One morning last week, I found myself sitting in the middle of a huckleberry patch somewhere in the Swan Range slowly filling a plastic bucket with juicy purple berries. In case you aren’t tuned in to the berry situation, this is a bumper crop year. Every picking expedition is an extravaganza of excess. The picking is easy. All around me that morning, bushes hung heavy with berries.
Nearby, my brother Steve, who I could locate in the undergrowth only because his floppy hat was visible above the bushes, was filling his own bucket. Just down the slope a ways, my brother Val, my niece Jenny and her daughter Iris were all engrossed in gathering berries.
I could not help thinking about the fact that such activities are the stuff that links generations of us together, and that thought prompted me when I got home to resurrect the first column I ever wrote about huckleberries a quarter-century ago. Here is what I had to say:
About this time every year a purple haze settles over western Montana. Unless you or someone close to you is directly affected, you may not even notice. If you aren’t oblivious to it, you probably know it’s a little understood phenomenon. The physiological effects are unknown. They have never been studied. And the possible psychological implications, though they sometimes seem overwhelming, are only conjecture.
I’m talking about the dreaded HUCKLEBERRY FEVER.
I’m happy to say I don’t have it. That’s not to say I don’t like huckleberries. I do. Some of my most pleasant memories include a shady spot by a mountain stream, a tin cup full of cold, clear water and a hat full of plump, fresh huckleberries. But I don’t fret if I don’t stumble into huckleberry heaven, and I don’t plan my year around the annual harvest.
People who have huckleberry fever think of little else besides those tasty berries this time of year. They plot and scheme about secret locations and tell stories of berries the size of watermelons. They remember past events by how the crop was in a particular patch in a particular year. And they rue the day that somebody discovered huckleberries had commercial value.
My mother has it. She has had it ever since I can remember, and I remember things that happened more than forty years ago.
It begins sometime in late July and continues as long as the berries hold out, which might be until the first snow flies. The big cardboard box is retrieved from its storage place in the garage up at Swan Lake. The box is filled with old coffee cans and other containers, each fitted with a wire bail for easy handling. These are washed and placed by the back door of the family cabin. Simultaneously, a variety of canning jars, sealing wax and kettles appears.
From then on, each day that my mother is in residence at the cabin, she gets restless by midmorning. That’s when she rounds up her picking crew for the day.
“Would anybody like to go pick some hucks?”
Long ago, I learned that I would rather do lots of things besides pick huckleberries with my mother. It is not a leisurely way to spend the day. She attacks a huckleberry patch like an enemy position, surrounding it and working inward if the crew is big enough; otherwise she methodically tackles it bush by bush.
There are no quick fixes, no rakes to pull out the biggest berries along with leaves and twigs, none of those picking contraptions for her. She thinks those methods are bad for the bushes, and they probably are. Instead, it is berry by berry, and you better fill up that coffee can if you want credit for full participation. She drives her crew like a football coach.
Her adrenaline must surely pump when she finds a big patch. This would explain her ability to kneel over in the hot sun and pick for hours without anything more than an occasional exclamation about a particularly well-endowed bush, like:
“Oh, my! We’ve got an embarrassment of hucks here!” or “Have you EVER seen such big berries?”
She has been known to pick folks half her age right into the ground. When the crew comes home from a day in the patch, most are sunburned and bedraggled, but she is ebullient, despite the ravages of the brush that leave her scratched, bruised, and occasionally bloodied. She shows the day’s take around like some hunters display their game.
Maybe that’s why, when I reached legal age, I began to opt out of the huckleberry expeditions when it seemed politic. I try to think of something important to do like chopping wood, patching the roof, or watching the grass grow. I tell myself I already have enough physical challenges in my life.
By so doing, however, I am no longer privy to the secret locations of huckleberry patches. Those are closely guarded secrets, only to be shared with those willing to accept the rigors of picking. Sure, I know the general area, but there is a code for specific locations – “Rotten Log Patch,” “Dead End,” “Bee Hive” and so forth – that means nothing to me and won’t until I go out with the crew. And I do not share in the special camaraderie that goes with bringing in a mother lode of berries from some “undiscovered” patch.
Despite my reluctance to sacrifice my body for berries, I do get to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Every morning at the cabin, pancakes are served up with huckleberries smiling out from them, and huckleberry coffee cake, huckleberry crunch, an occasional very juicy huckleberry pie, and all manner of other berry-based concoctions appear as part of the normal fare. I can’t say I have ever turned any of them down.
When it comes to handing out the jam, though, I’m not on top of the list. First, it goes to the pickers in amounts judged equal to their contribution. What’s left is meted out carefully through the year to special friends and on special occasions. I usually get some on my birthday.
And when I dip into that jam and slather it on a piece of toast on a cold December morning, I find myself thinking that maybe, just maybe, I should join in the picking next year. After all, it would be nice to have huckleberry jam all year long.
Sitting in that huckleberry patch last week, I realized that it is almost exactly 10 years since Helen the Huckleberry Queen left us. She would be happy to know, I think, that all three of her sons were out in the huckleberry patch last week picking away without a note of protest. And she would be thrilled that her granddaughter Jenny has not only taken up her mantle as queen of the harvest, but is grooming great-granddaughters Iris and Anna to be next in the line of succession.
And there surely is an embarrassment of huckleberries still waiting out there for you.
Greg Tollefson is a Missoula outdoorsman and writer whose column appears each Thursday in the Missoulian Outdoors section.