For months we all have been adjusting our lives, adapting to the new normal, and finding ways to pursue the activities we love. One of the most popular and iconic pursuits this time of year is the act of huckleberry picking which fortunately has not been impacted by the global pandemic. On the contrary, this year’s harvest just might be the one thing that is better about 2020!
Social distancing comes naturally when huckleberry picking. It is poor form to pick from the same bush, or even a neighboring bush. Although I have never heard nor read of a specified distance, six feet away is the closest you would want to get, in fact, that seems too close!
It is a good idea to pick with a partner, or group of friends, so that you can talk and keep the bears away. Once you hike to an area and agree to stop and pick, your party will disperse across the slope or field. Staying within earshot is good, for conversation and keeping track of your location. Depending on the ratio of huckleberries to your group, you will eventually want to move on to the next spot.
Some of you may prefer to go solo—giving you optimal social distance—to pick your favorite stash. Like a hunter, you want to go alone to find your prize (gallons of huckleberries) when you discover the motherlode. It is understandable, those bitty, purple berries go for a lot of green, if you are into selling.
I prefer to keep my haul. After picking I bring them home, give them a wash in a colander, then allow them to dry flat. I may use a few off the bat—in a cocktail, on top of ice cream, or baked in pancakes or muffins—then freeze the rest to enjoy later. Others who really get after it pick enough to bake a pie (5 cups), or convert their loot into jam, which makes a very thoughtful and well-received gift for just about anyone.
If you are reading this and have never been huckleberry picking and would love to give it a try you can do so up here on our mountain. Get yourself ready for a hike with water, snacks, bear spray and bring a few empty containers. Some like to bring small buckets or cut off the top of a gallon milk jug. I prefer wide-mouth Nalgene bottles that I can open and close so not to accidentally drop and spill my efforts. Be sure you wear good hiking shoes as you will be going off-trail a bit.
Walk up or down the Danny On Memorial Trail and be on the lookout! Huckleberry bushes are low-growing shrubs (usually 1-3 feet in height) with small green to reddish oval shaped leaves. The leaves change from green to red later in the season which makes them easier to spot. Although they can grow in full sun, some of the best bushes are found in an open canopy of trees with both sun and shade.
When walking along the trail it is easiest to spot the bushes above you—look for the dark purple dots among all the green. Or you can look for pickers. If you observe pickers in an area, you know you are in a good zone. You can continue walking, more slowly while carefully looking for shrubs covered with the purple dots. If you happen to find a large area with huckleberries and pickers, say a friendly hello and pick at a safe distance!
Huckleberries ripen at lower elevations (above 3,000 feet) first and continue to show up at the higher elevations (up to 8,000 feet) into September until the first frost.
As I write this, the berries are ripe just over a mile from the bottom of the Danny On, at about 5,250 feet in elevation. For those of you that know the ski area, they start in the trees, skier’s left of Big Ravine. Keep walking up the Danny On and you will see ripe berries above and below the hiking trail. I finally went off trail when I came to the Corkscrew ski run. It was easy to spot berries from a few feet away because they are BIG this year. I found 4-5 big ones on each bush along with several others worth picking. I saved the small ones for the next picker.
Huckleberry crops vary from year to year and weather plays a big role. This year we’ve had what I’d like to call the “perfect storm” for huckleberries: 1. Deep winter snow, 2. A wet spring, and 3. Summer heat. The other key component is having good soil, and apparently our mountain has that in abundance.
The hucks will continue to ripen throughout the month and into September. In a couple of weeks, I predict that you will be able to smell them from the chairlift when you go for a Scenic Lift ride and pass by the Ptarmigan Bowl. Happy picking!
While huckleberry picking is excellent for social distancing, there are a few safety tips to keep in mind:
- You are in bear country and huckleberries are a big part of their diet. Bring bear spray, bring friends, and make noise.
- Stay hydrated while you pick. Hot or not, picking is an obsessive activity and you will be out there a while so be sure to drink plenty of water.
- Stay away from Hellroaring Basin. I know some of you have huckleberry stashes in there but we strongly recommend you leave those to the bears for a couple years and seek new places to pick as we are busy with the Hellroaring Basin Improvement Project.
- Please stay off service roads and bike trails. Due to the Hellroaring Basin project there is an active logging operation in progress so please, do not use the roads. Also, be aware of bike trails and take extra caution when crossing them. Downhill mountain bikers come down fast and you may not hear them, and they might not see you so please stay off those trails.