Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Huckleberry Blessings

While camping at Liberty Lake, Washington, we had planned a day at our nearest state park for some hiking. So we made the one-hour drive to Mount Spokane State Park to get some cooler temperatures and grand views in the mountains.

But we got so much more! Denisa had read that there were huckleberries in these mountains, and so she did some reading about them before we left. She was especially researching about poisonous berries that look like huckleberries to inexperienced pickers. These tasty little huckleberries are related to their blueberry cousin. But they are more tangy and flavorful.

They grow on bushes, and their favorite environment is coniferous forests at elevations between 3500 and 7000 feet. We were told by the locals that the temperatures and the moisture have to be timed just right to get a good huckleberry harvest. The weather conditions must have been perfect this year, because the bushes are loaded!

The other interesting fact about the huckleberry, is it has never been domesticated. Even though the agricultural research universities in Washington and Idaho have tried for years, they have not successfully developed a huckleberry bush that can be planted and grown in fields for harvest. So this crop is limited to the bushes that God planted in the mountains in their natural environment. 

Because you can't buy them at the grocery store and they aren't available by the truck-load from huge huckleberry farms, they are a rare commodity. That makes them a much-sought-after treat in the mountains of the northern United States. We heard on the local news that they were selling for $50 per gallon. We found them priced like that at a local farmer's market, and quart-sized bags were selling for $20.

So even though we have never tasted them, now we are stoked to find huckleberries for ourselves. When we stopped by the visitor center at Mount Spokane State Park, the ranger told us the best location to pick--up one of the steep mountains of the park.

Even if all we got was a little exercise, this was a beautiful place to spend some time. We can see the rows of peaks around us, and mountain lakes in the distance.

This is actually a ski run, so that is the reason there aren't trees on this mountain-side. It was a steep hike up the face of the mountain, and it was too bad that chair lift wasn't running in the summer.

We were totally unprepared for the bounteous harvest we have discovered today. You can see the berries in the foreground of the picture below, just begging to be picked. But all we have with us is a few empty water bottles and a plastic sack to carry those bottles.

As we hiked up the mountain, we made friends with a family with three little girls. They were spending the day gathering huckleberries, and they gave us great advice on where to pick, as well as things to make with them.

They explained that when you found thimbleberries, the huckleberries would be close. We took a picture of these red and pink berries that look like their raspberry cousins. They also cautioned against eating too many thimbleberries. The little girls also told us that this was hot work, but the tasty huckleberry treats were totally worth it. Their dog also loved these berries, so Denisa laughed and nicknamed him Huckleberry Hound. Later she realized that the little girls and even their parents had probably never seen that old cartoon.

There were probably a dozen other people picking huckleberries on the side of that mountain. They had all come prepared with buckets and proper gear. Placing each berry into the tiny spout of a water bottle was tedious, but we stayed until we had four bottles filled. We found that huckleberries are not only delicious to eat, but they also make a nice hand dye.

We left the field of berries, and headed up Kit Carson Mountain for the hiking that had actually brought us to this park. It's a nice 4-mile hike through the woods. But when Denisa found more berries along the trail, it slowed our normal pace down considerably. We drank another bottle of water to make another berry container.

Our last stop at the park was at the summit of Mount Spokane. There is a narrow paved road to the top, where we could see the surrounding country-side and the chair lifts that bring skiers to this summit during the winter.

There was a map of the ski runs down the face of Mount Spokane, and we saw that most of them at the top were the most difficult runs. In fact, we had been picking huckleberries in the middle of a black diamond ski run. No wonder that walk up the mountain had been so steep!

From the top we could see the chair lift and even the parking lot we had been in far below.

At the top of the mountain was the Alpine House, framed in blue skies on this beautiful weather day.

From the summit, we saw a tall smoke cloud forming from the valley below us. That is a brand new fire. We know that it was started in the last hour, because it wasn't there when we were standing on Mount Kit Carson's peak.

When we got home with our five water bottles full of huckleberries, we had to do some reading on their proper storage and uses. We washed and then allowed them to dry before putting some in the freezer.

We also made huckleberry pancakes, and huckleberry syrup over the next several mornings. But the majority of our harvest went into a huckleberry crisp. This local favorite was delicious adorned with vanilla ice cream.

Denisa loves all kinds of fruit, but even Mark was a big fan of huckleberries. After we found what a rare delicacy huckleberries are, we couldn't resist going back for more. So on our last day in this area, we made another trip to the mountains. This time we came prepared. Earlier we had seen fellow-pickers with buckets strapped around their necks. This allows for two-handed picking, and made getting them into a container so much easier. Here is Denisa, modeling her stunning belted gallon milk jug ensemble.

We don't have berry buckets just laying around the motor home, so we had to improvise. Mark is modeling an ingenious picking box that worked pretty well too. We also came supplied with zip-lock bags and an ice chest to empty out the berries frequently. We are wiser about the thorny conditions of the mountain this time. We learned from our experience, and we have lathered on sun screen and added a dose of bug spray before we left the car. We are also wearing long pants and shirts that we're not sentimentally attached to.

That's because we also know about the staining properties of these juicy little nuggets. We took a picture of the berry stains on Mark's leg, but the stains on the back side of his pants were actually more vivid.

That's because one of the most comfortable ways to pick huckleberries is sitting right in the middle of the bushes.

It was a little warm, and there were no clouds to shade the sun. But the mountain views around us were beautiful. We also have visions of the huckleberry jam, huckleberry cheese cake, huckleberry pie, etc. dancing in our heads as we continue to pick.

These berries are pretty small, so it takes a lot of picking to make a bag full. We now understand why the price for these precious berries is so high. One of our friendly fellow pickers told us the season was short. These berries would only be on the bushes for two weeks of the summer. We picked for 4.5 hours and came off the mountain with 11 quart-sized bags of huckleberries. Based on the farmer's market prices, that would cost $220!

Most locals keep their secret huckleberry sites secret, so we were lucky to stumble onto such a nice public spot. We were also lucky to be here at just the right time, considering the harvest window is so narrow. We were lucky that this was such a bounteous year, as we enjoyed huckleberry bushes that were loaded and easy to find. Instead of saying that we were lucky so many times, it seems that the more accurate statement is that we have wandered into another of God's wonders--and we have been huckleberry-blessed.

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