“You’ve been picking berries haven’t you!” exclaimed a passing hiker. I was in northern Washington and my hands were stained a dark pinkish-purple from picking and eating huckleberries. The sweet perfume of berries filled the late-afternoon air. I grinned ear-to-ear, popping yet another warm, juicy berry into my mouth before replying, “Yeah, I’ve been picking huckleberries. My mom’s going to hike in to meet me at the border, so I’m making huckleberry wine for her!”
“Are you sure that you’re picking huckleberries and not just blueberries?” The hiker asked, looking at me skeptically. “Yes, I’m sure,” I replied, still smiling and picking my berries… One for me… One for the wine… One for me… One for the wine… I popped another one into my mouth, “Definitely huckleberries.”
Huckleberries seemed to be a hot topic here in the Pacific Northwest. I’d learned that huckleberries were to be prized, and that blueberries were to be shunned… The superiority of huckleberries over blueberries was uncontested, uncontestable… there was just one little problem… Which ones were the huckleberries? None of the huckleberries I saw on the west coast looked like east coast huckleberries (gaylussacia baccata) to me, so I’d started asking my west coast peers to show me which berries were the huckleberries. It quickly became apparent to me that the term “huckleberry” was being applied to multiple species of plants. There was, however, one species that everyone on the west coast seemed to agree was definitely a huckleberry, the vaccinium membranaceum, and that was the one that I was picking…
“Well, most people think they’re picking huckleberries but they’re actually picking blueberries,” he replied undeterred. I paused from my berry picking to look around me. Was there something that made him think that I was standing in a thicket of blueberries instead of huckleberries? No, there wasn’t. I was surrounded by big, juicy (unambiguous by west coast standards) huckleberries. This was the third person that had felt the need to stop me while I was berry picking to inform me that I couldn’t possibly know the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. None of them seemed to notice or care that I was surrounded by huckleberries and huckleberry bushes… There were lots of things about huckleberries that I was still curious about and wanted to learn, but I was getting tired of these conversations… the unsolicited conversations which started with the assumption that I didn’t know what I was doing, and was followed by their display of superior huckleberry knowledge (which was usually even less complete than my mine).
“I’m confident that the berries I’m picking are considered huckleberries here on the west coast,” I assured the hiker. “When I was hiking through the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon I ran into two brothers from the reservation that were professional huckleberry pickers. I asked them a few questions and they were kind enough to give me a comprehensive tutorial on west coast huckleberries. It was absolutely incredible and I’ve been picking huckleberries ever since!” I smiled again, and pointedly turned away from him and resumed my huckleberry picking. He took the not so subtle hint, and moved on.
Unlike the more recent conversations I’d been having about huckleberries, the conversation I’d had with the two brothers back on the reservation had been really informative. “There are a dozen different varieties of huckleberry out here,” the brothers had explained, “but the best huckleberries are the ones with the dark, almost black fruit. We only pick the ones that are big, single berries on the top of the leaf clusters like these,” said one of the brothers as he pointed to, and then picked, a big, plump huckleberry. “If the berries are underneath the leaf clusters, or if there is more than one berry in the same cluster, it’s probably a blueberry and not a huckleberry. Even though the huckleberries can be lots of different colors and sizes, you can always tell if it’s a true huckleberry because the pulp inside the huckleberries is this deep red or purple color,” he continued, popping the berry between his fingers to demonstrate. “The blueberries have much lighter colored guts.” His brother then added, “the best huckleberries, the ones that we pick, are the ones with pointy leaves like these,” he said, stroking one of the leaves almost lovingly. By the end of their tutorial I was 100% confident that I could identify the best huckleberries (vaccinium membranaceum), the ones their family had been picking for generations, and the huckleberries they sold commercially.
