Huckleberry culture is, without question, huge in the Pacific Northwest. Come summer, restaurants and gift shops from the San Juan Islands to Western Montana go all-in on the craze, with tourist-aimed products like huckleberry-flavored kettle corn, barbecue sauce, seasonal cocktails and more.
While I’ve lived in the region for 30-plus years, it wasn’t until a few years ago I could confidently identify a huckleberry bush in its wild, subalpine habitat, and I hadn’t once partaken in the Northwest rite of summertime picking. Then fate stepped in, and quickly turned me into a diehard huckleberry hound who now won’t miss an annual picking pilgrimage ever again.
My love of the tart ruby- to purple-hued berry began during a family hike at Mount Spokane. It’s rare we’re all together these days, as my sister lives in Austin, Texas, but during one of her summer visits, we went on a day hike to the Vista House. As it happens, earlier that same summer a friend pointed out to me yet-to-fruit huckleberry bushes along a trail near Priest Lake. Weeks later, when I spotted them everywhere on Mount Spokane, I was astounded to discover the bushes were also totally loaded with ripe fruit. Our hike that day was waylaid by numerous picking pit stops.
Huckleberry acolytes may laugh, but until that day, I’d always believed the berry was so rare you had to be in on a big secret to know where to pick them. While I understand the need to protect one’s favorite patch (I’m not going to tell you our exact go-to picking spot, either), I now realize there are plenty of huckleberries to go around. The real payoff comes with lots of patience and persistence. Four hours of picking at Mount Spokane, where the berries are small compared to, say, North Idaho’s penny-sized prizes, usually nets our group of four pickers between 2 and 3 pounds total; some eaten right away, the rest frozen for later.
If you’ve never been huckleberry picking — or it’s been awhile — there are few activities in my view that reap such a delightful reward. One that’s made even better by fresh mountain air, sunshine and good company, or a simple and quiet escape into nature.