Going wild for berries in a bumper-crop year

Rick Steelhammer
Less than an hour's worth of leisurely picking produced this container full of ripe blackberries at Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area.
Rick Steelhammer
Red unripe blackberries outnumber their ripe, ready-to-pick elders on this vine.
Rick Steelhammer
Wineberries, a type of raspberry, ripen on a vine in Kanawha State Forest.
GREEN BOTTOM, W.Va. -- After strolling the gated roads and edges of former hayfields near the south shore of the Ohio River at the Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area for a little less than an hour one day last week, my half-gallon container was filled with ripe blackberries.My synthetic fabric T-shirt, on the other hand, was approaching death from 1,000 brier cuts, and it looked like a pack of feral kittens had attacked my arms. Note to self: Next time you go berry picking, wear a sturdy long-sleeved shirt.But the sacrifice was worth it. In addition to spending some quality quiet time in a scenic setting, within a few hours I was chomping my way through a 13-by-9-inch stretch of ice cream-topped blackberry cobbler.Above-average summer rains and warm temperatures have produced an abundant crop of wild berries this year, sending wild fruit lovers across West Virginia into the mountains, overgrown fields and forest edges in search of blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries and their more exotic kin."It's definitely a bumper year for blueberries," said Rodney Bartgis, a botanist and director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, headquartered in Elkins. "It's rare to see blueberries like we have this year. Ample rain, well distributed throughout the growing season, is a big part of it."Bartgis and his wife, Debra Auble, were among those picking blueberries and huckleberries last week on the brushy flats surrounding Forest Road 75 atop Dolly Sods, where The Nature Conservancy's Bear Rocks Preserve can be found at the north end of the Grant County plateau.Berry picking for personal use is allowed without permit on both the Bear Rocks Preserve and on the surrounding Monongahela National Forest. "Some of my earliest memories as a toddler are of going to Dolly Sods to pick blueberries with my family," Bartgis said. "It's great to be able to carry on the tradition a half-century later with Debra, and to see the fun families have at our Bear Rocks Preserve creating the same kind of memories today."Among other wild blueberry-picking hot spots is the new Little Canaan Valley Wildlife Management Area near Davis, where pickers travel Camp 70 Road along the Blackwater River to reach expanses of berry bushes."There are wonderful fields along an eight-mile stretch of the Forest Service road [Forest Road 13] between Blackwater Falls State Park and Canaan Valley State Park, easily accessed from Route 32," according to Emily Grafton, an instructor for the Division of Natural Resources' Master Naturalist program.
Grafton said another popular blueberry-picking area on public land is found atop Bald Knob at Canaan Valley State Park, which can be reached by a short hike from the top of the park's ski lift, which operates during the summer and fall. Nearby Timberline Four Season Resort also operates an off-season chairlift that provides easy access to prime blueberry and huckleberry picking atop Cabin Mountain at the western edge of Dolly Sods.While blueberries and huckleberries look similar, blueberries contain tiny, barely discernible seeds, while huckleberries have 10 larger seeds "big enough to get into crevices between your teeth," the late Maurice Brooks, West Virginia's premiere naturalist, once wrote. Huckleberries are generally more purple than blue in color, and their flesh is blue while a blueberry's is whitish.In the New River Gorge National River, blackberries and wineberries -- a variety of raspberry -- can be found in the edges of forests surrounding campgrounds, boat landings and old homesteads."We've never carried out a prohibition against berry-picking for personal use," said West Virginia State Parks Chief Ken Caplinger. "But generally, state parks aren't all that great for producing berries, since they tend to have mature, shady forests, while berries need open space and sun."In state forests, particularly those in which logging has taken place, blackberries can be found along the edges of former haul roads or in timber harvest sites that are beginning to regenerate, he said.
Among the state's late-blooming wild berry species is the cranberry, which ripens in mid- to late September on Dolly Sods."But picking more than it takes to bake a loaf of cranberry bread can be backbreaking work, because they grow right on the ground," Bartgis said.A festival honoring the state's most widely sought wild berry takes place this weekend in the Harrison County town of Nutter Fort. The 17th annual West Virginia Blackberry Festival includes a pet parade, starting at 6 p.m. today, followed by music by Eddie Davisson and Rick K. and the Allnighters.Saturday's events include a talent show at noon and a blackberry-baking contest at 2 p.m., followed by Mason-Dixon Wrestling at 3 p.m., the opening of a carnival midway at 4 p.m., a concert by Josh Oldaker at 5 p.m., followed by performances by Ryan Cain and the Ables, Danny and the Juniors and a fireworks display.Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169. 
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