In many ways my seventh summer in the Centennial has been a summer of firsts. I have been blessed to catch my first glimpse of some different wildlife species - primarily birds - some even considered rare or unusual to the area. I have enjoyed ‘first’ hikes on trails I've never before traveled. And, I have enjoyed harvesting and preserving some of our local ‘wild’ bounty.
A couple of years ago an employee and I harvested a boatload of chokecherries. These small, tart cherries grow in abundance near Elk Lake. Some years they produce a remarkable harvest. Two years ago the trees were loaded. We gathered in as many as we could pick in the time available.
But, that was as far as we progressed. We never did process those berries. Yet I kept promising myself 'one day'. Two years later, the day arrived. With the help of yet another employee, I have been turning our two-year-old chokecherry harvest into jelly and syrup. Yum!
However, I must admit, chokecherries are not my favorite wild fruit. In fact, while I have no doubt this syrup and jelly will be consumed over the next few months, I also suspect it will not be the most relished fruit we will preserve this year.
That honor belongs to a smaller, less obvious berry: the huckleberry. Prior to moving to Montana, I enjoyed a late summer huckleberry picking tradition. A couple of good friends and I would plan the day, pack our lunches, load up the kids, dogs and picking buckets, and head for the hills. We always had a grand time, returning with stained hands (and stained-faced kids), sore backs, and as many huckleberries as we could get into our buckets that day.
Since moving to the Centennial, I have heard rumors of huckleberries, but never managed to find any. Until this year! I suspect the regular moisture we have enjoyed this summer has produced a somewhat spectacular crop. I base this not only on the abundant huckleberries but the overloaded wild raspberries, fruit studded gooseberries, heavy-branched soapberries, and weighed down thimbleberries I have encountered on recent hikes.
Finding these huckleberries occurred quite by accident. However, I believe pure Providence led us to the most fantastic huckleberry picking I have ever enjoyed. In fact, in less than 5 hours, a friend and I picked about 1 3/4 gallons of huckleberries in an area which measured less than 50' x 50'.
By huckleberry standards, these berries were abundant. Many times I picked two berries at a time. Lots of times three at a time. A few times four at a time! In other words, these were berries were growing close enough together on the stem I could grab several at a time with the fingers of one hand. Not only that, these berries were large. A typical huckleberry is about 3/4 mm in diameter. These huckleberries average about 1 1/4 mm in diameter. Now that may not sound like much of a difference, but when you are picking berries that small, it makes a huge difference in the end. Take a look.
Our adventure began with a mid-morning hike. The crew was fresh and full of the spirit of adventure.
It didn't take long to reach the berry patch - and we were eager to get started!
From picking to cleaning to preserving, we determined to complete the entire process. And, since food is a key element at Elk Lake, it seemed only appropriate to serve Chocolate-Huckleberry Mousse and Pork Tenderloin with Huckleberry Sauce and Huckleberry Sundaes! What a special treat!!
From the bush
To the bucket
Equals stained hands
And stained seats
But also - full buckets!
And, tired, but proud pickers!
Back down the mountain we packed our precious cargo.
Then its wash 'em up
And freeze 'em up!
All of that just so we can eat 'em up!!!
Of course, we didn't just eat them on ice cream - especially since this kid doesn't do well with dairy! Thus, next time I'll share a bit more about this summer's most 'tasty' adventure!
Lady of the Lake