By the third week in July it is the time to start picking blackberries from your favorite patch. Residents who have picked in previous years know when to make that first trip with bucket in hand.
Most major drainages, which originate at the base of the Rim, will have ample water and at least a few patches of blackberries. The area of Christopher Creek on the east to Pine Creek on the west and all the minor watersheds in between are within easy driving distance of Payson and any of these canyons may have that “honey hole” for the pickers delight.
Like deer hunting, a little preseason scouting is always wise to see if the old patches are still producing and maybe locating a new area by following the water.
Picking berries is an outdoor activity that everyone in the family can enjoy with the common goal of producing a fresh blackberry pie or jam. A pie, jam or any other berry dessert just tastes better knowing that it has been picked fresh from the vine by your own efforts.
It is the perfect day trip for the very young to get an appreciation of the outdoors with some real family bonding. When we take our grandchildren the rule of thumb is two in the mouth, one in the bucket, and a purple smile from ear to ear. If you are picking along a stream, the chances are another interest may soon take precedent over picking berries.
It is important to dress for the occasion as a protection from the always-present thorns that leave their mark where there is any exposed skin. Long pants are a must and the more rugged the fabric the better with jeans being the best leg protection. Always wear a long sleeve shirt, which will shield your arms from all those thorns that can scratch the skin and usually draw blood. A complete covering of the skin also can protect from that ever-present poison ivy or oak that also seems to thrive in the same places berries grow. I prefer wearing only one glove on the non-picking hand, which can be used to move the brambles aside to get those hard-to-reach ripe berries that always seem to be at a full arm’s length away. If someone is not dressed properly, it can be a miserable experience and the result might be not wanting to pick berries again. Know the limits of your friends and family and try not to overdo the experience.
My bucket is a gallon plastic coffee can with a handle made out of light wire or a shoe string with the hope of filling it before returning home. When a gallon plastic coffee container is emptied at home, save the lid. They are valuable when transporting the berries back to the road. On more than one occasion I have tripped, landed on the ground, and watched berries fly everywhere. When at the vehicle it is also a good idea to have a cooler so the container with the berries can be surrounded by ice, which will keep the berries fresh and firm.
In many places, the brambles are so thick that the ground where you step may not be very visible, so always take a walking stick that can be used for balance as well as a precaution before taking that next step. All the vines seem to be woven together to create an obstacle course, which can trip the most surefooted hiker.
These cool moist areas where berries grow also may be a place for cold-blooded reptiles to escape the summer heat. Arizona does have rattlesnakes, so always be careful and know where the next step will be. Seeing a rattlesnake before he sees you is a healthy precautionary measure, which can be accomplished with a walking stick that moves the underbrush away before stepping. When I am in a patch, I tend to make an extra amount of noise because ripe berries also attract black bears.
Another valuable tool is a map that identifies the major drainages in addition to the Forest Service roads that will get you closest to the places you want to explore. The Tonto National Forest Payson office has these maps on the shelf for only a couple of dollars and they are well worth the purchase.
If this is your first time, take a friend and tell someone else where you are going before you head for the berry patch. With each year, more of these remote areas are gaining cell service, which improves the safety factor in case of an emergency. Good luck during the July-August season of blackberry picking in the Rim Country, God’s creation.