IF THERE’s ANYTHING WORTH LOOKING FORWARD TO about the end of a sublime Pacific Northwest summer, it’s a handful of huckleberries. During their peak season in August, the tangy, tart berries sweeten everything from milkshakes to mojitos. And the hide-and-seek game of finding them is a rite of passage for Portlanders, new and old. But Dr. Danny Barney, a professor of horticulture at the University of Idaho, says the fruit, which is nearly impossible to grow domestically, is becoming increasingly elusive. It’s not just because your neighbors are hoarding the loot. In 2008, rangers in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest issued nearly five times as many permits to commercial berry pickers—anyone harvesting more than three gallons—than they had just three years earlier. Thanks to this sudden influx of licensed huckleberry hunters, who earn up to $35 per gallon, hillsides can get picked clean soon after the permits get issued in mid-August. So if you want to find these precious fruits, you need to know what you’re doing. Dr. Barney offers the following advice for making the most of a berry outing.
MAKE A PLAN
Don’t expect locals around such huckleberry hot spots as Mount Adams’s Mowich Butte or Olallie Lake on Mount Hood to cough up any intel on where the berries are bountiful. Instead, stick with the Forest Service for solid advice. Ranger stations, like Mount Adams’s, will pinpoint reliable areas such as Little Huckleberry Mountain, Huckleberry Access Campground, and the Sawtooth Berry Fields, where commercial picking is limited.
Mt Adams Ranger District, 509-395-3400; Zigzag Ranger District, 503-622-3191
STUDY YOUR GAME
Huckleberries are purple, black, blue, or sometimes red in color, with smooth skin. They resemble blueberries in size and shape. The bushes, which grow to be about seven feet tall, thrive where sunshine is abundant. Comb through clear-cuts or remnants of old burns. Check your altimeter, too: the sweet spot for berries lies between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. The later it is in the season, the higher up you’ll have to go.
SAFEGUARD YOUR INVESTMENT
When jostled, huckleberries tend to bust open and spill their abundant juices. Avoid this trailside travesty by opting to place them in a plastic container with a lid, like a Nalgene bottle. If you want to freeze them, a plastic Ziploc bag will work fine. Just rinse the berries, and then, to avoid clumping, spread them to dry or dab them with a paper towel before tossing them into the icebox.