How about a Trip down Huckleberry Nostalgia Lane?

Sandpoint Idaho 1976

Do you recall your very FIRST huckleberry picking excursion? (Or was this year’s bumper crop be your first time?)

I can (unfortunately!) still recall the mis-adventures of my first wild purple berry safari! Bear with me (excuse the pun) for a brief huckleberry story… the way it REALLY was, without all the romance normally associated with huckleberry picking.

1976 — I was working a college summer job for the Idaho Department of Lands, as a summer forester, and living near Sandpoint, Idaho. “TJ”, a co-worker of mine, and a “local” — well versed in the guarded, secret locations of the best and biggest huckleberries — was my guide.

After what seemed like hours of driving in my ’67 blue-n-white Toyota Land Cruiser, on a narrow, winding, dirt, logging road in the heavily wooded mountains of the Idaho Panhandle (during the hottest part of the summer) — we FINALLY arrived.

The ground was rolling to steep, and huckleberry bushes were everywhere! I got out my gallon bucket, with a paint-can style wire handle, and followed Tom’s lead into the brush. I was ecstatic … while some huckleberry plants were completely barren, many were LOADED with berries. The “good” bushes made up for the shut-outs… my fingers were soon purple.

While picking, I (with little guilt) stole an occasional morsel for my mouth, and envisioned a part-time hobby career, making money on the weekends selling huckleberries at farmer’s markets. The going rate back then was a whopping — and unheard of for “free” berries — $8 to 15 a gallon. But my dream soon diminished.

Huckleberry Picking is HARD WORK!

Within a half hour of steady picking, my expectations were down to hoping to just fill my larder with enough huckleberries to last until the next berry season! Wild huckleberry picking — in spite of the spectacular scenery, fresh air, and the chance to be outdoors — was tough work! And the worst was still to come.

Besides the dust from the late July, hot, dry weather, it was a bad hornet year, and I kicked up three nests in my ambitious pursuit of ever more and bigger berries. Since huckleberries only grow in forested habitats — often logged over — the ground was rough, and I tripped periodically — especially while running from hornets! (Not that I am clumsy anyway, or anything like that…)

From my background, growing up on a farm near Nampa, Idaho, I was more familiar with raspberries. We owned a BIG patch of black caps, and our family also went to the neighbors for U-pick red raspberries… cultivated in tall rows, on FLAT ground.

With huckleberries, the ground was so uneven (usually where the best berries were), it was often tough to stand comfortably in one spot long enough to work a bush — much less find a good spot to set the bucket where it would not fall over — but it did anyway.

I tried tying the bucket to my belt… which worked until the weight of the huckleberries started pulling down my pants, turning things even more unpleasant (especially for anyone watching!!). And to top it all, I was bent over all the time I was picking. Within an hour, my back hurt. It got worse.

The purple on my fingers slowly migrated across my face and other body parts, as I wiped away sweat, mosquitos, ticks, tree branches, and other necessary evils of the great outdoors — along with the occasional call of nature. (Purple tidy whities, anyone?)

Pretty soon, the idea of paying $15 a gallon, and sleeping in on Saturday mornings, did not sound so bad. And I felt a lot more appreciation for past feasts of huckleberry pie, pancakes, jam, and muffins!

The worst part… the part they don’t tell you when you are invited to chase huckleberries, is that picking huckleberries is like seeing how many small marbles you can hold in one hand. (Or perhaps there WAS a reason that their exact words were “chase” huckleberries!) Here is the skinny on the art of handling those little rascals!

If you try and put the berry into your bucket every time you pick one, it takes forever. So while your hand is in the huckleberry bush, you try to collect as many berries as you can before moving your hand, and dropping them into the bucket. Again, I was used to raspberries, which come with jagged edges and even a flat landing area at the bottom of the cap — so you could hold quite a few at any one time, even stack them, before losing any.

Huckleberry Picking Requires Dexterity TOO?!

But HUCKLEBERRIES ARE ROUND (or nearly so)! Using two or three fingers, in collaboration with your thumb, you pick them little suckers off the bush, while your littlest fingers are trying to hold the teaming mass of little fruits in check.

After a few berries, however, as soon as you move one finger to grab a berry off the huckleberry plant, a big juicy huckleberry you already nabbed sneaks through, and hits the ground. And in a forest environment, it’s faster to pick another berry, than dig through the ground level debris to find the one you lost.

But OH, to this day, it just KILLS me to see a big, shiny, purple huckleberry bounce down into the ground level duff, out of sight. What a waste! But in the time I spend bending over to grope amongst the forest litter, and pick it up (if I can even find it), I could pick ten more huckleberries off the bush!

After a while, I developed a rule of thumb: as soon as I was dropping one huckleberry for every one I picked, it was time to transfer the handful of berries into the bucket. (I will not EVEN go into the intracasies of trying to pick with two hands simultaneously!)

After three hours, I’d had enough. I was stiff, tired, sore, dry of mouth, and about to give in and let the growing cloud of mosquitos eat me for a late lunch. I stared at about 3 ½ quarts of huckleberries, and figured I made minimum wage. Back to the Land Cruiser to pull my shirt up for a quick “tick check”, then “Home, James”!

Oooops! Just before I got back to the logging road where we parked, my tired feet caught on a tree root… and all those beautiful, succulent huckleberries turned into a small, purple carpet covering the forest floor. (In deference to your friendly ears, I will not repeat the verbiage I used for the next five minutes. BUT… let’s just say the genetic heritage of huckleberries was put to serious question.)

For the next hour (and I had been so careful to keep leaves and bugs out of the pail of huckleberries!), I scrounged, re-picked, and otherwise scraped berries BACK into the pail. When I was done, my 3 ½ quarts of clean, shiny huckleberries had shrunk to 2 ½ quarts of dirty, little semi-smashed globes, surrounded by ragged bits of forest floor. “More protein,” my (former) friend TJ, assured me, smirking.

After I got home, I spent two hours rinsing and cleaning my huckleberries… a job that should take 20 minutes. This is SOOOO fun, I kept telling myself!

The Pay-Off – Huckleberry Pancakes & Pie!

The next morning, I sprinkled a handful or two of huckleberry delights into some sourdough pancakes, and ate them smothered in melted butter with maple syrup. I still remember the taste of that first bite. Pure heaven! It was (almost) worth the torture of picking those little purple jerks. And it just kept getting better!

The next day, using my mom’s pie crust recipe, I used four cups of berries to make my FIRST huckleberry pie. And I ate the entire thing by myself over the next three days… (OK, OK, it was only 2 days, and included a half gallon of vanilla ice cream.) And I DID NOT SHARE — and I am completely UNapologetic!

I froze the remaining quart or so of huckleberries, in a big baggie… for pancakes, muffins, shakes and ice cream. They looked so good, and tasted so good, I just KNEW I would make it back out and get some more!

But I never made it. Somehow another day of mosquitoes, hornets, dust, and sunburn did not compete with sleeping in; nor with weekend offers of a couple home brews while helping a BBQ grill create culinary delights of another variety. And, of course, my stash of purple gold was gone by Labor Day. As the song says, “STAND UP! IF you ever been there!”

Since then, I have, of course, been out huckleberry picking many times. Rarely do I get enough to last the entire year (I eat a lot of huckleberries!). And yes, I have occasionally resorted to buying some. But with the advent of huckleberry rakes, I have several gallons in my freezer in 2008, and expect to have plenty until the next huckleberry season!


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