Visitors from out of town often ask me, “Where can I buy an Idaho potato?” I tell them, “Try Safeway,” and politely explain that perhaps somewhere in the hinterlands of central and Southern Idaho, there may be plenty of potato farms. I don’t know – I’ve never seen one myself.
But up here in the beautiful part of the state, I tell them, it’s all about the magical huckleberry.
I may risk getting blacklisted by the Idaho Potato Commission when I say I hold our rare and deeply violaceous berry in much higher esteem than some lowly everyday tuber, offensively dirt-encrusted and starchy.
The huckleberry is what makes North Idaho a purple paradise every July and August. You can’t, in good conscience, call yourself a North Idahoan unless you have experienced the Zen of picking huckleberries.
You don’t have to drive far to find a good picking spot, with huckleberries growing in virtually every alpine area of the Idaho Panhandle.
Pack a picnic lunch and bring the family or make it a peaceful and meditative solo experience. Either way, it’s a great way to spend a day (or longer) hiking in the raw resplendence of the mountainous wilderness.
Avoid the heat by heading up to the mountains as early in the morning as you can.
You’ll need to bring a container to gather your rotund little treasures in – a grocery sack or Tupperware or a five-gallon bucket will work.
You might want to bring some light gloves so you don’t scratch your hands or ruin that $50 Resort Spa manicure.
Long sleeves, long pants, socks and hiking boots are the best gear with which to avoid bloody legs while getting into the nitty-gritty of a berry patch. Covering up also helps prevent the agony of insect bites and poison ivy. The horseflies up there are huge translucent blue-green critters that visibly sneer at you as they bite into your flesh, and they certainly don’t know the meaning of the word “shoo.”
In addition, it’s a good idea to wear a cap to help avoid those nasty deer ticks. Nothing ruins an appetite for huckleberry cheesecake faster than learning you’ve contracted Lyme disease.
Other things you may want to bring include bottled water, sunscreen, bear spray, your iPod and your laptop for live-blogging the whole excursion.
Be warned: Many folks have their preferred huckleberry picking place, and they return to that spot year after year.
Some people can be viciously territorial about their picking spot, as if they were the only people on Earth to have discovered it and now it’s theirs and theirs only and, of course, it’s where the finest, perfect berries grow and there’s no way in Athol they’re going to share their precious secret place with an amateur like you. Go find your own darn picking spot!
In other words, I could tell you some specific places to go to pick huckleberries, but I risk stepping on the toes of folks who might claim reservation of those particular bushes.
In reality, there are plenty of berries to go around. The bushes have a magical way of restocking themselves after encounters with greedy pickers.
For longer, more camping-oriented huckleberry getaways, head north to Priest Lake and the Panhandle National Forests near Bonners Ferry.
If you’re in the mood just for a day trip and require only enough berries to throw in your pancakes on some lazy Sunday morning, I recommend heading into the Panhandle National Forests via either Fernan Road or Blue Creek Road near Wolf Lodge.
From those roads, you can reach some of the many bumpy Forest Service roads that take you up to where the berries grow fierce. If you don’t see any, keep going up.
Huckleberries are a little shy; they grow only above a certain elevation and they might not be visible from the road, hiding in the shady safety of bushy leaves.
Look for clearings in the thick trees. The best berry-picking usually is found along abandoned logging roads and in old burns. The berry bushes in those areas get a lot of sunlight and have little competition for nutrients, and they yield the plumpest, most purple fruit. The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.
Whether you picked only enough berries to make a single tantalizing tart or you managed to pack your freezer with a mother lode of the sweet little buggers, you’ll find plenty of ways to put your takings to good use.
The dessert possibilities are almost endless; you can substitute the huckleberry for almost any other berry in your recipe book. Make syrup and smother some vanilla ice cream or fluffy crepes. Huckleberries also are heavenly blended into a fruit smoothie for a healthful treat on a hot day.
Some local folks have made the berry their business, manufacturing and selling huckleberry-filled chocolates, jams and jellies, even flavored popcorn.
Perhaps the most ingenious and inspired concoction is 44 Degrees North, an elegant huckleberry-infused vodka that can be found as the main ingredient in Huckletinis and other unusual cocktails at certain fine-dining establishments throughout the region.
If you really can’t get enough of the luscious purple fruit, go to one of several huckleberry festivals in the region, all happening next weekend.
I wasn’t able to uncover much information about the Priest Lake Huckleberry Festival other than that it’s on state Highway 57 near milepost 27.
Slightly farther south, the Schweitzer Mountain Huckleberry Festival will be Saturday only, with guided berry-picking hikes starting at 9 a.m., a massive barbecue, live music and a “huckleberry-themed village” with arts and crafts vendors. The event will close at 5 p.m.
The biggest “huckleparty” appears to be in Wallace, where the annual Huckleberry/Heritage Festival runs the entire weekend and will feature a huckleberry pancake breakfast, vendors on the front lawn of the old depot, a “bake-off” and a five-kilometer fun run, presumably to burn off the calories from all those huckleberry treats.
The Wallace Chamber of Commerce Web site states that “Huckleberry Sheriff and Huckleberry Hound will reign during this exciting two-day event that features activities for the whole family.”
So don’t even think about committing any huckleberry crimes or you may find yourself in huckleberry jail.