The hike had been pleasant and enjoyable. Following the Pacific Crest Trail north from where it crosses the Dead Indian Memorial Highway toward Brown Mountain is pure pleasure. It’s a section with relatively few elevation variations that ambles through lush pine forests, often alongside towering old growth giants.
It’s also one of the most beautiful stretches of the PCT that thru hikers seldom see. After passing through California’s Sierras and the north state’s often challenging terrain, when thru hikers cross into Southern Oregon they’re often trying to make up for lost time by clicking out 25 or more miles a day. The focus is on covering ground, not enjoying the trailside scenery.
I was part of a hiking group savoring the trailside scenery along that same section of the PCT when, suddenly, the trail became, well, deliciously dangerous. My eyes kept wandering away from the trail, causing me to stumble as my stride became suddenly unpredictably erratic. I stepped aside, letting others pass.
It’s huckleberry season in the Cascades and I was yielding to temptation.
Nom, nom, nom
Trying to hike while simultaneously snatching tiny ripe berries made for clumsy steps. And when I spied a series of trailside shrubs teeming with the delectable purple berries, I stopped and foraged like a hungry bear.
The truly bountiful huckleberry harvests are still weeks away, but there were areas with plentiful enough berries to keep me and, as others realized what I was doing, stopping long enough to pillage bushes for the sweet, richly flavored ripe berries.
Huckleberries are small red and purple berries related to both blueberries and cranberries. Smaller than a blueberry and sweeter than a cranberry, many people rate huckleberries as the tastiest. Huckleberries grow on shrub-like plant in the underbrush of forests, with more than 12 species found throughout Pacific Northwest forests.
According to a 2006 U.S. Forest Service report, “A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest,” the word “huckleberry” originally referred to a berry found in England, Europe and as far north and east as Siberia. “According to Henry David Thoreau,” the report says, “Huckleberry appears to be an American word derived originally from ‘hurtleberry,’ a corruption of the Saxon heart-berg or ‘the hart’s berry.’ It was first used by John Lawson in 1709 to describe berry use in North Carolina where the hurts, huckleberries or blues of this country are four sorts .... The Indians get many bushels and dry them on mats, whereof they make plumb bread, and many other eatables.”
The extra mile
Huckleberries are best known for making jams, milkshakes, pancakes and, most delicious of all, pies. Many times I’ve driven extra miles to stop at Beckie’s Cafe in Union Creek for their scrumptious huckleberry pies topped, double-yummers, with ice cream. Most of the time, like this hiking day, the zesty berries don’t make it far from the plants where they were picked.
By the time we paused to regroup at a junction where a trail forks away from the PCT to the Lake of the Woods, others were browsing bushes, popping luscious berries in their mouths as quickly as they were plucked.
We continued on, eventually reaching the rocky lava flows along the volcanic slopes of Brown Mountain before turning around. Lunch, predictably, was back at the junction, where others who had returned earlier had stripped bushes of ripe berries.
Berry good guide
Based on “Common Plants of the Upper Klamath Basin,” an always valuable plant guide published by the Klamath Basin Chapter of the Native Plant Society and available to read at https://bit.ly/2fm4Jsj, the huckleberries we devoured were likely the dwarf variety, described as purplish to blue and about a quarter-inch wide. According to the book, other regional varieties include big/thin leaf, red and grouse.
Critters also eat huckleberries. Several times, usually in early fall, I’ve come across black bears comfortably plopped in huckleberry patches eating their fill. Inspired, one day while hiking in the Sky Lakes Wilderness I did the same. Like the forest critters, I’m always on the lookout for huckleberry patches that bear fruit.
There’s a term that’s best known from the movie, “Tombstone,” where Doc Holliday utters, “I’m your huckleberry,” which literally means “I’m the guy for the job.” When it comes to eating them, I’m your huckleberry.
So, what’s the best way to describe the hike?