How to pick huckleberries in the Pacific Northwest
You want to pick huckleberries, but have no idea where to start. Don't worry, you are in the right place. Here is my guide:
When and Where:
Huckleberries are ripe somewhere between late August and late September based on the year. Ask your local gardener if this was a late year or an early year for all plants. That should give you a good indication of what is happening with the berries.
The hardest part of huckleberry picking is finding your own patch. My mother and I are sworn to secrecy on where our patches are, but there are some handy guides by the WTA (Washington Trails Association). They have hints to what to look for and a short list of hikes with huckleberries typically available.
All good huckleberry patches are on clear cuts about 10 years old between 4000 and 6000 feet of elevation. Forest service roads are good ones to be on (since they were built to make clear cuts). Driving to these locations can be a little sketchy, since you are on dirt roads. Many times the road will have a washboard from water and be very difficult to drive on. I recommend a four wheel drive to get to the right elevation in this area.
What to wear:
There are no marked paths to the best patches. You are making your own way, sometimes around and over plants such as hemlock trees, bear grass and many other local plants. Most of the time, the brush is about chest level- sometimes higher, sometimes lower. You can’t always see your footing, which can make for some hairy situations... like when you don’t know that you are actually standing on a stump and you take a step forward and drop 3 feet.
DO NOT wear shorts and sandals- Your feet and legs will be thrashed.
WEAR STABLE SHOES - If you have sturdy hiking shoes, wear those. If you just have tennis shoes, I recommend wearing some thick and high socks to protect your ankles.
PREPARE FOR RAIN - If there has been any rain whatsoever in the past 24 hours, expect to get soaked. The plants will still have water on them and that will be transferred to your clothing.
COVER YOUR HEAD WITH A HAT - this will help you from head sunburn, as well as allow you to go sunglasses free. Sunglasses make finding berries much more difficult.
What to bring
A hands free container - See Below
A larger container to fill up as the smaller container gets full. A 5 gallon bucket a good option.
Long pants - Even if it is a warm day, you will need the protection from the brush.
Sturdy shoes and thick socks - hiking boots, rain boots, running shoes
Non-Deet bug spray. There is nothing like a fly that won’t leave you alone that can ruin sitting in a patch of huge huckleberries on a beautiful day. If you use DEET, expect to eat it later in your berries.
Gallon of Water - You will want to wash off your hands when you are done and you will need a lot of water to get this done efficiently. It is also good for drinking.
Gallon freezer bags - to help store the berries after you are done. This will also help you estimate how much you have picked.
Multiple layers of tops - you never know if it is going to be sweltering hot in the sun or cold from the clouds, shade and the breeze. It is also a good idea to bring something in case of rain.
Food - lunch and snacks for the way down.
And finally, a sense of adventure and a desire to get some yummy berries.
Identifying the Berries:
There are actually over 5 berries commonly named Huckleberries. It is also important to distinguish between Mountain Huckleberries and Red Huckleberries. Red Huckleberries are the type that you will see in low level forests and in backyards. These are an entirely different species of plant and taste very different.
So you get up to the mountain and you see a bunch of different looking berries and you ask, How do I know if it is a huckleberry? How do I know it isn’t poisonous? Well, the easiest way to know for sure is to look for the little crown on the top that you see on a blueberry. That is unique to all vacciniums (the blueberry family) and means that it is edible.
From my experience, most Mountain Huckleberries in the Washington mountains fall into three basic categories: blue, black with a reddish hue to them and then just plain black.
Typically, my least favorite kind are the blue ones. They taste more like blueberries and are more bland. Having said that, I always suggest tasting the berries to see which ones you like. This year after passing up many patches of blue ones, I decided to taste one and it was fantastic. I stopped walking right past them.
Strategies for Successful Berry Picking
My mom and I have different berry picking styles. I am the explorer... I won’t stop at a patch unless it has amazing berries, which means I spend a lot of time wandering around passing up perfectly fine berries in search of the PERFECT berry patch. Sometimes this pays off. Because once you are in a patch of perfect berry bushes, you bucket gets full of huge beautiful yummy berries in minutes. My mom, on the other hand, has a hard time walking by a huckleberry without picking it. This makes for much less wandering around and much more berry picking time. You never know who is going to win the “who got the most berries” contest at the end. This year, my method paid off. I got more berries and they were big & beautiful.
Also, I highly recommend creating a container that can be hands-free. Quart sized yogurt containers with a long string to go around your neck would work. Or buying a small bucket and attaching it to your belt loop with a carabiner would also work (see image below).
Or you can harvest your own cedar bark and make a Native American cedar bark basket and weave your own cedar bark rope like Heidi Bohan (my mom):
Can you say “overachiever”?
Having a hands-free container is absolutely critical to maximizing your berry collection. This allows for dual hand picking abilities (twice as many berries!), but you can also use the second hand to stabilize the huckleberry bush and maneuver it so that you can see all of the berries. It also makes easier to stand in one spot and just pull the berry bushes towards you.
The mountain areas in the Pacific Northwest do have happy black bears living in the forests. They also love to eat huckleberries, so it is entirely possible to run into a bear while picking berries. The best strategy to avoid this is to constantly be making noise. My mom and I will clap every once in a while to let each other know where we are and to make some noise for the bears. Sometimes I sing. Mostly we just talk loudly to eachother every once in a while. Honestly, the bears want to see you about as much as you want to see them. If in the unfortunate situation where you do run into a black bear, make yourself look really big and yell at it to go away. Black bears will generally run away.
What to do with the berries
Once you have your bounty, there are many things to do with huckleberries. You can preserve them in a few different ways. The most popular is freezing them. This is great for using them in baking, pancakes or Huckleberry Shrubs (my personal favorite). You can also dehydrate them in a dehydrator or in your low temp oven. You can also preserve them by making a Huckleberry Jam or Syrup.
Foraged cocktail ideas:
Vodka infused with Huckleberries
Huckleberry is a great cocktail ingredient because they have a great tartness. This gives a cocktail a nice balance with a berry flavor.
Now you are fully prepared to go pick some huckleberries. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!