RICHMOND — Dressed in stained pants, tall rubber boots and a Chariho Tech sweatshirt, Chariho Principal Craig MacKenzie plows through thorny briar to reach his destination in a swamp. It’s a patch of high bush blueberry bushes at a location which, like all serious pickers, Mackenzie will not disclose. It’s also MacKenzie’s happy place.
The higher branches of the bushes are dotted with dark blue and green as the berries begin to ripen.
“I think the next week, week and a half, is going to be awesome,” MacKenzie said. “In a dream world, you can see how all these have blue and green, you’re just raking them. They almost look like grapes sometimes, and the size variety is really different out here, too.”
This spot, MacKenzie said, was passed on to him by his uncle, who in turn heard about it from Russel “Bo” Brown, the former building official in South Kingstown, who now works for the town of Richmond.
“Our entire family’s into hunting berries,” he said. “We’re really into it. There’s a lot of berries on Hundred Acre Pond, where a lot of us live … Five years ago, you can see how everything looks green here, it literally looked blue, there were so many berries.”
Sloshing through the water as he searches for berries, MacKenzie plucks off the ripe ones and drops them into a large white bucket, which, like all serious pickers, he wears on a rope around his neck.
For MacKenzie, berry-picking is a way to spend time outdoors and come home with food, even if the outdoors is a slightly buggy swamp. There's also the thrill of finding a bush that's laden with ripe berries.
“The satisfaction of finding a bush that meets my criteria, which is little groups of four to six berries. There’s a little bit of that here, but not really,” he said.
MacKenzie said his uncle and grandfather introduced him to berry-picking.
“My grandfather, who owned Arnold Lumber Company back in the day, he’s the one who kind of got me into doing it when I was a kid,” he said. “I just liked being around him, and this was something that he liked to do in his free time. So as a way of hanging out, this is what we did.”
Mackenzie’s uncle also happened to be a good pie-baker, which led Mackenzie to baking.
“Now, I think the most satisfaction is, you pick your own stuff, you take the time to clean it all out, you bake your pies, and then you give them to somebody,” he said. “I just gave one to Mike Kirby the other day, the Booster Club president. It’s just a chance to kind of connect to people. I take them in to school.”
The conversation pauses whenever MacKenzie spots a promising bush.
“Here’s a killer bush right here,” he says. “These are just nice clusters of berries.”
In berry season, MacKenzie settles into a routine that begins with a couple of hours of early morning picking. He can easily pick 100 cups of berries in a season.
“I can put in a couple hours of berrying and do my cleanup and then spend a couple of hours at school during the day and stay connected to what we’re doing,” he said. “I guess that’s my idea of vacation right now.”
Part of the fun, MacKenzie said, is discovering a new blueberry patch.
“The intrigue; I drive around and I’m constantly looking and now I’ve got my wife doing it too, looking for blueberries,” he said. “Maybe discovering something that somebody else doesn’t know about and like, with my uncle, I’m always looking for really accessible blueberries because he doesn’t really want to hike in like we used to or like I do now."
For MacKenzie, it's a relaxing way to spend a summer morning.
“I’ll put my headphones in sometimes, and sometimes, I’ll just be out here listening to what’s going on in the swamp,” he said.