Huckleberries are as much a part of Montana's identity as summertime floats and arguments about wolves. The yen for a huckleberry milkshake slows down many a road trip, and tourists everywhere can be counted on to stop and buy everything from huckleberry syrup and candy to huckleberry honey, beer, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, soaps and lotions.
The products are good, but few can compare to the thrill of a fresh, unadulterated huckleberry. The complex flavor is more sweet than tart, with mysterious, hard-to-name nuances that evolve as the season progresses.
I know a guy who doesn't make it into the woods very often, but nonetheless measures the passage of summertime with a weekly purchase of huckleberries from the Saturday farmers' market. He takes a bag to a downtown establishment that blends the contents into a shake. He says the drink gets sweeter every week.
But such armchair assessments can only take you so far. By the time the frost begins falling on the autumn-red huckleberry leaves, the berries have an almost fizzy flavor that I call huckleberry cola. These frosted berries might have cost me an elk or two, thanks to the hours I've spent with my gun against a tree, turning my face purple.
Indeed, getting waylaid by huckleberry bushes is one of the great joys of the Montana high country, and many a hiker changes plans after stumbling on a good patch. Water bottles get dumped; oatmeal and trail mix get combined to free up cargo space for the purple plunder. Unfortunately, by the time the haul reaches the car the next day, those berries are not what they used to be.
Consequently, I don't try to take any out. For me, what happens in the huckleberry patch stays in the huckleberry patch. I may carry some back to camp for pancakes the next morning, but when it comes to collecting massive quantities for the freezer, I'm happy to leave the picking to the experts (whether the human or the ursine variety).
Given how long it would take to pick and clean a pail, and considering the tight window of time before berries start to go south, it's worth it to me to pay $20 for a gallon at the farmers' market. I'll bring them home, separate them into quart bags, and freeze them. Spending $100 this way might seem extravagant, but after you factor in the costs of gas and your time—and the fact that unless you're in the know, you won't find the truly stupendous patches—it's often cheaper to buy.
Plus, buying huckleberries from pickers helps support an industry that depends on the forest. And the more revenue our forests can generate with the trees vertical, the better.
If you do decide to go out and get your own stash, make sure to have a cooler full of ice in the car. Pack the berries carefully so the cold can reach them all quickly, but they aren't crushed by the cubes.
Most serious huckleberry hounds use some kind of device to rake the bushes. (I recommend the tool from www.huckleberrypickers.com: It has soft, rounded teeth that won't grab onto branches.) There is some debate over whether this kind of harvesting hurts the bushes, but it's hard to imagine the rakes causing any more damage than a bear doing something similar with its claws. Speaking of which, it's a good idea to bring bear spray on your picking adventure.
For me, a serendipitous backcountry encounter with those magical cola huckleberries is the only way to go. When I find them, there's no worry: I'm secure in the knowledge I've got a stash of berries from the market waiting in the freezer to satisfy all of my wintertime pie, muffin and smoothie needs. Besides, the frost-kissed berries are too fragile, and sometimes they're shriveled and a bit dry. They'd never survive the trip back to town, and can only be enjoyed in the moment, off the bush. Enjoy them I will, without a care for the future.