It's mid-morning on a late July day. The sun has yet to blaze above, but it will. For now, the cool breeze is inviting and the smell of warm pine intoxicating. A cluster of cars has gathered at a trailhead on Mt. Spokane. Off in the low brush of woody, delicate shrubs, pickers of all ages are moving deftly along, collecting huckleberries in mini coolers, rinsed-out milk jugs and plastic bags.
When you move to or visit the Inland Northwest, you are quickly initiated into huckleberry culture. From drive-throughs to fine dining, huckleberries feature prominently on menus in the summer months. The variety of huckleberry products available year-round at country markets and groceries is vast, if not a little obsessive. Tea, taffy, barbecue sauce, gummy candy, jams, jellies, syrups, all varieties of baked goods and even lip balm line shelves, providing huckleberry fans with accessibility to the popular and distinctively local berry any time of year.
Becoming a huckleberry devotee takes little effort. The perfume and flavor of huckleberries are like no other, and the enigmatic nature of the shrubs — they require specific soil conditions, temperatures and elevations to thrive — give them a certain mythical status. Late spring freezes can destroy entire huckleberry stands, and domesticating the bush has been virtually impossible.
Lucas Henderson is one of many pickers who participates in the yearly ritual of huckleberry gathering: following the ripening patterns, waiting for the berries to turn and delighting in finding immense stands. Henderson has been honing his foraging skills for more than 20 years, observing seasoned foragers and spending countless summers at Priest Lake.
"I started out just seeing where other people were picking. I've had bad luck intentionally scouting, but sometimes I'll come upon them. Then I have to remember where they are or mark it on a GPS to remember," says Henderson.
Karen McKinney, a fellow long-term picker, has been foraging for huckleberries since she moved to Spokane in the early 1970s. McKinney and her husband, David Moershel, are dedicated outdoorspeople who enjoy bringing out-of-towners into the huckleberry fray. Hikes in the Idaho panhandle not only work up an appetite, but also give McKinney and Moershel a chance to introduce friends to the art of picking huckleberries without harming the bushes.
"If you find a bush or branch, don't use your hands to strip it all off. Pick gently. Don't break branches," advises McKinney.
Henderson, McKinney and Moershel incorporate their huckleberry harvests into culinary delights throughout the year — huckleberries freeze well — by experimenting with classic huckleberry recipes like pancakes, muffins, ice cream, salads and pie. Henderson is constantly looking for new ways to consume his huckleberry haul.
"How many berries we get dictates what we make. I use them in sauces as well. I make huckleberry kombucha, too," says Henderson.
As an increase in foraging for wild food has risen among the general population, so has the curiosity in picking huckleberries. At Mt. Spokane, Bre Romine and Allie Rawlins have ventured into the woods for the first time this summer to try their hands at picking. Much to their pleasure, they've experienced a successful first run, finding the lower elevations abundant with shrubs of ripe huckleberries.
"You read about how people have their own secret spots, but it's looking like you can go off the road and get some. I'm sure that the big, juicy ones are in those secret spots, but it will be an adventure over time to find your own," says Romine.
Romine and Rawlins' excursion isn't without a learning curve, however. Rawlins has experienced the folly of many beginners who've gone before her.
"The hardest part about picking huckleberries is keeping the ratio even between the ones that end up in your bucket and the ones that end up in your belly," she says.♦