November–December 2023


Buckets of Memories

A Minnesota family gathers for its annual cranberry forage.

Hayley Orion

I step out of the truck toward the densely packed sphagnum moss that carpets the bog. The sounds of civilization have faded into the distance, and the world becomes quiet. Located on a large parcel of county forest land in northeastern Minnesota, the mossy patch spread out before me abuts my grandparents’ property and is the perfect cool, damp habitat for lowbush cranberries, Vaccinium oxycoccos and
Vaccinium macrocarpon— two native cranberry species found in Minnesota.

My dad and my uncle discovered the wetland while setting a trapline in the late 1980s. Since then, my family has visited each fall, hoping to forage enough wild cranberries to top our morning oatmeal or garnish Grandma Lila’s wild rice porridge. If it’s a very berry year, fresh cranberries may even make an appearance during the holidays.

I step onto a small, freshly frozen puddle, and crunching ice breaks the silence. I take a deep breath. The mid-November air is crisp and invigorating. The rays of the slowly sinking sun bounce off frost-covered, flaxen sedges. Despite the chill in the air, it’s a perfect evening to be out on the bog.

Following a frost or two in November, lowbush cranberries are ripe for the picking and are bursting with fresh, tart flavor. The longer you wait to harvest them, the sweeter they get. Don’t wait too long, though, or the berries may disappear beneath the snow.

Scattered across pillowy hummocks, an abundance of bright red bunches of lowbush cranberries surrounds our foraging party, which includes my dad, his wife, my grandpa Ron, and me. As we pick our way across the bog, we chat about the changing of the season, acknowledging the dipping temperatures and wondering if this will be the last berry harvest of the year. We fill our ice cream buckets with berries, enjoying a few handfuls in between. When the berries are ripe, they fall off the vine with the lightest touch. You have to be quick to catch them before they tumble into the icy puddles of the bog.

As an adult, I cherish my annual visit to the cranberry bog, relishing the golden hues of the distant tamarack, the damp, earthy smells, and the spongy feeling beneath my boots. But this was not the case when I was young and preoccupied with being cold or distracted by the boggy surroundings. My father, who loves picking and eating cranberries, did his best to keep me engaged on early foraging trips. After dressing me in winter clothes, he’d hand me a small Cool Whip container and I’d follow him out to the bog, little legs struggling to navigate the deep hummocks and tightly woven sedges that tangled around my boots.

I can’t recall ever filling my small container with berries as a child. Instead, I’d often focus on the vegetation of the bog, fascinated by the pitcher plants. When I asked my dad about the green, cup-shaped plants with red and purple veins, he told me they were carnivorous plants that lured insects with their sweet, sugary liquid. After the insects were trapped inside, the sticky, downward-facing hairs prevented them from escaping and the plant would dissolve them. As a kid, I wanted nothing more than to drink this sugary liquid that nature strategically placed in these beautiful little cups. Don’t ask me how it tasted—I never was brave enough to try.

Once the cold sank in, I would plead with my dad to go back to the house. He would encourage me to fill my small container halfway, knowing that by the time I completed that task, his one-gallon Kemps ice cream bucket would be about as full as it was going to be depending on the season. I’d quickly search for the hidden berries, glancing over at my dad’s bucket, watching the shadow of berries climb its sides, bewildered by the speed at which he picked. Eventually we would make our way back to the house, cautious not to spill our hard-earned berries.

My family and I are equally careful with our haul on that mid-November evening. The cranberry crop is bountiful, and we fill our buckets until the dexterity in our fingers dwindles, making it difficult to untangle the berries from their mossy, sedgy habitat. Satisfied, we walk back to the gravel road, away from this place that seems preserved in time. 

Grandma Lila’s Cranberry Walnut Wild Rice Porridge

Serves 4 to 6
2 cups uncooked wild rice
6 cups water
½ cup heavy whipping cream
½ cup milk
¼ to ½ cup local maple syrup (sweeten to taste)
¼ cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup golden raisins
¼ cup dried cranberries
Fresh cranberries

Rinse and drain wild rice and place in a large saucepan with the water. Turn the stove to medium-high heat and give the rice a stir before placing the lid on top of the pan. Bring to a boil and then turn heat to low for 40 to 45 minutes until rice is al dente. Drain excess water before adding the heavy whipping cream, milk, and maple syrup. Once the liquids are incorporated, add the walnuts, golden raisins, and dried cranberries. Place the pan back on the stove and simmer for another 10 minutes so the rice can absorb the milky broth. Be careful not to boil. Ladle porridge into bowls and top with freshly harvested cranberries.