The thick bushes blanket an open dip in the landscape, just off the main road. The picking is amazing; consistent, big berries year after year. It’s a huckleberry spot not far from here, on a place called No Tell Ridge.Here in the inland Northwest, the location of a good huckleberry patch is a better protected secret than any CIA operative’s file. Bonds of friendship, blood, even marriage, mean nothing when it comes to acquiring such information. But all it takes to find these berries is a little curiosity and a bucket.
August is prime time for picking. Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest employees report that huckleberries are just now beginning to ripen in the lower elevations, around 3,500 feet. In another week or two, expect to see plenty of purple-fingered hikers.
“There’s so many great places to pick,” said Colleen Paul, forest service employee and lifelong huckleberry picker. “They’re like any berry, they like sun and a good amount of water.”
Berries love areas that have been opened up from forest fires, timber cuts, or roads. As berries ripen from southern to northern facing slopes, and from lower to higher elevations, regular pickers follow the season as it moves up the mountain.
From the Blue Mountains to the forks of the Clearwater River, the berries grow in all area mountain forests. For those who are out regularly, hiking or hunting, the landscape is as familiar as their backyard, making it easy to find that favorite picking spot. And for those who don’t venture out much, the first step is simple: just get out there.
A favorite in pancakes and muffins, huckleberries are related to blueberries, though sweeter and tarter … and considerably smaller.
“It’s a slow process,” said Jim Cooper, a Lewiston resident who has been picking regularly in the Blue Mountains for around 15 years.
He, like most picking purists, pick by hand. Huckleberry rakes may collect a little faster, but they strip and damage the bush in the process.
Berry picking is a favorite summertime activity for local families. Some berry patches require some hiking, but many are located alongside roads and campsites. Kids are generally content to play and explore in berry patches, but getting them to add to the family berry bucket is another thing. Berries tend to end up in mouths or spilled on the ground.
“For a few years we were able to entice them by paying a dollar for every cup they filled,” said Cooper.
Small cups with large handles made picking easier and they found plenty to do when they lost interest in picking. Now that his kids are older, the dollar prize doesn’t work like it used to, but they still come along and often bring friends or geocache while they’re out.
For some, stockpiling berries is the goal, but for others it’s as much about quiet time time out in the forest.
“I love to pick. For me it’s just relaxing, a time to think,” said Paul.
But she knows others who don’t have the patience.
“You either like it or you don’t,” she said.
Because she enjoys the process, Paul picks often, collecting four to six cups at a time.
Pickers are warned to keep an eye out for bears, the other main consumer of the food. Noisy groups tend to keep bears away, but forest employees recommend a slow retreat if a bear is encountered.
For others, it’s not the bears they are worried about. Huckleberry picking can bring out the territorial side in some. Newcomers might be ignored or given dirty looks, but such an encounter generally doesn’t necessitate a slow retreat.
“When the huckleberries are on, people are out there,” said Cooper.
In his experience, people are friendly and helpful. Forest land is publicly owned and permits are not required, but general picking etiquette is to give other pickers their space. In other words, don’t pick on the opposite side of the bush.
“There’s always berries,” said Cooper. Granted, if you pick late in the season, things will be thinned out, but anyone willing to put time into finding and picking berries will be rewarded.
Jim’s Tips for Huckleberry Newbies
- Go with a berry-picking friend on your first outing
- Bring a picnic lunch and make a day of it
- A good picking bucket minimizes spills and frees up both hands for work. Make such a bucket with an empty milk jug: Leaving handle intact, cut off the top to make a 4-inch opening. Tie a rope through the handle and sling the rope over a shoulder.
- Mark good picking spots on a GPS unit
- Freeze sorted berries in a single layer on a baking sheet and then transfer to a freezer bag. Wash right before use.
BY MICHELLE SCHMIDT, for INLAND360.COM