Huckleberry Hunting 101

I loves me some huckleberries.

If you aren’t familiar with huckleberries – and chances are, unless you live in the Pacific Northwest you’ve never even seem them – you are missing out on some seriously good stuff. Huckleberries resemble blueberries but are smaller in size and a bit sweeter. They only grow in very specific climate zones at higher elevations in acidic mountain soil, and are impossible to cultivate or farm. Each berry must be picked by hand. This probably explains why they’re hard to find other than in a few local farmer’s markets, and command prices of $15-$20 a pint.

They are amazingly delicious, though. And picking them is an adventure in itself. You get to drive up into the mountains, traipse through the forest, and have a grand ol’ time communing with nature. Which is why I headed out Tuesday morning for a drive into the Indian Heaven Wilderness, one of my favorite hiking spots in southwest Washington and a place – conveniently enough – renowned for its bounty of huckleberries that ripen right around this time every year. I got there about 10:45, and the weather was absolutely perfect: sunshine, blue skies, and a cool breeze blowing through the trees that carried with it a not-so-subtle reminder that autumn is about to land with a thud. Right off the bat, I found plenty of wild huckleberries growing all along the trail, and I spent three hours gathering as many as I could. There’s a certain method to picking them: a one-handed maneuver in which you pluck each berry between your index finger and thumb and scoop it into the palm of your hand. I would pick ten or so and then deposit them into the ziploc bag clutched in my left hand. More often than not, I was balanced precariously on a log or a hillside and being dive-bombed by mosquitoes and biting flies during the process. Like I said, huckleberries take a lot of work! But what a sweet reward. I’d estimate I ended up with $50 worth based on their market value, but I’m not selling these babies. At one point a group of hikers passed me and asked what I was picking. When I told them, they wondered what I’d do with the huckleberries. “They make excellent jam,” I explained, “And are really good in pancakes and muffins.”

When I last picked them in 2009, I made a big batch of homemade jam, which has since dwindled to two small mason jars. I figured it was time to make some more, and also enjoy the aforementioned pancakes and muffins, provided I have enough left over. I should…we’ll see.

Betty Crocker, eat your heart out.

I should also mention that black bears love huckleberries. Based on my fear that I will one day be eaten by a bear, I was a bit apprehensive while picking the berries. OK, “jumpy” is a more accurate word. I kept imagining I heard phantom growling, so I’d stop what I was doing and listen carefully, but it was always just the breeze blowing through the treetops. Whew. I’m always happy to survive a bear-encounter-that-wasn’t.

(By the way, I stopped in Big 5 Sporting Goods the other day and inquired about bear spray. They had some on hand, but it was a very elaborate “Bear Attack Defense System” consisting of a can the size of a fire hydrant that required a great deal of finesse in releasing the safety. I figured I’d be halfway digested before I was even able to point the nozzle in the bear’s direction, so I passed).

After picking huckleberries, I embarked upon a 2.5-hour hike up a very steep series of trails to a gorgeous alpine meadow teeming with lakes, wildflowers, and clusters of fir trees, interspersed with gorgeous scenery that included stunning views of two nearby mountain peaks, St. Helens and Baker. All told, I covered about 11 miles yesterday, which explains the aching back and sore muscles today. I’ve been popping ibuprofen to deal with the pain, but I wish my girlfriend’s hands could work their magic instead.

Regardless, it was worth it!

Mount St. Helens – Indian Heaven Wilderness, Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Huckleberries resemble blueberries; they’re smaller and sweeter.

Eunice Lake, one of many I admired while hiking.

It’s not every day you see a man leading a pack of llamas through the forest. I told him that and he smiled. Curious what this was all about!

Alpine meadow, Indian Heaven. After a long and steep uphill hike, this was my reward.