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Sandy shares his secrets

Up on the south face of Star Peak—up and up and up—three-and-a-half miles from the trailhead and three thousand vertical feet—is my favorite huckleberry patch. Most people won’t tell where their favorite is, I know, but mine is just above the turn into the third loooong switchback after the trail enters the big chunk of lodgepole forest that the beetles got into a decade or more ago. This invasion has resulted in an open hillside that allows lots of sunshine to ripen sweet little nuggets of goodness and mountain flavor.

I feel comfortable sharing my patch with you, because a.) there are plenty of berries for you and me both, and b.) there is no friendly forest road or ORV trail nearby by which you can lift your bucket to the patch via use of the internal combustion engine. You can ride a horse or a mule, or lead a donkey, llama, or a pack savvy dog to help you. But whatever you do, it’s going to take some serious non-mechanical energy to get there, and the better part of a day. Or at least a long morning. So, I think my huckleberry patch is safe. Not many of us have the time or energy to waste (or invest) on picking a patch like that these days. As a friend of mine said not so long ago, “Why should I do that when I can drive to Schweitzer in half an hour and pick ten feet from the car?”

Good question.

I’m not a great huckleberry picker. It takes me up to an hour to fill a liter Nalgene bottle, depending on the size of the berries. Though I am lamentably slow, a friend pointed out that, still, I got to spend an hour in the sunshine on a beautiful mountainside and I have a liter of huckleberries. 

Good point.

Yesterday’s berries were not gigantic, but they are thick and situated on a hillside where I don’t have to lean far over to pick. That’s one of the things I like about “my” patch. Another—besides its annual dependability—is its diversity of berries.

In the main patch, split by the trail, there are two kinds of huckleberries. On the uptrail side is the berry most of us think of as the quintessential huck; dusty dark purple orbs that are sweet and tangy. On the downtrail side, and stretching along the trail for about 20 feet, is another variety entirely: ruby red, pear shaped, tart and larger than its purple cousin.

Some folks eschew these because they assume by their color and the piquancy that they aren’t ripe. Believe me, they are. They come off the stem with the slightest tug, sometimes at a touch. They are also, I think, the most beautiful: translucent as gems and hanging under lime green leaves that are lighter than the foliage of other varieties. As for their tanginess, I think of them as the pie cherries of huckleberries.

Lower on the mountain, growing in the shade, is a third type, often larger still than the ruby red; shiny, indigo blue, round and sweet, with flavor hints of the pines or firs they grow among. These might allow me to fill a Nalgene in 45 minutes, should I find a patch of proper thickness (A wide-mouth Nalgene makes a great collector if you loop the lid under your belt). 

When my mother was a girl, there was a certain age at which she and her siblings could go to the huckleberry fields. Not until one was eleven was one allowed to walk five miles up the creek to pick with the rest of the family. Grandpa Earl carried a pack on his back made of a square, five-gallon tin and leather straps, and everyone else carried a lard bucket. When someone had filled their lard bucket and contributed to Grandpa’s tin, they were allowed to go fishing. At the end of the day, with a tin full of huckleberries layered with thimbleberry leaves to reduce crushing and cutthroat wrapped in the same and stacked in lard buckets, they would trek home with their treasures; the purple to be turned immediately into a few pies and many jars of huckleberry preserves or bartered to the neighbors in town. The fish were dinner and maybe breakfast, depending on the luck.

That was almost 80 years ago, though. In the meantime, the internal combustion machine has robbed us of our propensity, willingness, and, perhaps, ability to climb to the huckleberry fields with our lunch in a lard bucket, to pick and fish all day and then walk home, eleven years old or not. However, the bears probably don’t mind the lack of competition, and I can brag up my patch without fear of encountering a crowd of neighbors the next chance I get to sneak up there and pick a Nalgene full of summer.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

Tagged as:

huckleberries, hiking, The Scenic Route

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