“Woof!” said the bear and raced north. “Woof!” said my mother as she ran south. My father thought it was funny. He loved telling the story of how Mom was so focused on picking blackberries that she didn’t notice the black bear eating berries in the same patch. The bear was also oblivious to my mother until both of them reached up for some high-hanging fruit and stood face to face just a few feet apart.
Mom would always explain that she heard someone picking berries near her but assumed that it was Dad. Though she was a bit suspicious, she accepted my father’s statement that he never saw the bear until both it and Mom were running full speed away from each other. “I didn’t know Ma could run that fast,” he would say, and laugh even more.
Bears are like us: They love ripe fruit. When they eat blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, they actually help berry pickers like us. Their trails through the patches make it easier for us to pick our share. But when they start gorging themselves on plums, apples or chokecherries, they can do some damage.
When we see a particularly nice bunch of fruit just out of reach, we fetch a ladder or simply move to another tree. Bears don’t use ladders and they see no reason to leave a tree loaded with fruit. Black bears, the kind we have in our area of the country, are excellent climbers. They simply dig their claws into the bark, shinny up the tree and crawl onto the branches loaded with fruit.
When you add a couple hundred pounds of bear to the fruit on the branch, it breaks and sends the bear to the ground. It also puts the fruit within easy reach. I have seen branches broken off over ten feet above the ground with no evidence of injured bears, so they obviously have learned the way to do this safely.
Chokecherries must be a special favorite of black bears, for on an afternoon walk, one sees dozens of the trees with skirts of broken branches surrounding the trunks. However, if you chance upon a plum thicket or apple orchard at at a deserted farmstead, you will find the same kind of damage. What we really see is the result of the bears’ need to put on fat to last them through their winter hibernation.
I don’t hibernate, and I certainly don’t need to add any more fat to my well-rounded figure, but like the bears, I really enjoy the flavor of wild berries. Give me blueberries for pie, raspberries for jam and chokecherries for jelly. And that means you have to imitate a bear and pick some chokecherries. You won’t need to break any branches. Look for a row of young chokecherry trees along a field or road. Trees that are five to eight feet tall are often the most productive with flexible branches that you can pull down without hurting the tree.
Since they grow in small clusters on the branches, chokecherries are very easy to pick. Just strip them from the clusters and drop them in your container. The fully ripe cherries will be a lovely dark purple, almost black, but some will be pink or red. You want a few underripe cherries to add extra pectin to the juice, so don’t worry about them as you strip the cherries from the trees.
You will need about three quarts of cherries for a batch of jelly. Once you have learned how to strip the fruit from the clusters and have located some trees loaded with ripe fruit not yet harvested by a bear, you should be able to pick enough cherries in an hour or a little more.
Here’s the recipe.
5 cups chokecherry juice
6 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. butter
1 package Sure-Jell Fruit Pectin
Paraffin or lids and rings to seal the jars
Wash the cherries and remove any leaves or other debris. Put the cherries into a Dutch oven or other large kettle and cover them with cold water. Bring the cherries to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer them for twenty-five to thirty minutes. Crush them with a potato masher after they have simmered for twenty minutes or so.
Wash and sterilize nine one cup jelly jars and lids. The easiest way to do this is to put the washed jars upside down in a baking pan on the stove top. Add about three-quarters of an inch of water and bring it to a boil. Continue boiling for three or four minutes, then turn off the heat and allow the jars to stand in the hot water for another five minutes. Transfer the jars from the water to a rack and allow them to drip for a few minutes. Stand them upright on wax paper when you are ready to fill them.
Line a colander with several layers of dampened cheesecloth or a tea towel. Set the colander in a large bowl and ladle the cherries and juice into the colander. From time to time you will need to empty the bowl under the colander. Pour the juice into another bowl until you have collected at least five cups of juice.
You can stir the cherries gently with a wooden spoon to help release juice, but do not squeeze the cloth or towel. If necessary, you can return the strained pulp and seeds to the large pot, add a half cup of water and reheat the mixture, stirring often, to obtain more juice. If you do this, rinse out the cloth or towel before straining the reheated mixture.
Put five cups of juice, a half teaspoon of butter and the Sure-Jell into a three or four quart saucepan over moderate heat. Stir occasionally until the mixture comes to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for three or four minutes. Skim any foam. Add the sugar and bring the mixture to a hard boil. Stir the jelly while it boils for four minutes.
If you are sealing the jars with paraffin, this is a good time to melt it in a small pan over low heat.
Remove the pan of juice from the heat, skim any foam off the top of the jelly and fill the jars. Seal the jars with a thin layer of paraffin or close them with lids and sterilize the filled jars in a hot water bath. If you are using paraffin, put a second thin layer of the wax after the jars are cool.
NOTES: Don’t use liquid pectin like Certo®. I am not sure why, but when I substituted Certo® for the Sure-Jell crystals, the chokecherry jelly refused to jell. It tasted fine, so I called it syrup and gave it to friends. About six months later, I found a jar that I had overlooked in the pantry and decided to use it with some pancakes. Probably just to irritate me, it had turned to jelly! So if you are willing to wait long enough you might get by with liquid pectin.
A note on picking berries in bear country: Contrary to what you may have been told about bears, bears don’t want anything more to do with you than you probably want to do with them. If they know that you are approaching, they will get out of your way. That’s why fishermen in Alaska wear a bell on their fishing vests or whistle while they walk the bear trails along the streams.
Once in a great while a bear does attack someone, but dogs kill or injure far more people every year in the United States than bears have killed or injured in the past fifty years. Incidentally, dogs provoke bear attacks. They challenge bears, then run away and lead the bears to their owners. You really do not want to try to reason with a bear irritated by your sassy dog.
Leave your dog at home and make human-type noises if you don’t want to come face to face with a bear. The only times I have seen bears in the woods was when I was quietly stalking trout. If Mom had been telling Dad how nice the berries were, the bear would have found a different place for lunch.
And finally, I realize that home economists have decided that sealing jams and jelly with paraffin is not safe and say that you should use a hot water bath. However, our grandmothers and mothers used paraffin, and we have been using it for nearly fifty years without any problems. Whichever method you choose, make sure your jars are clean and sterile before filling them.