Photography And Half-Thoughts By Mitchell Hegman

...because some of it is pretty and some of it is not.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Huckleberry Problem

In my corner of the universe, approximately 6,400 huckleberries are required to fill a one-gallon container.  I made the calculations myself, thank you.  And I did so several times to assure some degree of accuracy.
I pick each and every one of my berries by hand.  I don’t use a “rake” or any other mechanical device to speed up the process or to glean a massive harvest.  Generally, you must allow me about four hours to pick a gallon—white spiders, leaves, purple hands, and sticks included.
I am not opposed to stopping and watching birds or stopping to study a flower or two while picking.  I am not a machine.  Frankly, my hours in the huckleberry patch are some of the best hours of my life.  Huckleberries, by dint of fortune, grow in the loveliest places—grizzly bears, bruising climbs, and deerflies bites included.  When picking huckleberries, I am able to shut down all problems pressing against me in life.  The mountains take me in. The powerful scent of the berries themselves.  The dizzying patchworks of shade and light.  Maybe the sound of water tumbling down through a creek nearby.  A lone bird calling from far away.
Huckleberry picking is an escape portal.
But we have a problem with huckleberries.  Well, we have two problems.  The first problem is that we call them huckleberries here in Montana.  They are actually mountain blueberries.
I can live with that problem.
The second problem is that, throughout the Pacific Northwest, huckleberry habitat is slowly shrinking away.  Once thriving patches are becoming smaller and smaller.  Surprisingly, studies have revealed that undisturbed forests are the least productive places for huckleberries. 
Huckleberries need wildfire.
The most productive huckleberry patches are presently found on the eastern and northern slopes, in areas that were either burned over by wildfire decades ago or logged and burned a dozen or so years previously.  When, following the Great Fire of 1910, forest managers started squelching fires as soon as they started, abnormally overgrown forests began to slowly squeeze out the huckleberries.
Huckleberries tend to flourish in those middle-aged forests where not in competition with every other thing that eventually comes to thrive in the forest.  They like a 50 percent forest—say a slope that is only half covered with trees and semi-shady.  Over more recent years, fire has gradually and purposely been reintroduced into the forests of the West.  We may yet see a reversal in the decline of huckleberry production in our forests.
In the meantime, starting sometime in mid to late July, you will find me between 4,000 and 7,000 feet high in the mountains (the elevation sweet spot where big huckleberries grow).  I will likely have a gallon bucket and bear spray looped through my belt.
I am about to enter the escape portal.

--Mitchell Hegman
Sources: John Ashely, Huckleberry Culture, USDA, US Forest Service, Ellen Horowitz