Foraging in Minnesota: Blueberries

Read More

Most Minnesota foragers—whether berry seekers or not—are familiar with blueberries. Our native blueberries are both abundant and widespread, popping up in varied habitats. While not every year is a good year, pickers of all ages can usually enjoy decent harvests of these flavorful, nutrient-packed treasures more often than not. 

Vaccinium, spp. 

As with our native plums, many or even most people don’t realize we have two species of blueberries. If you haven’t noticed, don’t feel bad about it. They seem to prefer similar habitats and occupy similar ranges in Minnesota. And as for the taste, well, let’s just say you’d have to be a sommelier to claim credibly you can tell them apart. The rest of us really don’t care when we’re eating our muffins or cobbler or whatever. 

Blueberries are closely related to many other desirable fruits, including huckleberry, cranberry, lingonberry, and bilberry. Unlike swamp-loving members of the Vaccinium genus like cranberries and some bilberries, however, blueberry bushes have a love for upland sites. The drier the better, and poor soils don’t bother them. In fact, the best picking places I know are on pure, loose sand. 

Minnesota blueberry foraging

Vaccinium angustifolium, called lowbush blueberry (at left in photo; click to enlarge), is probably what most of us picture in a blueberry. Branches with bright limey foliage, and berries with a pale blue powdery film that rubs off when we handle them. While fruit sizes between the two species are similar, the berries big enough to make your eyes bug out always seem to be from V. angustifolium

Vaccinium myrtilloides, called velvetleaf or Canadian blueberry (at right in photo), may appear similar to its brother. In my experience, its leaves have a duller, darker hue than angustifolium. Also, the appearance of darker berries is helpful in distinguishing the two. On that topic, the Minnesota Wildflowers website says, “…occasionally the coating is absent making the berries a dark bluish black.” 

Where I like to pick each year, myrtilloides is almost as abundant as angustifolium; perhaps a ratio of 40/60. Myrtilloides there seem not to have a powdery coating on the berries at all, and they appear nearly black when fully ripe (and feel downright hot to the touch in the full sun). 

While it is always great to make an accurate identification, I must say they sound identical when they hit the bottom of a plastic bucket. 

The Harvest

I’ve eaten blueberries in lots of parts of Minnesota, and one important thing I’ve found is that they love the sun. They may form a lush carpet under a stand of red or white pines, giving up a few berries here and there. But where that carpet meets an opening or even a road or trail, the break in the canopy usually translates into a greater density of berries.

My favorite place to pick is in east central Minnesota, on a sandy site that appears to have been logged almost 10 years ago. It was planted into red and jack pines, which are now getting taller than me. The blueberry bushes are thick there in places. Because they enjoy nearly full sun, the berries are off the charts. You can sit in one place and pick cups upon cups. This year, my wife and kids and I picked almost five pounds in our brief visit. 

No, I will not tell you where this is. However, any site south of Canada that fits this description will likely yield similar results. 

Wondering what to do with your berries? Here are some things we routinely do with ours:

Blueberries and granola in plain yogurt sweetened with honey. Great for the first week or so after picking. Just snatch some out of the fridge for a quick breakfast. 

Blueberry muffins, pie

Mixed berry pies and jams. Blueberries are tasty enough by themselves, but I’ve come to believe they are best when combined with others like blackberries, raspberries, and juneberries. We’ve been told more than once that our mixed berry jams are “…the best homemade jam I’ve ever had”

Blueberry muffins. We’ve found it convenient to wash and freeze several small bags with one cup of berries in each. Just find a recipe that calls for 1 cup of blueberries, of which there are many on the web, and have at it. (1 cup is also the perfect amount for a batch of blueberry pancakes, by the way)

I’d love to hear what you do with your blueberries. Leave a comment below!

~

If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit the What to Forage page.

Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs

Read More

Nobody smiles at 4:40 am. Nobody at my house, anyway. But Friday morning, I woke my kids up that early, knowing they would be smiling a lot that day- eventually. They had the day off from school, and we had a big day planned at Mille Lacs Lake. 

Our little Ford Escape slinked down the resort ramp between rumbling trucks and wheelhouses, onto the white expanse. It was a few minutes before sunrise, though we wouldn’t see the sun that day due to thick cloud cover. Winds were moderate and temperatures were expected to rise about ten degrees to near 30 by day’s end. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day, but it could have been worse.  Continue reading “Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs”

Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree

Read More

Normally I wouldn’t be thinking about our Christmas tree in October. In fact, we’ve had a hand-me-down artificial tree for about the last 15 years, so it wouldn’t occur to me at all. But some relatives were telling us they’d be at the cabin this year for Christmas, and I suggested they get a permit to take their tree from the woods for the occasion. So in the interest of encouraging others into the outdoors, I snooped around for information from Minnesota DNR and the Forest Service, and emailed them some web links. 

