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Mining for purple: Huckleberry pickers wear stains with pride

After a two-year hiatus from picking, I recently returned from a huckleberry excursion to the Metaline Falls area. The seat of my jeans was stained purple, I smelled like DEET, I was sunburned and I was so stiff I could barely make it out of the vehicle. I had spent $45 on gas and the truck needed washing, if not repainting. But I had huckleberry butt and a gallon of hard-earned huckleberries – the day was a success!

Huckleberry stains are among the worst ever, soaking through jeans and even underwear, but they are an indication of a successful day picking. These butt stains are not as impressive as a tattoo of a three-headed, fire-breathing serpent wrapped around a sailing ship, of course, but they are worn proudly and last about a week. On bare skin, they create an interesting purple pattern that looks like a massive hematoma.

Some folks count their money. Others count their huckleberries. Those who do not pick huckleberries have no idea what is involved. Otherwise intelligent, reasonable folks have said to me, “You’re going huckleberry picking? I just love huckleberries! Pick me enough for a couple pies.”

“A couple” huckleberry pies take a half gallon of huckleberries. That’s two hours (in a great year) of sitting in a patch or bending over low bushes on a side hill in the woods, sweating, swatting back flies, and listening to the depressingly slow “plink” of a small purple berry hitting the bottom of a metal bucket. Pick you enough for a couple pies, indeed! And while I’m at it, why don’t I pick you up a couple nice ribeye and a bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon?

Why is it that when I am harvesting a garden full of 20-pound pumpkins, no one asks me for “enough for a couple pies?” Why, when I announce my intentions to pick some zucchini, nobody suggests I bring them enough for 500 loaves of zucchini bread?

Good huckleberry pickers are tenacious. None want to return to the vehicle without a full bucket. On my last outing, berries were not plentiful. It took nearly five hours to pick my gallon. And yes, there have been times when I arrived at the truck with less than a gallon, but that is because I have never once made it through a day of huckleberrying without stumbling with a full bucket. Sometimes these berries can be reclaimed along with assorted bugs, pebbles, and dried fir needles, but occasionally, my tumble is so spectacular, the berries are spread over 50 yards of slope.

Huckleberries are so precious I’m always looking for ways to make a few go a long ways. I have mixed two cups of chopped apples with two cups of huckleberries, and the huckleberry flavor is so dominant, my pies taste pretty much like pure huckleberry. I have heard you can do the same thing with rhubarb, and a friend recently told me of a huckleberry/peach pie that was outstanding.

For the folks that have asked me to bring them enough huckleberries “for a couple pies,” I plan on giving each of them a cup of fruit this year. They can add it to whatever they want – make small pies for all I care. I’ll bet huckleberries and zucchini would mix together just fine.

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