Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Oct. 2, 2009

Berries, bears and bombs

Each summer when we go to our place in Northern Wisconsin, we always go into the national forest looking for berries. I should say husband Art and I go. The girls are more like their Grandma Vaughan was - enjoying nature as long as it stays at a respectable distance, such as on the other side of the car window.

We are generally too early for many blueberries to be ripe, but we almost always find either raspberries or blackberries, depending on when we arrive and what the weather has been like that year. While the girls and I prefer the raspberries, Art is partial to the blacks, so we hope to catch the end of the raspberry season and the beginning of the blackberry season.

The long cool spring in Wisconsin this year meant that the raspberries were out in force, but the blacks were little more than tight green buds. So we collected enough raspberries to hold us over the winter with the hope that next year would provide us with some of each.

But when the opportunity arose to be in Wisconsin in early September, Art thought we should make a quick foray into the woods to see if some blacks might remain. We were rewarded with a gallon of pretty blackberries, although it was obvious it was the end of their season.

These trips are not just about gathering berries. They are also about seeing wild flowers, listening to birds singing and hearing water lapping the shores along the lakes. Often we'll see deer or eagles. On one trip this year, an otter loped across the road not far ahead of us.

But just like the girls, I have a limit on how close to nature I want to be. For me, encountering one of Wisconsin's black bears is over that line. One crossed the road in front of our car a few years ago, but it happened so fast that I didn't really think about it until after the bear had disappeared into the trees. A couple of years ago, Art and I were picking berries when I said something to him. He turned to look at me only to see a bear crossing the road about 300 feet away. He didn't mention it until after we had finished picking, knowing I would have spent the remainder of the day in the car or at least looking over my shoulder.

Art teases me that, since I grew up on a farm, I should be accustomed to the outdoors. My answer to him is that the animals we had on our farm were domesticated, not wild. Well, except for the occasional opossums, raccoons, snakes or rats that visited our granary, barn or chicken house or the coyotes that howled at a distance.

I returned home a week and a half ago, but Art stayed on to do some trout fishing. He decided to make one last trip to gather blackberries. He returned to one of our best spots and found quite a few ready for picking.

He said he didn't notice the usual sights and sounds of the forest until he suddenly heard squirrels chattering. He figured they were just warning each other of his presence.

Then he heard something that startled him. It sounded like something going through the pines, brushing aside the boughs and ending in a heavy thunk. Then just silence. Then it repeated - again and again and again.

He wondered if it was a bear.

But because bears are burly creatures with no natural enemies, they don't move through the woods quietly. Furthermore, the sounds seemed to come from slightly different places.

Then he said it became clear to him. He looked up and saw three squirrels in tall pine trees. Each worked its way out on a limb and chewed off a cluster of green pine cones. A group of four weigh about a pound and when that much weight drops through the branches from 40 feet up or more, it hits the needle-covered earth below with an impressive thud.

After the trio had harvested a few clusters, Art said they scurried back to the ground and began gathering the cones to store for the coming winter.

He said he had always heard of squirrels doing that, but had never seen or heard it himself, despite having been in the woods since he was a young boy. So his day of berrying contained no bears, just pine cone bombs!

2009 Index