Huckleberry Fever: The Northwest’s Most Iconic Berry Is Worth the Hunt
Early last September, on a prime summer day in the Cascades, I struck gold in the Mount Hood National Forest.
I was prowling a 4,400-foot-high clearing, a cheerful patch of sun-dappled vegetation amid moody, dark evergreens. A ranger at the Hood River Ranger Station near Parkdale, Oregon, had recommended the location, and sure enough, I spotted treasure within a half-hour: a thin scattering of tiny, purple orbs on scrubby bushes whose foliage already flaunted a touch of fall color.
I plucked a few and popped them in my mouth. The explosion of flavor confirmed them as huckleberries, a fruit so coveted and costly they’re sometimes referred to as purple gold in these parts.
What happened next was not a pretty sight. Like a bear fattening up for winter, I was soon pawing berries straight into my maw, their juice staining my fingers, lips and tongue in lurid shades of violet. No berry pail or basket for me, no saving them for later.
Within 15 minutes, I’d scarfed them all. Standing in the warm sun afterward, with the scent of pines and the late-summer buzz of insects filling the air, the taste of huckleberries lingered: a dusky, jam-intense fruitiness far bolder than a blueberry (the huckleberry’s polite cousin) and an edge-of-the-tongue tang that just wouldn’t quit.
If there is such a thing as a taste of wild lands, of untamed places where creatures roam free and clouds bump into mountains, this is it.
KING OF THE MOUNTAINS
Huckleberries reign as the most iconic and beloved fruit of the Pacific Northwest, where they appear in countless, delectable guises on local tables. During my four-day purple quest in and around Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest and Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, I tasted huckleberries fresh off the bush, a real triumph given how late in the season it was. I encountered them in jams, sauces, syrups, muffins and salad dressings. They flavored my Huckleberry Lemon Drop at Skamania Lodge in the Columbia River Gorge, and the huckleberry-infused vodka cocktail at Timberline Lodge, which I sipped while gazing at Mount Hood.
Though you can enjoy huck-flavored foods throughout the year, the summer harvest season is when huckleberry fever really rages. Pickers hit the patches for fruit that can retail for $50 per gallon, fresh berries fly out of farmers markets and country stores, chefs concoct fanciful huckleberry dishes, and festivals celebrate the fruit.
Signs pop up along rural byways for huckleberry treats, like the plump, flaky hand pie that I practically inhaled at the Apple Valley Country Store outside Hood River, Oregon, and the milkshakes I slurped at the Huckleberry Inn in Government Camp, Oregon, and the Station Cafe in Trout Lake, Washington, which were so thick with fruit I soon ditched the straws.
“We all go a little crazy over huckleberries during the season,” said Julie Vance, owner of Sweet Things by Julie wholesale bakery, as she scrambled to finish 406 pies for the huckleberry festival in Bingen, Washington. “There’s a lot of local pride in these berries that are picked by hand in our own mountains.”
The pride is justified. A day after meeting Julie, I cheered Bingen’s parade of fire engines, politicos in vintage cars, and riders astride horses with purple-painted hooves before I headed to the festival grounds.
There I ordered a slice of Julie’s pie à la mode, took a bite and swooned. Cooking had turned the berries dark as the midnight sky and deepened their flavor, and the ratio of crust (a little) to fruit (a lot) was perfect. You think about things like that when you’re in the grip of huck fever.
Though many American berries go by the name huckleberry, one Northwest species boasts the intense flavor and sheer numbers to be of special interest to recreational and commercial pickers: the mountain huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum). The most widely harvested species in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, this member of the heath family (and state fruit of Idaho) grows in coniferous forest clearings at 2,000 to 11,000 feet, with an ideal range between 4,000 and 6,000 feet.
Depending on the weather, these antioxidant-packed, pea-sized berries can ripen as early as July at lower elevations and up to mid-September higher up. Scrappy and resilient, it was among the first plant species to reappear in the Mount St. Helens blast zone after the cataclysmic 1980 eruption.
Huckleberries have deep cultural and culinary roots in the Pacific Northwest. “Huckleberries are a sacred food that we have gathered and dried each year since before anyone can remember,” said Carol Logan, a traditional cultural practitioner with the Clackamas Tribe, whose ancestral lands include forests surrounding Mount Hood.
