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The Hunt for the Elusive Huckleberry

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Illustration by Scott Clawson Illustration by Scott Clawson

Huckleberry stories are almost as big as fishing tales...

The berries are as big as your thumb or as small as a pinhead. It just depends on which huckleberry picker you “pick” to talk to!

Usually, huckleberries are about the size of a garden pea and they go by so many names it’s hard to keep up with them. Although a blueberry is a member of the huckleberry family (serious huckleberry pickers are now ready to fight me), they taste nothing like the wild huckleberries found on the mountain slopes of northern Idaho. It’s textbooks that put huckleberries and blueberries in the same category, not the die hard huckleberry pickers I have spoken to.

And there are lots of die hard huckleberry pickers around. As important as fishing, hiking and boating are to area residents for summer recreation, picking huckleberries rates right near the top. Even the New York Times listed huckleberry picking as an attraction of the area and John Henderson, a writer for the Denver Post, called the huckleberry the “truffle of the berry world.”

Once you actually taste a huckleberry, then a blueberry becomes nothing more than a “blahberry,” feeding the huckleberry-blueberry sibling rivalry.

Huckleberries grow singly along the stem of the bush and their roots are more shallow than blueberries. They also grow best in damp, acidic soil. I spoke to my friend and berry picker Carolyn Vogel about the berries in this area. “If you want to find the huckleberries, you will,” she says. “You can find them along the road if you just look.”

Where do you look? Well, that’s a secret among most serious berry pickers. Carolyn did share that while she hikes a mile or two into the mountains, huckleberries are often found on the roadside, easily accessible to mountain traffic. Wild huckleberries pretty much grow wherever they please and are pretty hard to tame. They are mostly picked during mid-July to mid- August, depending on the weather, and Carolyn states this year they are running a bit later. There are many varieties of huckleberries in the region, but the big one, the black huckleberry, prefers life between 3,000 and 6,000 feet elevation.

By the gallon, huckleberries sold can range from 20 to 30 dollars, selling at even higher prices when they are harder to find. Carolyn says that huckleberry pickers tend to get territorial about their patches, so if you are picking near someone and getting glared at, you might want to move on.

Don’t forget that bears eat huckleberries too, the positive side being that only 15 percent of a bear’s diet consists of meat, so if you use some common sense you probably won’t end up as the main course in a bear’s feast, with huckleberries as the dessert. The Xenite website notes, in all seriousness, as to the risks inherent in picking: “Danger is a relative term. Some huckleberry pickers do encounter bears.”

If you don’t know what to do when encountering a bear in the woods - you might best stay out of the woods. Or at least visit with the folks at the Forest Service office and find out.

Carolyn picks mostly for her own use, freezing the berries and then canning them during the winter months. For canning, visit www.culinarycafe.com or dig up your grandmother’s old basic recipe for canning fruits.

For myself, the best way to eat the berries is straight off the stem, which doesn’t make me the best berry picker around. If you are bound to pick, be prepared. Layer your clothes for comfort all day, and be sure to take water and some lunch. A basic survival kit won’t take up any more room than a canteen. Include matches, candles and string, perhaps even a space blanket if you are hiking very far in. First aid gear and emergency food rations would be good as well. Most importantly, if you think it is a bad idea to pick a certain spot, don’t. You never know what you might really be picking!

For the newcomer to berry picking, a good place to start is Schweitzer Mountain Resort. Yep, that’s right. The area that’s a dream for skiiers and snowboarders throughout the winter also offers a number of summer attractions - and picking huckleberries is one of them.

Head up for their Huckleberry Festival on August 3, an event they bill as “honoring everything huckleberry,” and introduce yourself to this luscious purple fruit. Or head up there anytime for a day of hiking and huckleberry picking - right now, it’s looking like the berries will be ripe from mid-August on. The activity center has trail maps, safety tips and a few insider secrets they’re willing to share. As their website warns, however, beware. “Eating these berries may make you forget that you came for a hike and two hours later you could find yourself only 100 feet down the trail!”

Want to know more about the huckleberry? Visit the Sandpoint General Store online (www.sandpointgeneralstore.com) and check out “The Huckleberry Book” by Asta Bowen. For just $9.95 you can be introduced to such topics as “Bears and Berries,” Huckleberry Hunting,” “How to Eat Huckleberries,” a history of berry picking in America, the difference between a huckleberry and its lesser cousins, and “The Secret Life of the Huckleberry, explaining its mysterious nature, prime habitat, relationship with fire, sex life and typical year.”

Once you’re bitten by the pickin’ bug, and you find your kitchen full of huckleberries, your friends at the Community Assistance League are ready to help out with recipes from their cookbook, Savoring Sandpoint, Recipes Across the Bridge.

Hills Resort in Priest Lake suggests this recipe for a refreshing, summertime huckleberry dacquiri for one:

1 1/4 oz. white rum

1/4 cup huckleberries

1 Tbsp. simple syrup (1/2 water, 1/2 sugar)

1 1/2 cups ice

1/4 cup orange juice

1. Blend all ingredients in blender until smooth.

2. Serve in a tall glass and garnish with orange slice and cherry.

And skip the four-and-twenty blackbirds, settling instead for this wonderful huckleberry pie, also from Hill’s Resort:

1 9” baked pastry shell

4 cups washed huckleberries

3/4 cup water

3 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 cup sugar

1-3 tsp. fresh lemon juice

whipped cream or ice cream

1. Simmer 1 cup of huckleberries with water for 3 to 4 minutes

2. Combine cornstarch and sugar and add to cooking fruit.

3. Simmer slowly until syrup is thick and clear.

4. When thickened add lemon juice to taste; depending on berries’ sweetness. Cool slightly.

5. Line pastry shell with 3 cups of berries, pour slightly cooled glaze over raw berries.

6. Mix gently with fork to coat fresh berries.

7. Chill thoroughly. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

The book also includes recipes for a huckleberry/apple pie, and a huckleberry cream cheese pastry. It is available only at Bizarre Bazaar, 105 Vermeer Drive, Ponderay, ID. 208-263-3400

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Author info

Jinx Beshears Jinx Beshears is a southern transplant to North Idaho, and shares her confusion with the Pacific Northwest Lifestyle in her column, Jinxed. When not writing, or living, her outlandish stories, she's generally lost somewhere in the mountains with her dog, Aspen.

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