I was raised on the huckleberry. I had no idea for many years that this was unusual until I discovered that there were people in the world that didn’t even know what a huckleberry was. Like a blueberry, they would insist after I described the small purplish berry to them. Nothing like a blueberry, I insist. It is on a whole other cosmic level. It has a tart sweetness that I have never had a blueberry come close to. You are never going to find the huckleberry languishing in a plastic bin in the grocery store like some commoner. It insists on being elusive. The huckleberry is a wild berry that largely seems to reside in the Northwest, preferably at the end of a bumpy dirt road and several miles of hiking. Much like myself, it resists domestication.
As a community we took pride in being friendly and helping one another but all that stopped when it came to huckleberry picking sites and elk hunting grounds. These were sacred family secrets. This is because the huckleberry is incredibly tedious to pick, like the worst Easter egg hunt ever. This was learned one summer when my grandfather forbade my grandmother from paying $25 per gallon for the huckleberries dutifully picked by the elderly couple that clearly had a cash crop somewhere. Being a good student of the Depression, he thought this was a ridiculous price for what a little hard work couldn’t produce for free. So we made the long trek to the woods and spent several hours picking. Although my brother and I in theory provided extra sets of hands, our contribution was small. Our mouths on the other hand had a distinct purple hue suggesting our productivity was artificially low. By the time we were done we were covered in dirt, sweat and scratches from digging through brush. We were all exhausted and we had barely scratched together a gallon or so of berries. From then on my grandmother was given permission to buy as many huckleberries as she desired.
The other challenge of huckleberry picking is the bears. They, too, have a fondness for the berries. They will happily sit in a patch and gorge without any intention of sharing. It makes the whole berry picking process a little nerve racking when you aren’t sure if it is your brother rustling in the bushes or something a bit fuzzier. It gives a whole new meaning to organic when you have to pry them from the jaws of a grizzly.
For years now I have settled for the blueberry, a second rate substitute for the finer things in life. As if injected with steroids, they seem to be grown for size over flavor. They are either mushy or tart. My taste buds have grown nostalgic. So when the woman checking me in at the campground encouraged me to try the huckleberry ice cream, there was no question that I would do just that, over and over. Bear claws not included.