Often mistaken for a wild cousin of the insipid blueberry, huckleberries hide high in the Rocky Mountains and bring out devotees with buckets when they ripen every August. Montanans hunt huckleberries like the French hunt truffles, except the berries are much easier to find and we don’t use pigs. Come the first couple weeks of August, when the berries at lowest elevations are already plump and purple, we bump our cars up seldom-used roads to sniff out our favourite varieties: intensely-flavored large, deep blue berries; tiny, purple-black ones that have a hint of raspberry; and the dusky red berries, full of sweetness. Like greedy baby bears, we sit on pine needles, pawing the heavy bushes for berries.
Huckleberry-picking might sound like a sweet anachronism (think berrying parties in early 1800s England), but if you want huckleberries you’ve got to either pay through the nose for someone else to gather them, or get out and pick them yourself. Unless a Montanan is desperate or ignorant, gathering your own is the only option. All attempts to domesticate the huckleberry have so far failed. It only grows wild.
A day of picking buckets of huckleberries for my mother to freeze, preserve, and make into jams and pies is a scene that punctuates my childhood: sitting or kneeling in a silent forest, occasionally passing comments with my sisters or parents, the plink as a bucket first starts to fill and the dull plop as the level of purple rises. The pounding heart as I came, now and then, face-to-face with a palm-sized spider sitting placidly in the middle of a perfect web.
To reward — or, more accurately, bribe — us for spending a day performing what at the time seemed dull labor, my parents ended the midday picnic with a favorite meal: huckleberry sandwiches. We spread my father’s homemade bread with fresh butter, and layered huckleberries with sugar on top. The sugar dissolved, creating a sweet, tangy juice that the bread soaked up. I haven’t had one of those in years, but recently I took a bite of my niece’s huckleberry-sprinkled Frosted Flakes and the flavor came rushing back.
Visitors to Montana can buy fresh berries from roadside stands. If you’re just interested in huckleberry products (jam, ice cream, milkshakes, syrup, pancakes), Western Montana restaurants and stands overflow with these items during the short berry season. If you are anywhere near Glacier National Park, however, you must make the effort to visit The Huckleberry Patch. Located in the almost-not-there town of Hungry Horse between Glacier Park and Columbia Falls, it’s been the household name in huckleberry products since 1949. Almost 20 years I’ve been stopping off there for a post-mountain-climb huckleberry milkshake and have still had none better.
If you’re lucky, you might find a local willing to show you a huckleberry patch where you can eat until your lips are stained blue. That’s what I did recently when we were visiting Montana. There are no secrets about the huckleberry bounty on Big Mountain, the ski mountain in Whitefish, Montana. Hiking the 3.8-mile Danny-On trail up to the summit house on top, you can’t help but stop and pick handfuls of berries if you know what they look like. If you don’t, just ask one of the many families dotting the slopes filling buckets for their freezers. As one tourist from Texas told me in passing, “So that’s what they’re doing. All I could see all over the hill is all these butts sticking up in the air.” Indeed.
Like many people, I used to think huckleberries were simply a wild version of blueberries. However, I recently found out that they are in fact a different genus, which might explain the vast difference in taste. Huckleberries are more closely related to what’s known as whortleberries or bilberries in England. A dwarf red whortleberry (often called grouse berry or grouse whortleberry where I’m from) is often found growing near huckleberries. They are mini little shrubs with red berries to tiny they’re almost unnoticeable (grouse whortleberry is what’s pictured here, huckleberry at the top of the post). But if you have the patience, it’s worth gathering a handful. The flavor is intense and fresh, somewhat like a huckleberry, in fact, but more concentrated.
Gathering wild berries allows the nature visitor a curious sort of deep satisfaction. When I picked my container on Big Mountain, I was reveling in the delicious desert and breakfast the household would be eating out of it, while at the same time feeding on the nostalgia of long quiet days gathering berries with my family in the woods. Beyond that, there was the gleeful human survival instinct. I had found not just taste, and something rare, but something to eat: wild food, there, free, for any of us to eat and sustain ourselves, living in some sort of harmony with the land we’re walking on.