Summer blues for all: It’s blueberry picking season in the Green Mountains

Robert Layman / Staff Photo Knox searches for the perfect blueberry.

By Susan Smallheer

GOSHEN — The usually spectacular view from Hogback Mountain of Romance Mountain, Mount Horrid, Pico and Killington was shrouded in mist and fog last week, where a travelling millennial was the lone figure picking blueberries.

Scott Langsdale, 27, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had chanced upon the Green Mountain National Forest’s wild blueberry fields in Goshen by sheer accident earlier that morning.

Langsdale, a quintessential millennial, had quit his well-paying medical technology job April 1, and is now touring around the country in his Toyota RAV4, visiting national forests, parks and other public places, and documenting his outdoor travels on his YouTube channel.

His picking was recorded by his iPhone set on a tripod in the middle of the Goshen blueberry barrens. There were about 2 inches of blueberries in a plastic food container.

Langsdale, despite the rain, waxed eloquent about the joys of the blues in the Greens.

“This is the first blueberry field I’ve come across,” he announced.

It’s wild blueberry season in the Green Mountain National Forest.

There have been wild blueberry fields, open to the public for free picking, ever since there’s been a Green Mountain National Forest, said Mike Burbank, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Back in the 1930s, when the national forest was created, there were a lot more open agricultural fields — and a lot more blueberry barrens.

Every July and August, families and solitary pickers head to the mountains for tiny berries. Fruit aficionados say the wild blueberries are sweeter and have more flavor.

The blueberry bushes, which spread underground by runners, require a unique soil, Burbank said, that’s on the sandy and well-drained side.

Burbank said the national forest at one time had about 300 acres of blueberry barrens, kept open from the encroaching hardwood forest by burning a portion of the field every third year. Because of staffing cuts, he said, the low-bush blueberry plants now cover about 200 acres.

The free wild blueberry picking is an important and popular tradition in the national forest, said Burbank and Holly Knox, a recreation specialist with the Green Mountain National Forest.

There are fields in Ripton off Route 73 near the Robert Frost Wayside and the Robert Frost Interpretative Trail, as well as the popular blueberry management area in Goshen.

“It’s very important to the local community,” Burbank said. “We get a lot of people up here.”

Surveying the fog and clouds obscuring the large field, he said, “If it was a nice day, there would be lots of people here.”

The Forest Service maintains the blueberry management area for people and for wildlife, he said. There are bluebird boxes. When there are bears, he said, “they hang out on the edges.”

The wild blueberries are of the low-bush variety, and are much, much smaller than the grocery-store variety that are often bigger than blue marbles.

The blueberries start ripening in late July, turning from pale green to pink to blue, and the season usually lasts about three weeks. Weather, of course, plays a role.

When the berries are ready, there’s a blue haze over the field.

Burbank said the controlled burns usually take place in the spring, since the fall is usually quite wet in Vermont. The fire rejuvenates the bushes — a dramatic, fiery pruning — and the plants grow back that summer and start producing berries the next year.

The fire also helps prevent the natural succession of hardwoods from creeping into the blueberry land, Burbank said, and cleans up accumulated brush.

The Goshen and Ripton fields are in the section of the national forest called the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, and the emphasis is on recreation, Knox said.

At the Robert Frost Interpretative area, there was a big patch of the common blueberry, vaccinium myrtillodes, which is also called velvetleaf or sourtop blueberry, Burbank said, after doing some research.

The bushes, while low, were taller than the usual plants, and the berries weren’t as sweet.

Most of the blueberries in the forest are the low-bush blueberry or vaccinium augustifolium.

In Goshen, one side of the well-worn path had been burned this spring; the other side, burned in spring 2016, was producing blueberries.

Burbank said other national forests also have wild blueberry fields ready for the public, but the University of Maine Extension Service had provided the best management information. Downeast Maine is famous for its commercial blueberry barrens, producing millions of tons of wild blueberries a year.

Burbank said he had traveled to eastern Maine during blueberry season, but he said the fields there produce bigger berries and the fields are more manicured than the really wild Green Mountain berries.

Burbank has a word of advice: blueberry rakes used on the large barrens in Maine don’t work in Vermont — the berries are too small and fall through the rake’s teeth.

He said at one time the Forest Service experimented with fertilizing the fields to increase the size of the berries, but that idea was abandoned out of a wish to have the Vermont berries be natural and organic.

The largest blueberry field is probably 25 acres, in Goshen.

There are high-bush blueberries near Blueberry Lake Recreation Area in Warren, she said. There, the Forest Service partners with the Warren Conservation Commission to manage the area, which is working to rejuvenate the overgrown area.

Burbank and Knox said it’s not unheard of that blueberry pickers encounter bears in the berry patch as well — shades of Robert McCloskey’s beloved children’s book, “Blueberries for Sal.”

Usually the bears just grunt and huff, and the pickers take their cue and go somewhere else, Burbank said.

“The bears will win.”

Where to pick

Wild blueberry fields can be found at the Blueberry Management Area in Goshen (follow the signs); at the Robert Frost Wayside picnic area on Route 73 in Ripton, along the Robert Frost Interpretative Trail in Ripton, and at Grout Pond in Stratton.