Landers: Huckleberry season has pickers bursting with excitement
The 2000 Idaho Legislature declared huckleberries the state fruit. But like potatoes, Washington has its share of the delicious purple berries prized for pies, pancakes, muffins, ice cream, jam, wine and just about anything else that needs a touch of tart sweetness.
The huckleberry season is underway at lower elevations and the pleasure is working its way up the region’s mountainsides as the berries ripen. People and communities have taken note:
• The Priest Lake Huckleberry Festival was last weekend.
• The Schweitzer Mountain Huckleberry Festival is Aug. 3.
Several species of huckleberries grow in the region, including the low-bush Cascade huckleberry found in the North Cascades and Olympics, and the red and mountain varieties. The most common variety in the Inland Northwest is known in various publications as the black, thin-leaved or big huckleberry.
The grouse whortleberry is the huckleberry that grows at higher elevations about 10 inches high with small, bright-green leaves and small reddish fruits that burst with flavor.
The picking season generally starts in this region in the first or second week of July at elevations around 2,400 feet, such as the stretch of lowland between Priest River and Priest Lake. Snow cover is needed to insulate the plants to survive during the winter, so huckleberries are rarely found at lower elevations.
The berries are ripening at higher elevations this week, but the peak range of ripe berries occurs in August.
With my family into backpacking, I have to add hours to the hiking time for a destination through, say, the Cabinet or Bitterroot Mountains. It’s easy to drop a heavy pack and kiss away an hour in a booming patch of hucks.
High areas in the Selkirk Mountains, such as Roman Nose, provide good picking into September.
“Last week I was in the woods with some friends and we found many ripe huckleberries and many more that were not yet ripe,” said Phil Cooper, Idaho Fish and Game conservation educator in Coeur d’Alene. “Most plants were very heavy with berries, so it should be a banner year for picking.”
Serious pickers fasten a bucket of some sort to their belt so they can have both hands free. A plastic milk jug with a wide opening cut out in the top front and a rope or belt through the handle works well.
Huckleberry picking gadgets are available, but experienced pickers say any time they save over hand-picking is lost at the end of the day when all the leaves and stems must be cleaned from the berries.
Some people say the huckleberry picking gadgets damage the plants, especially if they’re improperly used in a raking motion, rather than “bumping and tickling” the berries off the stems and into the picker box.
Either way, there’s one picker that naturally stands out as the best.
“Black bears have what are called prehensile lips,” Cooper said. “They can use these well-coordinated and flexible lips to pick individual huckleberries faster than any person can pick with their hands.”
Bears don’t just enjoy Idaho’s state fruit, they depend on them, says John Beecham, retired Idaho Fish and Game Department wildlife biologist, in his book, “A Shadow in the Forest: Idaho’s Black Bear.”
A poor huckleberry crop in the Priest Lake area in 1979 resulted in decreased bear productivity and survival for two years, Beecham said.
Yet they seldom get any leaves, except in the spring when they might purposely make a salad of the huckleberry leaves and blossoms.
“Humans who pick huckleberries should always carry bear spray,” Cooper said. “It is not uncommon to have a chance encounter with a bear out and about to eat the same berries you came for.”
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.