploring down the miles of forest roads and trails will generally yield success for those who put in the effort.

Besides, getting out and exploring is half the fun.

As a kid, fun was never a word I associated with picking blueberries. Wild blueberries are considerably more flavorful than the store-bought variety, but they’re also about half the size.

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Filling a pail – even the small pail I used to carry as a kid – took forever, and a day in the “berry woods,” as my grandma used to call her favorite patch, was nothing short of excruciating.

As much as I enjoyed eating blueberries, I absolutely hated picking them. Especially when every trip to the “berry woods” meant hours upon hours of kneeling on the ground swatting mosquitoes and dropping tiny berries into a pail that never seemed to fill.

It took decades, but I finally made my peace with blueberry picking in 2014, a banner season for berries. I still couldn’t get myself to carry a 1-gallon ice cream pail – the standard receptacle for many blueberry pickers – but I filled a pail about half that size on three separate occasions.

Two of those trips were on consecutive days.

The patience that comes with age was part of it, I suppose, but being able to pick on my own terms – as opposed to being held hostage in the woods for hours on end – made blueberry picking infinitely more enjoyable. A couple of hours in the woods was – and still is – all I needed to fill the pail I carry, and if the pickings are slim, I can call it a day and head home.

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Time and circumstance have prevented me from hitting the “berry woods” so far this year, but I do hope to get out at least once in the next couple of weeks. It’s been at least four years since I last made a productive blueberry-picking excursion, so it’s time to get out there with the mosquitoes and ticks to see what I can find before the bears get all of them.

As foraging goes, this time of year in 2014 was memorable for more than blueberries. That same year, I noticed a very large, odd-looking mushroom growing at the base of an oak tree at the family getaway in northwest Minnesota.

It looked like a big brain.

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Growing right where it was supposed to grow at the base of an oak tree, a Hen of the Woods mushroom, shown here in an August 2018 file photo, resembled a brain.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

I didn’t know it at the time, but the brain-like mushroom growing at the base of that oak tree was a Hen of the Woods mushroom. Also known as a maitake, the Hen of the Woods is a prized find among mushroom collectors.

This I learned after returning to Grand Forks. Unfortunately, by the time I got back up north the following weekend, the mushroom was dried up and too far gone to pick.

For the next three years in late July and early August, I made a point of checking the base of that oak tree in hopes of finding another Hen of the Woods.

Finally, in 2018, another Hen of the Woods grew at the base of the tree. I wasted no time picking it and brought it back to Grand Forks. We broke off the florets that made up the mushroom and sauteed them. Just as I had read, the mushroom was excellent and every bit as tasty as the morels that are the favorite fungi in the spring.

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The Hen of the Woods, or Maitake mushroom, can be broken into smaller pieces called florets and prepared in several ways, including sauteeing and pickling.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

It was more than three of us could eat, and a buddy followed up on an internet suggestion and pickled the rest. It had been gobbled up before I could try it, but I'm told it was excellent.

Three summers passed, and I was hoping the Hen of the Woods would return in a four-year interval, but I checked last weekend and there was no sign of one, much to my disappointment.

The orange-colored mushrooms grow among middle-age to mature conifer stands such as red pine, white pine and jackpine, and they’re as tasty as they are simple to spot.

Still, there are other options. Chanterelles are beginning to show up, and their distinct orange color makes them easy to find. I’ll have to do some research before I dive into picking them, but those in the know tell me chanterelles have few poisonous look-alikes, and the ones that are dangerous grow on wood in large clusters. Chanterelles, by comparison, grow on the ground, usually individually, and rarely in groups of more than three or so off a single stem.

We’ll see how this goes. Let the foraging begin.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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