Monday, September 23, 2013

Huckleberries: Summer's Last Hurrah!

Roadside stand near Hungry Horse, Montana. Cherries and huckleberries
are both big in the state, but the hucks get all the attention.

Huckleberry season was almost over when we visited the little town of Hungry Horse, Montana, not far from the western entrance to Glacier National Park. But you could hardly tell from the huckleberry madness that seemed to have overtaken the town and was still going strong in early September. 

During the summer, when the berries are at their height, a sort of frenzy for this wild-grown fruit seems to infect tourist-crowded towns in parts of Washington, Idaho and Montana, with gift shops, restaurants, roadside stands, farmer's markets and even drugstores and gas station counters hawking huckleberry merchandise of all sorts.

There are the expected items, like jams, jellies, syrups, preserves and pies. But there's also huckleberry licorice, lollipops, lip gloss, ice cream, shakes, toppings, wines and ales. There's even a Huckleberry vodka called 44ยบ North Mountain Huckleberry Vodka and a huckleberry fudge (at The Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse, you can have it shipped to you in the shape of the state). There's huckleberry hot chocolate, coffee, tea and lemonade. Also huckleberry shampoo, soap, candles, body butter and a goat's milk body lotion in a lovely lavender hue.

What's so special about huckleberries? "It's probably because you can't get them anywhere else," says Huckleberry Patch manager Laurie Carpy. And perhaps it's the possibility of competing with ravenous bears for the treats--they're a particular favorite of grizzlies. Of course, you can always play it safe and stop at a huge shop bursting with huckleberry products and a decidedly purple decor--or, off season, order some online.

Patty Dunning shows off the last pie of the day at The Huckleberry Patch.
Originally opened in 1949 by a legendary character called James Willows (Huckleberry Jim to the locals), the store cafe's huckleberry pie is a major draw. In summer, Carpy said, they make 60 pies a day and still can't keep them in stock. We got the last slice the day we visited, which we carted home to our little KOA cabin and devoured with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I ordered a jar of huckleberry filling, which Carpy claimed was a close replica of the cafe's own. Shipping home some fresh or frozen berries didn't seem practical.

For those who haven't encountered the famed berry (outside of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn), they look quite a bit like blueberries, but tend to be more reddish and taste somewhat different--a mixture of tart and sweet--"like a blueberry, cranberry and raspberry mixed together," one sign said. "It'll make you feel like a wild grizzly."

Sign on the side of the HuckleberryLand Shop

Grown wild mostly in northeastern U.S. and Canada--particularly Washington, Idaho and Montana--they're usually handpicked in mid- to late summer, though a young man at a small farmer's market in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, told us some hardy folks continue to gather them "until the first snow flies." "The later it gets, the higher you have to climb to get 'em," he said. His favorite sight is a bush "just black with berries." And no wonder! He was selling gallon bags of fresh huckleberries--weighing about 4 1/2 pounds--for $35 apiece. Elsewhere, he said, the berries, fresh or frozen, can fetch upwards of $80 to $100 for a gallon.

Picking wild huckleberries is a competitive sport--and not just among pickers; everyone who hunts the purply-red fruit has a story of a close encounter with a bear.

Jeremy, serving a huckleberry cone, doesn't worry about bears.
"They never bothered me," said Jeremy, a young man who planted a large purple scoop of ice cream atop a cone for my husband at another Hungry Horse huckleberry spot, the Huckleberry Jam & Pie Factory--also called Willows HuckleberryLand.

At a roadside stand advertising "Cherries & Hucks," Mark McGee said he arrived in Hungry Horse from Kansas astride a horse on a rainy day some 30 years ago--and hasn't looked back since. Huckleberries, he said, "keep you young and put spring in your step."

Mark McGee selling cherries and hucks by the road near Hungry Horse

Good enough for me. I brought home a good cache of huckleberry goods--and I may just order some more.

Check this video look at all things huckleberry:

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