We occasionally come across these little red berries on the trail. In the past I restrained myself from partaking of them for safety because they do look different from the more mature huckleberry plants, but our hike to the Bench Lakes above Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountain range turned out to be a lot longer than we expected — it was 4 miles from the boat shuttle instead of 2 1/2 like we were told, and it was much more steep than we expected — and Sam needed motivation. When we encountered them on the trail of this backpacking trip I was tempted to give them a try.
If you take a chance on a berry, you must do it with a lot of foreknowledge. I know that I should avoid berries that are white as well as berries that grow in clusters. I squeezed the berry, smelled it, and tasted a small amount. They definitely had the signature sweet/tart flavor of huckleberries, only more concentrated because it was in a smaller form. I also know that some varieties of huckleberries are red. The plants were not large bushes like I am used to, and they appeared to be a seedling, but the leaves were a similar shape. Finally, the berries shared a trait common to both huckleberries and blueberries: the base of the berries had a circular ring. We decided to take the risk, and let Sam dig in while we took a break.
This is one of the benefits of hiking with a child — I never would have done the research or taken the time to examine berries on the trail if I didn’t have a child who forces me to slow down and pay attention to the details of the landscape. We’ve also seen more wildlife since we have started hiking with Sam. When it was just Chris and me, we would hike at break neck paces, trying to cover as much ground as possible. With Sam, we move slowly, and take breaks every 15 or 20 minutes. At that slower pace, I notice the diverse foliage, and take the time to scan the horizon for animals. Last weekend we saw more individual deer than I’ve ever encountered on one trip.
When we got to our camp at the Bench Lakes, we were lucky to notice that they were surrounded by both mature purple and very young red huckleberries. The mature berries were picked over, but the small red berries were plentiful. It was 7:00 and was getting dark quickly because we were expecting a shorter easier hike, so we gave Sam free range of the berries nearby while I quickly threw together dinner and Chris set-up our tent. It kept him entertained and we were able to finish stuff in tandem that we usually have to do one at a time while one of us keeps Sam entertained.
I woke up early the next morning to pick berries while the boys slept. Because the berries were so small, I only got about a cup even though I was at it for about an hour and a half. It was nice to be able to pick berries near our camp, where I could hear my boys snoring and take an occasional break to drink my morning tea while I admired the gorgeous view of the mountains reflected in the peaceful waters of the lake. Later in the day when we went to the larger lake, we saw a lot more mature plants and picked another quarter cup of the more recognizable large purple-ish blue berries.
When we returned to the trailhead a couple days later, I noticed that the forest service had pictures of revegetation efforts, and the seedlings they planted must have been those little huckleberry bushes. When I came home, I looked up the berries to be sure they really were a huckleberry variety, and I came upon this website that confirms that this variety of berry is sometimes used to restore vegetation. I’m glad we were very careful and gentle with these plants.
Although we ate plenty of berries on the trail, I packed a bunch in an extra ziplock and brought them home. I have always wanted to cook with the huckleberries, but they are by far some of the most expensive berries you can buy because they have to be hand-picked in the wild. According to one website, 1 pound or 1 1/2 cups of fresh huckleberries is $12, so I feel like I got a steal.
At home, I had to wash the berries, so I just used this pan grease guard to strain it more easily. The flat surface made it easier to remove the stray leaves and stems.
Then we made huckleberry ice-cream. For our first time, we decided to make a simple light vanilla ice-cream and just incorporate the fruit into the mixture whole without blending it up first so that the berries could shine in their most natural state. Next time I want to put the berries through a blender before we add them.
Huckleberry Ice Cream
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 capfuls of vanilla
- 1 cup of huckleberries
Instructions: Add the milk, sugar, and vanilla into the mixer and let it mix for 25 minutes. Add huckleberries and let them mix for another 5 minutes.
This recipe is easy and Sam was able to be involved at every step. He dumped in the milk, the sugar, and the huckleberries. We let him turn on the machine, and he stood there the entire 30 minutes watching it, patiently waiting. He’s gone through the drill enough that he understands that it is worth the wait!
If you want it to taste more like “real” ice-cream, you can use real cream and more sugar, but we are perfectly happy with the lighter stuff.