Local Native Americans once used special conical baskets for gathering and storing huckleberries, like the handsome Klickitat example I saw at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, woven circa 1890 out of cedar root and bark, bear grass and horsetail root. The Yakama people, whose huckleberry grounds include the slopes of Mount Adams, still conduct a longhouse religious ceremony at the start of each season.
Pioneers were avid pickers. Home-canned hucks helped them through winter, and their children courted sweethearts at community berry-picking campouts.
During the Great Depression, unemployed families picked for cash, fueling a prodigious canning industry that faltered only with the rise of freezers in the 1950s. Even after that, many families made picking forays every summer. My own grandparents picked, and eating my grandmother’s huckleberry jam at her chrome dinette kitchen table is among my earliest and happiest memories.
“Pretty much everyone I knew picked hucks 50 years ago and froze them to use throughout the year,” said retired fireman Les Donaldson as we and 300 other hungry folks polished off flapjacks smothered in chunky huckleberry sauce at the annual fire department pancake breakfast in White Salmon, Washington.
These days, most huckleberries are harvested by commercial pickers, many of them migrant workers. Competition is fierce for the limited, often erratic supply, and sales figures don’t exist, in part because pickers are notoriously tight-lipped about where they harvest. As for commercial cultivation, all attempts have failed, though researchers at Washington State University are optimistic about their ongoing efforts to cross-pollinate with blueberries.
Like cougars and Sasquatch, the huckleberry remains a wild icon of the Northwest mountains.
HOW TO FIND HUCKLEBERRIES
Many of the Northwest’s best patches of mountain huckleberries are on public lands like the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, North Cascades National Park, and Mount Spokane State Park in Washington; the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon; the Idaho Panhandle National Forests; and the Lolo National Forest in Montana.
You may need a permit for picking, so check online before you go. Rangers can advise on the timing of the season, how to identify hucks (for instance, look for the blueberry-like crown on top of the berry), promising locales and harvest limits.
For two-handed picking, bring a container that you can clip to your belt or hang around your neck with a string or a strap. Don’t forget sunscreen, non-DEET bug spray and enough water for drinking and washing up.
Be aware that bears are also drawn to the berries. Ask a ranger about recent sightings, remember to make noise while hiking and picking so you don’t surprise a bear, and consider buying or renting bear spray that you can carry on your belt.
You’ll also find plenty of huckleberry treats at festivals, which include those in Bingen, Washington (September), North Powder, Oregon (July), Trout Creek, Montana (August), Whitefish, Montana (August), Wallace, Idaho (August and Rhododendron, Oregon (August).
On the last day of my trip, I visited the most famous huckleberry grounds in the Pacific Northwest: the Sawtooth Berry Fields in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The two-hour drive from Hood River, Oregon, took me by paved road beyond Trout Lake and then on gravel forest service roads through dense stands of Douglas fir and cedar.
I emerged on a 4,000-foot-high plateau — the berry fields — where I spotted a sign marking the boundary of an area reserved for Native American harvesters, the result of a 1932 handshake agreement between a Yakama chief and a national forest official.
The mad swarms of pickers here less than a month earlier were gone, along with all the berries, but the mountain landscape that draws some visitors as much as the fruit itself remained utterly sublime. For two hours, I picnicked and happily walked through fields and forest with no company except for snow-capped Mount Adams, looming on the horizon against a cloudless sky.
On the drive back, I stopped at Trout Lake Grocery and bought a gallon of fresh berries for home jamming. “They’re definitely from a high elevation this late in the season,” the clerk opined when asked about their origin. “Maybe near Mount St. Helens, though Lord knows the pickers wouldn’t tell you.”
That night, at Celilo restaurant in Hood River, I capped an exceptional Northwest dinner of summer tomato salad and roasted king salmon with an over-the-top finale to my trip in pursuit of purple: huckleberry cake, boosted with huckleberry sauce and rich huckleberry sour-cream ice cream.
Five months later, during breakfast at home on a gray January morning, I broke out my own huckleberry jam for the first time.
From the moment I tasted it, the jam took me back to late summer in the Cascades and the forest clearing where I found my fresh hucks.
To those who might want to know exactly where that clearing is located, I can tell you that it’s surprisingly close to Highway 35 near Teacup Lake, southeast of Mount Hood.
Other than that, my violet-stained lips are sealed.
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