“I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
I met them one day and each had a flower
Stuck into his berries as fresh as a shower;
Some strange kind–they told me it hadn’t a name.“
– Robert Frost, Blueberries
Only a half-hour’s drive from Courtenay, jutting out from the edge of the vast and beautiful Strathcona Provincial Park is the monolithic Forbidden Plateau – Spooky name right? Go ask Google why it’s named that, ‘cause even thinking about it days after this little adventure makes my tummy tingle – The plateau is a spiraling, hilltop retreat for off-the-grid eccentrics, a playground for mountain bike enthusiasts and a challenge to intermediate mountaineers such as me, my wife and our friend Jen.
It was a warm, clear day last weekend and the three of us (though we started alongside Jen’s husband and friend, they didn’t make it) headed up from the plateau parking lot towards the far-off summit of Mount Beacher.
Rising a not-too-shabby 1375 meters above sea level, mount Beacher is the South-Easternmost little brother of the Strathcona Park mountain range. It’s about 6k from top to bottom, not too steep in most places and packed full of neat stuff like lakes, rivers, waterfalls, weird trees, abandoned ski lift machinery, bears… whoops, better make sure you’ve brought the proper gear:
What you will need to forage for blueberries
- Mountain Climbing Gear –These berries only tend to grow in alpine environments so bring all the kit. Gloves, poles, tough boots, water – Lots and lots of water – flashlights, headlamps, maps, a fully-charged cell phone and…
- Anti-Bear Gear – Yes, bears are a real thing out here! Bring the bear bells, mace, whistle and whatever else will keep those hungry buggers at bay.
- Bags – Buckets and containers are large and clunky things to drag up the side of a mountain. Stick with light easy-to-carry baggies to bring home your loot.
The three of us got to the top and found a beautiful baseball field-sized alpine meadow packed with knobbly little trees, brightly-coloured shrubs and a 360˚ view of all creation. Here we rambled around and ran into Linda, patron saint of wild blueberries.
Linda had been up there for a couple hours before we arrived and had been busy harvesting all manner of alpine berries. When she waved us over her fingers were stained a vibrant purple. “I should have started back by now, but once you start it’s very hard to stop!” She laughed and gestured to the low, densely concentrated red bushes along the footpath.
How had I not noticed the foot-tall bright red bushes on the way up? They were everywhere! They so completely carpeted the summit and streamed down into foothills that the mountain resembled a giant, overflowing glass of Cabernet. Nearby mountain peaks were likewise painted with patches of crimson, which were extra-visible above the snow line.
When viewed up close, the leaves of the bush are actually more rust coloured than red, with smatterings of dull green and brown left over from the late summer. This particular plant actually starts green, but won’t produce any fruit worth eating until fall.
Speaking of “This particular type”: I ‘ought to dip into some of the later research I did to make it clear what type of plant we were looking at:
- There are a billion freakin types of blueberries, huckleberries, bilberries and whateverberries in this particular plant family, so pinning a nametag on our berries is a bit tough. The closest I could find are referred to as “Cascades Blueberries” or Hámalhnach (“Mountain Blueberries”) by First Nations foragers. Linda just called ‘em “Blueberries” and so shall I.
- They are classified as a “low bush blueberry”- A short, small-leafed berry that thrives at high elevations, native to Canada and some parts of the US.
- There wasn’t a whole lot of other plants at that elevation to confuse ‘em with, so it’s a pretty safe bet that if it looks like a blueberry… It’s a blueberry.
“The lower the bush is to the ground, the sweeter the berries will be,” Linda instructed as the three of us dove into foraging mode. The berries are slightly smaller than domesticated blueberries and run the gamut of colour from cobalt to near-black.
They taste like domestic blueberries on crack! The juiciness, tartness and sweetness are all more pronounced; as if the supermarket variety was a black-and-white silent film and these were a hi-def surround sound theater experience! Of the countless berries I stuffed into my mouth that afternoon, none had even a hint of under-ripe tartness.
“And you know they’re packed with more anti-oxidants and good stuff!” exclaimed Jen as she fell victim to a bout of berry binging. None of us were going to argue, our lips were just as stained.
Wild blueberries can be used in any recipe that calls for their domesticated cousins and I guarantee they’ll produce far superior results. Try ‘em in salads, vinaigrettes, jams, preserves, tarts, ice creams, sorbets, with duck or game birds or just sprinkled over yogurt with a touch of honey.
We waved goodbye to Linda and continued to the top, where we had a lovely picnic with the majestic Comox Glacier as our backdrop.
As for the rest of our day… Well…
On the way down the mountain we… kind of… got lost… in the dark…
But yeah… That’s a whole other story.