Monday, January 12, 2009

Excursion Article Series 08.16.08: Huckleberry picking is for the bears - and me

Caption: This is the shot of my son Kael that ran with the article. Look at that hand-eye coordination! Such poise and self-control for an 11-month-old child.

Excursion: Huckleberry picking
Length: You name it
Difficulty: Mild to back-breaking labor, depending on quantity harvested
Directions: Pick your favorite haunt. The woods on Signal Mountain are a decent place to start. Beyond that, huckleberry patch information is proprietary.

Don’t read another sentence. Just go.

You read that one didn’t you? You’re wasting precious time! Oh fine, take the paper and have your passenger read this to you on the way if you must. You just need to go now, before you miss the whole season.

Yep, the huckleberry season is on, but not for much longer. Come early September, all that is generally left of the crop is a few sun-whitened huckleberry corpses to show the crop ever came. Last year’s drought conditions and early season frost pretty well annihilated the entire population of the tart, succulent berries. The only ones I managed to snag all summer, despite extensive frantic searches in my favorite huckleberry hideaways, were high in South Fork Cascade Canyon right next to an enlivening melt-water stream. That made them even more of a delicacy.

This year, the conditions are just the opposite. We had a perfect, albeit late, transition from spring to summer, and 50 plus feet of snow in the mountains has raised the water table far above expectations while making dangerous climbing conditions (umm…see my Teewinot article from a few weeks back) and making farmers dance happy little jigs around their traditional straw hats.

I like to think of Huckleberry as Blueberry’s younger, sweeter and more attractive brother. Even though he is often overlooked as the tagalong at parties, if you get to know him the older brother will find himself dejected and alone with his “unvite.” Indeed, the resemblance is striking. If you shrink Blueberry down to about a tenth his size and paint him deep purple, you’re basically looking at Huckleberry.

Caption: Kael's slimy fingers go back to seek out the next target. Yum.

A word of caution: bears like huckleberries almost as much as I do. In fact, the first time I ever saw a bear was while I was out picking huckleberries. I was harvesting on Signal Mountain after a day on the lake when I was about eight years old. My bucket was woefully empty due to my tendency to eat rather than fill the bucket.

As I sat amidst the bushes in contented silence I saw cars lining up along the road. I soon found out why they were stopping.

“Dude,” a shaggy individual yelled with surfer swag, “Look at that kid up by the bear!”
It didn’t immediately dawn on me that I was “that kid” by the bear. I was in my own world, and surfer-dude, with his sunglasses and knotted blonde locks, wasn’t invited.

I turned to search out the kid by the bear, and found a young black bear no more than ten feet away chowing on the patch of huckleberries I had locked onto as my next target.
Jerk bear, eating my huckleberries.

“Run kid, run!” blondie yelled.

Little did he know I had just learned bear safety in elementary school.

“No,” I told him with the confidence that can only come with childhood innocence, “I know what I’m doing.”

I could practically hear his eyes roll behind the sunglasses.

My teacher had told me that running away from the bear only excites it – fast food, if you will. She had said bears are just afraid of us as we are of them and will only fight if we give them a reason to do so.

So I made like a tree (not a huckleberry bush) and stayed as still as possible while I watched the bear eat. Soon, he trundled his way uphill in search of another patch to ravage.

That was when I got to make use of the other bit of knowledge I had gained: bears don’t run well downhill. I do, though. I barreled down the hill when I thought the coast was clear and didn’t stop until I had found my family.

Bear safety aside, Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said if you’re picking berries, you need to stick to berries you know are edible. Also, if harvesting within the park boundaries, there is a limit of “one day’s personal consumption” to avoid thinning out food supply for the animals dependent on it.

I guess that means I can only pick a truckload.

Caption: Kael sits on a log and enjoys the company of his blanket and a great harvest of huckleberries. I love the sly look on his face. It's like he's getting away with something. In fact, he probably thought he was passing one by us while he harvested things from the ground. We don't usually let him eat things he finds on the forest floor.

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