What I found actually surprised me. As far as I could tell, the permit for harvesting a tree from Minnesota’s state forest lands would cost $25. That was a higher price than I expected. However, the permit for a tree from Chippewa National Forest costs only $5. 

Yes, FIVE DOLLARS.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree”

Video Log

 

Snake River Campground

Chengwatana State Forest is one of the closest sizeable state forest parcels to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. As a result, it gets its share of traffic, especially considering the fact that much of the forest is swamp land and difficult to access. To its east lies the St. Croix River. At its northeast is St. Croix State Park and the confluence of the Kettle and St. Croix rivers. At the south end of the main part of the forest is the confluence of the Snake and St. Croix rivers. Few roads offer access to its 29,000 acres, so there is potential for getting far from human presence, if desired. 

Snake River Campground, Chengwatana State ForestThe Snake River Campground lies 9 miles or so east of Pine City, on the south bank of the Snake River. When I visited there in the spring, the sound of the rushing river was a pleasant backdrop as I wandered through the campground loops, and a few of the campsites are a healthy stone’s throw from it. The campground is on the edge of a small pine grove, and most of the sites get good shade from the pines, oaks, and aspens. There are two vault toilets- two aging vault toilets in the first loop, and a new one in the second loop. Water is available by hand pump. There is also a picnic area next to the river. The first time I visited this campground was in midsummer, and the daytime mosquitoes were fairly aggressive; due to topography and dense forest, there is little hope that the wind will keep them at bay. I also noticed a bit of poison ivy along the camp road and bordering some sites, FYI. 

The Campsites

Site 1 is a gorgeous campsite, set back from the road with a great tent pad area suitable for a large tent, and well shaded by white pines. Angle of approach may prohibit long trailers, although there is enough room to accommodate one. 

Site 2, while small and difficult to back trailers into, is shady and close to the loop’s vault toilet. 

Site 3 also benefits from the shade of the pine plantation and seems very desirable overall. 

Site 4 is shaded by the campground’s oaks and pines. There is plenty of room for tents, if set up on the driving surface; this site lacks good tent areas otherwise. It is flush with grass and pine needles. 

Site 5 is the first site that is good for backing trailers into. Spacious and shaded by pines, it is fairly level as well, and easily one of the better overall campsites. 

Snake River Campground, Chengwatana State ForestSite 6 is a little more open and sunny, with plenty of room to park a trailer or set up tents on its grassy areas. It is also close to the river and the water pump. 

Site 7 is shady and level, with lots of good choices for tent placement. 

Site 8 is a bit more open and sunny than most sites here, would be good to back a trailer into, and has lots of area for parking. 

Grassy site 9 gets some midday sun, is long, and sits at a good angle for backing in a trailer. It seems well-screened from other sites. 

Site 10 would be a bit sunny, with little overhead tree cover. It has a good approach angle for trailers, good tent areas, and is close to the latrine. 

Site 11 is right next to the toilets, but does not have much room for parking. There is space at the back of the site which is nice and grassy, but appears lumpy. 

Site 12 does not have much grass. It would probably be best to use with a camping trailer as a result. 

Site 13 would perhaps be difficult to back long trailers into, but is shady, and fairly level and grassy. 

Site 14 is probably the most open and sunny campsite in the campground. Since it is fairly level with good grass, it would probably be good for a couple of tents, if desired. Otherwise, it has room for a vehicle and maybe a shorter trailer. 

Site 15 enjoys good shade among the pines, and is level with lots of room for tents. 

Site 16 is fairly shady and grassy, and is right next to the water pump. 

Site 17 also has good shade courtesy of the pines, and is nicely level and secluded. 

Site 18 has little overhead tree cover and is close to the site behind it (6). It is, however, one of the better sites to back a trailer into, with plenty of length. 

Site 19 is a basic site near the river. It does not have much level ground and would probably be difficult to level a large trailer in. It is, however, fairly close to the river and therefore has no campsites behind it. 

Site 20 is shady and secluded, and near the toilet in this loop. It is fairly large with lots of room for tents. 

Site 21 has an uphill approach with limited room at the back of the site to set up tents. It would not be good for a larger tent, and maybe hard to level a long trailer, but it has a good angle for backing one in. This moderately shaded site is also one of those closest to the river. It may be one of the most desirable campsites in the whole campground.

Site 22 is near the vault toilet, and is a fairly secluded site. It has plenty of room and a good angle for backing into. 

