Huckleberry Picking

If you're looking for a local, organic, and free food to add to your stores, look no further than a wild huckleberry patch! The author shares stories and tips from 11 years of picking huckleberries in British Columbia.

| August/September 1992

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    After lugging your berries home, you should clean them right away. Using a cloth will help to snare the leaves and twigs from your berry bounty.
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    You can use a number of methods to enjoy your berry harvest long after picking—drying, canning, and jellies are all delicious options.
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    Huckleberries are not only delicious, they're completely organic and free for the taking. Nothing adds better flavor to yogurt or desserts.

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It was the bone-weary end of an intense day of huckleberry picking. Jay and I began harvesting the wild fruits at 10:30 a.m. By 5:30 p.m., we must have had about 100 pounds of huckleberries between us. The seat of my beige pants bore the purple crest of the seasoned picker, and with 40 pounds of produce on my back, I began to trudge towards the truck, negotiating a network of silver logs that overrode the rises and folds of the huge patch. In my haste to cross the last log, I tripped over my own feet and screamed as the weight of myself (plus the berries) landed on my right leg. Down the hill I rolled, bucket on my back. When I stopped, I had this one thought—I positively could not bear to start the picking process all over again. But thanks to a tight-fitting lid, I didn't lose my bounty in the tumble. After the 20-mile ride home, I managed to hobble down the three-mile trail to our house, and poor Jay was stuck packing all of the huckleberries. Just another day of berry picking… 

For the past 11 years, my family and I—determined to eat as much locally grown food as possible—have been making annual excursions to gather our main winter fruit. Huckleberries are not only delicious, they're completely organic and free for the taking; and with wilderness all around, there isn't much chance of chemical drift from industrial areas or non-organic agriculture. The berry patch is incredible where we live; the Stewart-Cassiar highway threads right through it, and pickers come from many miles to camp out and harvest the crop. It's called the Iskut burn. There's a good reason for this name. Thirty-four years ago, lightning struck the area and started a forest fire just 20 miles north of our homestead. I clearly remember arriving in this region, working as a lookout attendant for the Forest Service. The peninsula of alpine country extended out into a massive gray sea—waves of trees that had been dead for nearly 20 years. Little did I know what wealth lay hidden at the base of that peninsula. The area is now a 100,000-acre berry patch. During my first visit to the patch, I was awestruck by the abundance of berries. My initial impulse was to run helter-skelter, grabbing berries greedily. It wasn't until sometime later that I realized the grape-size granddaddies usually grow at the base of certain semi-shaded slopes. So then I became a bit more selective in my picking technique. I learned that the biggest berries prosper on these slopes because the long-lasting snow up there provides a lot of moisture to the bushes. Actually, I've learned quite a bit about huckleberries since then, including how to determine which berries are which.

Deciphering Huckleberry Types

Approximately 200 of the shrubs which live in the cold mountainous areas of the world have been classified under the genus Vaccinium. About 20 species of these shrubs are native to Canada and northern United States, and you'll find them most often at elevations greater than 2,500 feet on the coast (4,000 feet in the interior). You should see the way that huckleberries paint an entire mountain red during the fall—what a breathtaking vision!

The shrubs, which are quite bushy, range in height from five feet at lower elevations to one foot near timberline. They are crooked plants with smooth limbs and slightly angled twigs. As for the leaves, they are pointed at both ends. They are also finely-toothed, and noticeably paler on the underside. The leaves range in their length from between 1/2" to 2". The berry that my family most often scouts out is the black mountain huckleberry, Vaccinium membranaceun, which many pickers consider the finest and tastiest of all. Vaccinium ovalifolium (also common to the area) is the tall, blue huckleberry that grows on bushes. Often these bushes reach four feet high. However, the blues aren't nearly as sweet as the blacks, and their seeds are much harder. Sometimes you'll also notice a gritty feeling (which many people dislike) when you cook the blues in your desserts. Still, the blues shouldn't get a bad rap; they are an important part of the scene since they provide cross-pollination for the blacks. As soon as the snow melts in May or June, single creamy flowers begin to appear on the bushes. By mid-August they are promptly succeeded by greenish berries that ripen to a deep-purplish black. Other species bear a paler, more bluish bloom. These sweet, round globes range from pea size to grape size and average about a half inch in diameter. I, myself, find it's worth being patient and bringing in only the grape-size ones. By the way, you may notice that huckleberries are extremely popular among birds and bears. I can tell you that I've seen plenty of signs of the latter (although, luckily, we've never chanced upon a bear feasting in the same patch). Dogs, wolves, coyotes, and foxes enjoy huckleberries as much as we do—and what a ridiculous sight to see them daintily nibbling berries right off the bushes!

Huckleberry Picking

Family trips to huckleberry heaven are often nourishing in themselves. With each passing year, our daughter, Natalia, and our son, Ben, help more with the berry harvesting. Although their first priority has always been filling their "stomach buckets" (as they like to call it), once they fill up, you can count on them to pick and haul home the perfect berries.

I've decided that the berry-gathering process is addictive. How can you stop picking when the berries just seem to go on forever? I know that some pickers prefer using rake-type tools to comb the berries off their shrubs, but I find nimble fingers are the most efficient tools. Even though picking is a family effort, secretly we all search for the giant berry—that "king berry" that will exceed all others in size and sweetness. After five or six hours of steady work, I usually enter a trance state, and my fingers just go on picking without the presence of my mind. Then, later in the season (after frost has struck), harvesting is even easier—you can virtually tickle the berries right off the bushes. The longer those huckleberries hang, the sweeter they become.

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