After the brothers taught me how to identify the huckleberries, they taught me how to pick them without bruising them, how to transport them, and how to store them. They proudly explained that the way they transported and stored the huckleberries now was the same way their family had been doing it for generations. As evidence, they showed me the huckleberry picking baskets they had tied to their waists. “These baskets are nearly 100 years old,” said one of the brothers, untying it from his waist so I could get a better look at it. It was a smallish (probably quart-sized) basket, stained purple with the juices of thousands of huckleberries, but otherwise it showed very little wear. “They’re beautiful,” I said as I looked at the weave of the basket. “They’re made from the bark of the cedar trees,” he continued. I looked at him questioningly, how could something this fine be made from cedar bark? Anticipating my question he continued, “if you look closely you can see the fine strands and the way they are coiled and tied together.” I was definitely impressed. He then showed me the loops across the top that allowed it to be tied to his belt. “After we fill these baskets, we empty them into the big basket,” he said bringing out a much larger basket with a different weave (twined instead of coiled if I remember correctly). “We line it with leaves to protect the berries. This one holds about seven gallons of huckleberries. We should have it filled by noontime,” he said and looked on, smiling, as I examined the basket. “This one’s 80 years old! Do you see the little loops at the top? They’re for tying a cover onto the basket for storing the berries.”
The baskets were amazing… steeped as they were in both huckleberry juice and history. We talked about some of that history, about the way of life of the Wasco and Tenino people before the reservation was formed… about fishing, hunting, and huckleberry picking… and about how things have changed. When the US government created the Bonneville dam, they flooded the traditional fishing grounds for the Warm Springs tribes, and altered their way of life. They said that the tribes still fish salmon, hunt, and pick huckleberries, but that isn’t enough to sustain their economy. Even in the world of huckleberry picking there are issues. “They forget whose land they’re on,” mumbled one of the brothers when talking about commercial berry pickers. “We usually pick up near Mount Hood at this time of the year, but they’ve been forcing us out.” The politics of huckleberry picking were entirely new to me, who was forcing them out? “Huckleberry picking is big business. They bring in lots of cheap labor from overseas, they don’t respect us and they don’t respect the land. The pickers from Vietnam and Laos are the worst. They’ll form a circle around us and pick all of the berries so there’s no where left for us to go. They make it so we can’t pick,” they said sadly. “That’s why we decided to come back down here. Usually this time of year its too early to pick here, but with the crazy weather this season we thought we’d check it out.”
“How are the huckleberries along the PCT on the other side of the road?” they asked. “They were pretty amazing! So plentiful that I stopped to take some pictures of them,” I replied and showed them some pictures I’d taken of berry-laden branches. “Good to hear, we were thinking about bringing our sisters out to pick with us tomorrow, sounds like there’ll be plenty of berries for all of us.” I nodded, and we wrapped up our conversation. I would have kept talking to them all day (and did in fact have more long conversations with them about the PCT and tribal lands), but I knew that they had 7 gallons of huckleberries to pick by noon, and I didn’t want to distract them too much.
It was now a month later, but the conversation I’d had with the two brothers was still fresh in my mind. Every conversation I’d had about huckleberries since then reminded me of them and of the first mouthful of warm, black huckleberries that I’d eaten just moments later. The west coast huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) reminded me of wild maine blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium), but they weren’t quite as sweet, and they had a slightly spicier flavor.
Regardless of whether people were calling them blueberries or huckleberries, everyone seemed to enjoy feasting on the fruits produced by the plants of genus Vaccinium. However, people weren’t the only ones feasting on huckleberries in Washington. The bears were were out in force! Going through Washington I saw five different bears feasting on huckleberries/blueberries (mile 2377- small brown bear, mile 2445- big black bear, mile 2491- small black bear, mile 2507- black bear, mile 2512- black bear). A couple of those times I only noticed the bears because I’d stopped at the same field planning to pick huckleberries too! If I was a safe distance away, I would just sit and watch them graze on those tiny little berries. It was fascinating and it was very different than watching them try to dig grubs. As I watched them pick huckleberries straight from the bushes with their mouths, I tried to imagine having to get all of my calories on the trail from huckleberries. At just 37 calories per 100 g, it would take a lot of huckleberries to fuel a human or a bear… we’d be better off eating the sweeter blueberries at 57 calories per 100g, but only slightly!
Even though I’d learned how to recognize one species of huckleberry on the west coast (Vaccinium membranaceum), I still couldn’t fully answer the question, “What’s the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” Stay tuned for “Part 2: I’m your huckleberry,” where I’ll answer that question and more!