It’s huckleberry picking season in Northwest Montana, and apparently not much has changed in 100 years. Year after year, each huckleberry season, people still talk about how plentiful and how large the huckleberries are. Look at what was said in the Daily Interlake in 1912.
Aug. 14 – Huckleberries have been especially plentiful on the Roosville bench lands this season, and in addition to numerous white families picking there, the Kootenay Indians have laid by a generous supply. The fruit is larger than common this year, owing to exceptionally favorable conditions for growth. – The Inter Lake, 1912
Warning: Bear spotted 1 ½ miles up the trail!
The handwritten message on the whiteboard at the trailhead of the Danny On didn’t scare us. This is not to say that we took it lightly, just that we’ve seen warning signs like that a gillion times. It’s part of living and playing in bear country. We put on our backpacks and bear spray, then began the hike up the mountainside in search of sweet, juicy huckleberries. We go huckleberry picking every year. It’s become part of our summertime ritual, like driving the Sun Road or hiking the Highline. The day was hot and the walk up the trail to our favorite picking spot seemed like drudgery. Not much enthusiasm was mustered up in the heat; although there never is much of that, at any temperature, when it comes to hiking up a mountain.
It was a colorful day of lush greens and dark blues with hillsides carpeted in shades of red and pink. This alone made the trip worthwhile for me, seeing the mountain at the peak of wildflower season.
Indian paintbrush and fireweed was everywhere, but I decided not to pick the fireweed to make homemade fireweed honey this year.
When we reached our usual spot, it was disappointing. There were not many huckleberries, just a few here and there. That meant we needed to walk farther up the trail. It was beginning to look like the “pickin’s was slim” until we reached the motherlode of huckleberries. It was in an open sunny slope, which doubles as a ski run in the wintertime.
Finally, we found a good spot for picking
At last we could start picking. It’s difficult to pick huckleberries wearing a back pack, especially when you’re climbing up the slope working the bushes. I took mine off and laid it by a tree. I thought the tree made a good landmark, so that I could find my pack when we were done.
David and the girls got serious and started searching for berries.
I’ve learned from experience that the higher up you go, the more huckleberries you will find. I think this is because most huckleberry hunters pick near the trail; not everyone is willing to climb for these juicy morsels.
Typically, when we find our personal favorite huckleberry patch, we like to sit down and pick – and eat – and pick some more, until the tips of our fingers turn purple.
I wandered into a thicket of huckleberry bushes that was rich with berries. The deeper I looked into the bushes, the more berries were revealed on the branches. The spot was shady and gave some relief from the sweltering sun. I filled my ziploc bag for a few minutes before I got the heebie jeebies. Prudence told me to move closer to the others lest I startle a napping bear.
My new spot was fantastic! I had found the best bushes; the ones with the red/green leaves.
Now a seasoned picker, I remembered how ignorant we were when we first moved here and didn’t know how to identify huckleberry bushes. I asked the locals and looked at pictures online, but it still took us a season or two to feel confident that we were picking huckleberries and not service berries.
Tiny serrations on the leaves help to identify huckleberry bushes. See?
Mallory was in charge this year of how long we would pick. Here she is, checking the time.
Time to Go
When it was time to go, we had picked about a quart and a half of berries; enough for a batch of pancakes, a dozen muffins, sprinkles for yogurt and cereal, and of course, snacking. We followed the trail down instead of going cross-country.
We did not encounter a bear, but when Mallory and Eileen arrived back at the trailhead, they met a man that asked about the bear warning. He was a trifle leery and decided not to take the hike.
Picking wild berries is but one small thing you can do with your family to get closer to nature, feel a bit more self-sufficient, and reduce the strain on your berry budget.
Everywhere you look, life is an adventure!
Click here for Marlene’s Homemade Huckleberry Jam recipe.