Snake River Campground, Chengwatana State ForestSite 23 is fairly well shaded by pines and aspen, with some midday sun. It does not have a kind angle for backing long trailers in, but it does have a fairly long driving/parking surface. It may be good for multiple tents, but really does not have grassy surfaces to use. Also sits along the river. 

Site 24 is best suited for trailer camping, with lots of room for parking but not much grass. There is some room at the back for tents, but not much level ground. It is one of the more private campsites. 

Site 25 is the last of the campsites along the river. Well shaded and spacious at the back, it could host multiple tents. It is, however, mostly dirt/mud and other sites offer much better tenting surfaces (especially true for the first loop). There is a trail that leads from the back of the site down toward the river and the walking trail through the woods. 

Site 26 has a longer parking surface, and is one of the better sites to back into. This shady site is fairly level with limited grass, but could fit multiple tents. 

~Click on or hover over slideshow photos to see campsite numbers~

 

Boulder Campground

Read More Boulder Campground, St. Croix State Forest

Boulder Campground, St. Croix State Forest

Boulder Campground, although in a fairly hilly location, finds itself surrounded by low ground and saturated soils. That was the case in April when I visited, anyway. At any rate, there is a lake on one side, a permanent swamp on another, and the remainder of the border abuts a blowdown area from a windstorm in July of 2011. Few campsites here are very large, and fewer still offer genuine privacy. Like many state forest campgrounds, it is probably best suited to fall camping for hunters who want to take advantage of the thousands of acres of the surrounding St. Croix State Forest.

It’s quite a long way to drive through the state forest to get to this campground, but getting one of the lakeside campsites would probably make it worth it. Sites that qualify even remotely as “lakeside” are limited to sites 7 and 17. The access to Rock Lake is right in the campground, and there is a short dock which would seem to offer a little bit of fishing opportunity.

Rock LakeWhile there are lots of ATV and OHV trails in the state forest, they are not allowed in this campground. They will need to be trailered and left at the trailhead parking lot which is at the far end of the campground loop (still basically in the campground); this is indicated by a sign at the campground entrance. 

The Campsites

Site 1 is nicely laid out, with plenty of room to the side of the driving surface for tents. It is near the swamp, with some grassy surfaces, and lots of shade. 

Site 2, like site 1, is down by the swamp with good tree cover. There is lots of room, but no grass to put a tent on. In fact, it could be downright muddy on a wet weekend. 

Site 3 is also well shaded, but not very roomy. It is, however, very grassy. 

Site 4 is surrounded by low wet areas, but remains high and dry. This site is fairly spacious, but has no grassy surfaces to speak of. Expect some midday sun in this campsite that would be easy to back a trailer into. 

Site 5 is a fairly level site at the back, with a long driving surface. However, it would be difficult to impossible to back a trailer into. This is another shady site. 

Site 6 is nice and open at the back, with some grass to put a tent on- or maybe two. This site lacks overhead tree cover, allowing the sun in for most of the day. In the spring, the ground seemed rather lumpy, which may resolve itself before summer; tenters beware. 

Site 7 is right across the camp road from the boat landing, water pump, and picnic area. Along with site 6, it would benefit from the wind blowing across the lake (or suffer, in the case of a storm). It is also close to the latrine, which is in the middle of the loop behind the campsite. Easily one of the most desirable sites in the campground. 

Site 8 is another fairly long campsite with some grass in the back, although it may be a struggle to find a good spot to put a tent down. It would likely receive a bit of wind off the lake in a West or even North wind. 

Site 10 is a fairly short site with the road wrapping around it. It appears the trees offer little shade throughout the day, but it seems to have absorbed the table from site 9, which appears no longer in use. 

Site 11 is also fairly close to the road, and is basically an all-gravel site. 

If you like the sun, site 12 is your pick. This site is on the edge of the swamp and blowdown area. The sun seems to have fostered some ground-level vegetation, which sets it apart from site 11. 

Site 13 sits well off the road in the middle of the campground loop. It is very open and spacious, and a rather sunny campsite. The camp’s vault toilet is practically inside this campsite, which may be desirable for some, but obviously detracts from its privacy. 

Site 14, like 12, is very much in the sun on the edge of the blowdown area. On my spring visit, there was some standing water on the driving surface. There is, however, a lot of grass on the site and is one of the more secluded sites in the campground. 

Site 15 is another short site on the inside of the loop, but has good tree cover. It is a fairly level campsite on the whole. 

Site 16 is a fairly short and sunny site, but is fairly well screened from the road and other sites. It is fairly average in most other respects. 

Site 17 is a carry-in lakeside campsite, which is easily the closest to the lake. It is well shaded, with a gravel tent area. Along with site 7, it is easily one of the premier sites in this campground. 

