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In Search of Wild Blueberries

Summertime is perhaps the sweetest season of all to those of us who live in “the north”. We endure 6 to 7 months of the year with snow on the ground, temperatures than can reach -25°F with windchills nearing -40°F on the darkest of winter nights. Spring and fall are short in Minnesota. Oh, but summertime—sweet, sunny summer. We enjoy more than 15 hours of sunlight per day in the month of June, accompanied by warm days and pleasantly cool evenings. The anticipation of these sun-filled long days is what sustains us through the gloomiest of days, when it is dark out by 4:45 pm and the winds are howling.

Those 15+ hours of summer daylight help plants grow even in the most remote, northerly locations—places that might be covered by 8 feet of snow in the winter. My family has a long-standing tradition of visiting one such location each summer, typically in the end of July, when there is a brief window of pleasant weather.

For as long as I can remember, we have made a week-long trek to an island along the northern shore of Lake Superior (north of the 48th parallel) called Isle Royale. It’s a National Park, though few travelers have ever heard of it because it is so remote. One must travel by boat or seaplane to reach the island, and its park infrastructure is only a fraction of what one would find at a more popular National Park. To put this in perspective, Isle Royale receives the same number of visitors in an entire year that Yellowstone does during a single day in the summer!


For those who do find a way to get there, though, Isle Royale is an unspoiled and pristine wilderness. Surrounded on all sides by icy Lake Superior, it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth that I know of.  Tall pines cling to rocky, wave-worn shorelines. Lichen, moss and ferns are abundant. The island is often shrouded in fog during the summer months, creating ideal conditions for many plants to thrive–including many wild berries. Because of the very thin layer of acidic topsoil that exists on the island, wild blueberry plants are one of the hardy species that grows with reckless abandon.


If you’re a wild berry fanatic and are anything like me, you are wary of sharing your berry patch knowledge with others, for fear that your secret location may soon become picked over once the word spreads. I’ve always had a keen eye for tiny wild berries, and there are few things that make me happier than scouting out and picking wild blueberries, especially on Isle Royale. I’ve kept a top-secret notebook since I was a little girl, noting the locations of the best berries on the island, along with my observations of the growing conditions vs. flavor.


I’ve learned: South-facing slopes get good sun and tend to have smaller berries with more concentrated flavor. North facing berry patches are shady and have plump, larger berries, but are not as intensely flavored. (Note: ALL wild blueberries are far superior in flavor to farm-raised varieties, however! They simply can’t be compared to what we buy at the grocery store). However, that wild berries tend to be on the small side, so you need a lot of them! See this photo for comparison—grocery store berry on the left, wild berries on the right. The bottom line is, wild berries of all varieties generally have unparalleled flavor, compared to domesticated farm-raised ones.


Although one needn’t wander far on Isle Royale to find a patch of blueberries, it IS a bit of a trek to get to my personal favorite picking spot. Of course, I can’t divulge the precise location of this spot, but I will share some pictures. I was lucky enough to have some help picking this year from my husband and my Mom, who are both terrific sports. They are willing to put up with scratched arms, pesky bees and dangerous rocky cliffs all in the name of picking blueberries for a pancake breakfast!


This year was fairly productive for picking. We were at the end of the blueberry season in the first week of August, yet still managed to pick 5-6 cups of them in under an hour. While national parks don’t allow picking or destroying of flowers, trees or plants, they do allow berry picking ‘for personal consumption’ . It just doesn’t get any more scenic than climbing these cliffs, next to a lighthouse overlooking Lake Superior, to pick berries on a warm summer afternoon!

The easiest thing to do with these berries would be to throw them in with some ready-made pancake mix, but I feel that they deserve a better fate than this. A from-scratch recipe is more fitting. Combined with some oven-baked, cherrywood-smoked bacon and pure maple syrup, this breakfast is hard to beat when you’re on trail. Because I was cooking on a small camp stove and didn’t have my favorite griddle, I used this pan.


Buttermilk Wild Blueberry Pancakes with Lemon Zest

  • 1 C unbleached all purpose flour
  • 2 Tbsp fine sugar
  • 1 tsp aluminum free baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • Pinch kosher salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk (use regular milk + lemon juice in a pinch)
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 egg, room temperature
  • 2 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 2 Tbsp freshly grated lemon zest
  • 1 C wild blueberries, rinsed and drained
  • Butter + real maple syrup for serving

Combine first 10 ingredients in a medium bowl, using a fork to stir until large lumps are gone. Do not over-mix or your pancakes will be tough. Preheat griddle over medium heat and brush surface with butter or cooking oil (this gives your pancakes a golden browned exterior and crispiness that is rather nice). Pour batter onto griddle and immediately add blueberries to the top of each pancake, sprinkling as evenly as possible. Flip as batter begins to show signs of bubbling, 1-2 minutes per side. Serve immediately with a generous amount of real butter and room temperature maple syrup, and savor every bite of summer!