“It’s just a short walk through the trail to Jenny Anstey’s marsh,” said Len. “The fields are red; look at them!”
I squinted and tried to see past the cemetery, past the tangle of trees, and past the low-lying mist to the field of bake apples in the distance. I nodded my head in agreement, figuring he ought to know if there were berries out there; he grew up just down the road from the marsh.
I spent my teen years in the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, and I certainly knew about berries. For six weeks every summer I picked raspberries at a farm, from six in the morning till six at night, six days a week. Later in the summer, blackberries, even bigger than raspberries grew along the deep ditches. Picking blackberries was a risky business; the bushes grew ten feet high with thorns that could tear a person to ribbons if he or she accidentally fell in. But, once picked, these luscious berries were delicious with milk and sugar.
“Where’s the trail?” I asked Len. He hesitated, and then began walking down the road a bit. I should have guessed; he wasn’t sure. He pointed to a deep ditch and indicated a filthy trail through heavily twisted spruce. I managed the ditch and followed him, thankful I had worn my rubber boots, trying to keep a foot on either side of deep pools of mud. Twisted roots snaked across the trail at every turn, branches slashed me in the face, my boots became mired in mud that sucked like quicksand. “This isn’t a trail!” I howled, “It’s a bog!”
That’s when I realized there are two meanings to the word, ‘marsh’. One is the dictionary meaning, and the other is experience. Panting, I splashed through the muddy trail, grasping at branches for dear life. Eventually, there was less mud but deeper grass and more water. Len sprang from one tuft of grass to another, calling out that there was a little brook ahead. “You’ll have to jump it,” he advised, leaping first and holding out his hand for me to grasp. I wanted to say something unkind, but looked up and noticed two people on the other side picking berries, so I clamped my mouth shut.
Once across the stream, the marsh stretched into the distance, rimmed with spruce. The bog was coloured with white lichen, hummocks of peat moss, pools of mud, delicate marsh flowers, and crops of red and orange bakeapples. A nor’ east wind sighed over the dry grasses and the roar of waves beating on the shore at Cape Onion sounded like heavy traffic on the 401 freeway in Toronto.
Len bent to the task and soon I heard the thunk, thunk, of berries hitting the bottom of the one-gallon pail. I stood watching the other couple, who snapped lids onto their pails in preparation to leave. But, wait! They were going directly through the trees to the road, and the path they were taking certainly looked shorter than the swamp we had just passed through. I tapped Len on the shoulder and asked, “Where are they going?” He looked up and frowned. “There must be another path.” he suggested, and held up a berry. “Make sure you pick the shucks off,” he said, demonstrating the process. Did he say, ‘shucks’? In the city, ‘shucks’ is something you say when you’re disappointed or irritated; and I was certainly a little irritated.
At first, I picked the ripest bake apples and shoved them into my jacket pocket, but it didn’t take long to figure out that ripe berries turn quickly to jam, so I ate them instead.
I’d like to say getting out of the marsh was easier than getting in, but that wasn’t the case. The alternate trail was shorter, but just as treacherous. When we reached the car, I felt as if I’d been on a three-day safari in the Amazon jungle; all for a one-gallon pail of berries. My hands and pockets were sticky with bake apple juice, my pants were mud-spattered, and my boots were caked in mud.
So, as much as I like Jenny Anstey’s marsh, and admire the fact that she must have been quite the berry picker, getting into and out of the bog is more of a workout than I’m willing to endure. I would rather buy bake apples at a store than cross that bog—because you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t always take the city out of the girl.