~Click on or hover over slideshow photos to see campsite numbers~

 

Willow River Campground

Willow River Campground

The Willow River Campground in General C.C. Andrews State Forest is a well-maintained state forest campground, typified by gently used campsites in a wooded setting set well apart from each other. From fully shaded campsites in the woods to fairly open sites overlooking the reservoir (river bottom) area, to a couple of carry-in sites and a nicely-kept group camp, there is probably something here to suits anybody’s needs. At 38 individual campsites, this campground is on the larger side for state forest campgrounds. 

Parking for all sites is back-in; none are pull-through. Sites 1-9 and 33-38 have shorter driveways and steep angles, which might not be good for backing trailers- especially large ones- but most of the rest have longer driveways and gentler angles of approach for parking tow-behind rigs or boats. There are also several auxiliary parking areas scattered throughout the campground, perhaps to allow campers with a trailer in the short sites to park their vehicles elsewhere. 

The self-registration station is in the middle of the large camp loop on the left side, near site 20. Water is available by hand pump. There are ample vault toilets and water pumps available: between sites 5 and 34 (also close to 6 and 33) and near site 20 (also close to 21 and 30). There is also another pair of vault toilets tucked out of sight near site 38 (also close to 12 and 13). 

To get to the campground, you have to find your way through Willow River to the frontage road along the west side of Interstate 35 going north. There is one sign pointing the way from Highway 61, but it was not very reflective in the dark and I almost missed it. At any rate, if you get to Doe Street heading east, you will find the way. 

At less than 8,000 acres, General C.C. Andrews State Forest is certainly not one of the larger state forests in Minnesota. Hunters looking to roam will not find much contiguous forest land there that has not been fragmented by roadways or OHV trails. If, however, you are looking for a recreation area friendly to ATVs and off-highway motorcycles with easy access to an interstate highway, this is an obvious destination. Additionally, I know CC Andrews to be a first-rate destination for summer berry picking and camping, and a convenient distance from the Twin Cities area. 

A note about the river (former lake): Willow River Campground is surrounded on three sides, more or less, by the former Stanton Lake. The nearby Willow River dam washed out in the summer of 2016, leaving behind just the river and old river channels. There is a boat ramp in the campground, but it currently just goes down into a large dense area of cattails.

The Campsites

Sites 1, 2, 3, and 4 are situated in a white pine plantation. Well-shaded and fairly flat, they are shorter sites (more typical of state forest campgrounds) that will probably present difficulty when it comes to backing in long trailers. 

Sites 5, 6, 9, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37 are set in an aging spruce plantation, which appears to have been selectively logged in recent years. As such, they will receive a fair amount of sun through the course of the day; some will be shaded only at the very beginning and end of the day. As small-to-average sites, they are probably best suited to hosting a single tent. 

Willow River Campground

Sites 7 and 8 are the carry-in sites, just a short walk from the parking area along the camp road. Both are considerably more secluded than the rest of the campsites, with a nice view of the river bottom, and plenty of room. To access site 8, you have to basically walk through site 7, which does not lend itself well to privacy. Getting both these sites would be ideal for a group too large for one campsite alone. 

Sites 10, 12, 13, 15, 17, 18, and 19 border the Willow River and lowlands, with good views. These sites would receive good breezes, especially when the wind is out of the West or North. This could be an advantage in hot weather or when the mosquitoes are especially fierce. 

Sites 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 30 also border the river, but differ in configuration and generally have much less overhead tree cover. Instead of narrow and set off the road, these sites tend to sprawl right alongside the road, and do not offer much privacy from either the road or each other. Encircling the south end of the loop, they would be best cooled by southeast, south, or southwest winds. 

Site 22 is the accessible campsite in this campground. It is fairly spacious, and the parking surface and areas around the picnic table and fire ring appear very level. Tree cover over this site indicates it would receive a few hours of midday sun. 

Sites 31 and 32 are gorgeous level sites in the heart of the red pine plantation. There is not much undergrowth among the shady pines, which gives the appearance of lots of room in these deep-set campsites; unfortunately, this also means they are not the most private. With plentiful pine needles on the forest floor, they would probably not be very muddy in rainy weather. 

11, 14, 16, 29, and 38 are the left-hand sites as you drive through the campground loop. They tend to be smaller campsites with good tree cover. They also tend to be closer to the camp toilets, which may in itself be appealing for some campers. 

 

 

Do Something New: Smelt Netting

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them. 

Last Wednesday, I bought a smelting net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Smelt Netting”

Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup

Read More Minnesota maple basswood forest

When you try something new, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. A week ago, it was looking like I wouldn’t see so much as a drop of maple sap coming out of my taps. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and although the temperatures seemed perfect, nothing was happening.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup”