Huckleberries (2)!

To all my loyal readers: Sorry for the delay. I've been busy - working (of course), but also enjoying a GRAND adventure which I will share in a later post. In the mean time, as promised, I am sharing the second installment of our huckleberry advenuture. Next time we will return to outdoor adventures of a more 'normal' kind as I have much to share just lack the time to get it into 'publishable' form.

In the continuing Huckleberry Saga, I thought I'd share my second huckleberry picking experience - you'll see there is a good reason - as well as get a glimpse at the 'fruits' of our labors.

I must admit, this year's abundant huckleberry crop coupled with the absolutely wonderful patch we found on our first outing went to my head. No, I wasn't seeing dollar signs (in fact, I doubt I'd ever 'sell' huckleberries since I have a hard time parting with the little gems). I wasn't even seeing a freezer full of berries. However, I was thinking about how much we'd enjoy those tasty treats this fall and winter (and spring, if they last that long) and wondering if it was possible to speed the picking process.

I may live in the middle of nowhere, but as my husband will attest, I am quite adept at using the Internet! Thus, my search for better ideas soon turned up a promising tool - a Huckleberry Rake.

The advertisements claimed an experienced picker (interpret that an 'experienced Huckleberry Rake picker' can pick double the amount of berries picked when compared to hand-picking). The sticker on the side of the rake claims you can pick 'pick longer with less hand stress'. Having used the product, I really cannot really speak to the truth of either statement.

First, I'm quick to admit I'm no experienced Huckleberry Rake picker. I suspect, in all fairness, it will take more than 2 1/2 hours use to claim 'experienced' status. Second, I have never experienced hand stress when picking berries. Back stress - sure, I'll admit to that. 'Not enough in my bucket stress' - always! But hand stress is something I have never experienced. So. . .I can't speak to that claim either.

However, at this point I can speak to what it is like to use a huckleberry rake versus hand picking. Like any berry picking trip, the first job (the most important job) is to find the berries. While I cannot complain about the berry patches I found on this second excursion, in all fairness I must admit they were not as abundant as those we enjoyed during our hand-picking trip. Yet, as you can see, the bushes were still nicely covered.

This bush is in 'pre-rake' condition.

This bush is in 'post-rake' condition. By the end of my picking excursion it took me less than 5 seconds to strip a bush like this.

It doesn't take much training to learn how to pick huckleberries. My kids and dogs have always learned the technique in no time. In fact, I've found the hardest thing to train is by-passing the mouth to put the berries into the bucket! However, a huckleberry rake definitely comes with a learning curve.

First off, one has to learn it takes TWO hands to use the rake. One hand (for me, the right) runs the rake. And, as you can see, it rarely ever touches the fruit.

The other hand (for me, the left) is going to get dirty! After all, without this hand, I doubt I would have gotten any berries into the bucket.

In fact, the hardest part of learning to use the rake is figuring out the proper hand and wrist action to capture the berries without either flipping them onto the ground (my initial problem) or filling the rake with leaves (my other problem).

As you can see, my first attempts produed a LOT of leaves and green berries and bruised berries and - well, everything I try to avoid when I pick.

However, by the end, I was finally figuring out how to get more berries than leaves in less time.

Final analysis: I picked about the same amount of berries 'per hour' with the rake as I did by hand. However, if you take into account a realistic learning curve AND the super-abundant berry patch we'd picked the first time out, I believe the huckleberry rake will be a tool I will return to year after year. There are only two down sides: One - you are moving from bush to bush so quickly you cannot sit down. Thus my back ended up more sore from using the rake than from picking by hand. Two - while picking time may end up greatly reduced, cleaning time is increased (at this point, perhaps proportionately). Nonetheless, I would recommend this item to any fellow huckleberry lover out there.

However, the goal in picking any fruit is the end result - something wonderful and delicious to eat and share with others. Thus once the berries are clean and in the freezer, the real 'work' begins: preparing and preserving the fruits of our labors.

One of the most enjoyable things about making huckleberry jam is the fruit is as beautiful as it is fragrant.

As you can see, the end results are varied - Huckleberry Jam (Syrup on the way, too), Chokecherry Jelly, Chokecherry Syrup, Strawberry Jam (no, I did NOT go picking those little tiny wild berries although, if I had, I would have ended up using a LOT less sugar), and Raspberry Jam (the wild raspberries were abundant this year!). Obviously we will be enjoying this summer's fruits when our world is covered with white and all the plants lie dormant. Now, that is one advantage I hadn't taken into account when I became

Lady of the Lake



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