It’s late August, which means it’s huckleberry season in the mountains of southwest Alberta. Picking huckleberries is something I try to do at least once or twice each summer. Not only do you get good exercise while picking hucks, when you’re finished you get to savour the fruits of your labour. And if you pick enough of these tasty berries, you can enjoy them for months to come.
Sometimes I’ll come across huckleberry patches growing along a trail, when I’m hiking to an alpine lake for a day’s fishing. It’s difficult to walk by these patches without stopping to pick a handful or two of berries. Fishing can be delayed by 30 minutes or more, if there are large quantities of ripe berries available. Other times, I’ll leave my fishing gear at home and head for the high country with empty ice cream pails or coffee cans in hand.
You won’t find many huckleberries growing at low elevations, at least not where I live. What you will find, though, in the nearby foothills and further east in the prairie lowlands, are plenty of saskatoon berries. They are very good to eat, too, but huckleberries are better, in my opinion. To find huckleberries you will have to do some climbing, usually up a steep mountain slope. They seem to thrive at elevations above 4,500 feet. There are lots of places in my neck of the woods to find hucks. Places in the West Castle Valley like Middle Kootenay Pass and the Castle Mountain Ski Resort are well known for providing good berry picking. The ski resort holds a Huckleberry Festival each August, and it was here I chose to visit one day last week.
I was on the road bright and early and arrived at the ski hill parking lot at 8:00 am. The morning sun had not yet climbed over Barnaby Ridge and much of the valley was in shade. There was still some coolness in the air and I knew the sun’s rays would soon be upon me, so I quickly threw my backpack over my shoulders and started hiking. After climbing steadily for an hour, I was close to where I like to do my picking. I could smell ripe berries on the bushes, as I approached from below. Another 50 yards and there they were – huckleberries galore, waiting to be picked!
I worked at Castle Mountain in the late 1980s and learned from some of the local experts where to look for productive huckleberry patches. I found some good picking spots on my own, too. It had been about twenty years since I had picked at the resort, but started going back a few years ago. The berry patches I had picked in the ’80s were still there, and still producing their plump, juicy fruit.
The huckleberry season around here generally runs from mid-August through mid-September. Some years they can be ready to pick in early August, or be available until late September. It all depends on the type of weather we receive during spring and summer. The previous winter’s snowpack can also be a factor. Huckleberry bushes grow fairly low to the ground and can be anywhere from several inches to several feet in height. Their berries can approach the size of blueberries, but are usually smaller. When ripe, huckleberries are dark purple, almost black in color. They can be tart, with a hint of sweetness in the background. The darker they become, the sweeter the taste. They’re great in pies, pancakes, waffles, muffins, as a topping on ice cream, or simply by themselves. They can be added to salads, and made into sauces and jams. How about a huckleberry smoothie? For $3, you can purchase 2 ounces of chocolate covered huckleberries via the Internet, and on the open market I’ve seen them advertised for as much as $90 a gallon. Like any other commodity, the price is subject to supply and demand. 2016 appears to be a good one for huckleberry crops across western Canada, so prices will likely be lower this year. The going price doesn’t matter, or have any effect on me. I need all the exercise I can get and prefer to pick my own hucks anyway, thank-you very much!