Gatherers go to great lengths — and distances — in search of the coveted berry

Photo Credit: ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Candace Larson holds up her huckleberry haul, destined to be turned into a pie.It’s a long, but beautiful drive from Estacada following the Clackamas River along Highway 224 then Forest Service Road 57, then climbing Forest Service Road 58.

Abruptly, the road has been buried in a landslide at some point, so you loop in gravel around the spill area.

Turning right at the sign for High Rock and following 58 past the turnoff for Pyramid Lake, the road is narrow and the rock and trees are thick around you.

Chipmunks take suicide missions across the road ahead more than once.

You’re likely to go a while before you see another car or pickup. And when you do, it’s startling as you quickly and carefully pull to the side of the road.

Photo Credit: ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Meet the huckleberry.It’s a lot of effort for one little berry.

But, the elusive fruit is only in season late summer into early fall and favors altitudes above about 3,800 feet, says Amber Sprinkle, special forest products coordinator for the west side of the Clackamas River Ranger District of the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Sprinkle is driving toward the Huckleberry Enhancement Thinning project area, but before we even get there, she spots huckleberries growing thickly on the side of the road.

She had wanted to show the project area, in which trees had been thinned in part to allow for more sunlight to reach the huckleberry plants, but we are soon distracted by a veritable wealth of the coveted fruit.

We never made it to the project area.

Photo Credit: ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Huckleberries taste kind of like a blueberry, but tangier and with more attitude.Depending on the sunlight level (and probably species) the small leafy plants are sometimes speckled, sometimes fresh green or greeny-yellow or even red. The berries are similar to blueberries, but usually smaller.

The color of the huckleberries we see range from blueberry blue to wine red to purple so dark it’s nearly black.

We pull over several times to examine them and it doesn’t take much sampling before our fingers are red and stained.

Sprinkle strongly cautions would-be huckleberry hunters to be sure they know how to identify the plant before eating any of the fruit.

However, about an hour and 20 minutes into the drive from Estacada, it is clear that we have arrived at Huckleberry heaven when we pull over at a clearing thick with purple wild flowers and coniferous trees here and there.

Photo Credit: ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - This was the beautiful clearing with abundant huckleberries. See all those speckled reddish leaves? Huckleberry plants. The clearing offers a view of Timothy Lake and Mt. Jefferson when its not too cloudy.Blue hills roll in front of us, and Sprinkle points to where Mt. Jefferson would be if it weren’t so cloudy.

Lake Timothy glows off to the left.

There are more huckleberries than it is possible to comprehend in the clearing.

We eat our fill, as is allowed when staying on the Mt. Hood National Forest lands.

However, a free forest products use permit is required to take huckleberries (or other special forest products) off of forest lands.

The permit allows for 3 gallons of berries to be taken off forest lands for personal use per year.

Commercial huckleberry gathering is not allowed. Sprinkle said this is intended to make sure there are enough berries for the casual picker and members of Native American tribes that highly cherish the huckleberry in their cultures.

The free berry permits may be acquired at Mt. Hood National Forest Ranger Stations at any time of year and are valid through Dec. 31 of that year.

You’ll need to supply valid identification, an address and the year, make, model and plate of your vehicle.

Sprinkle said only 154 free-use berry permits have been issued since Jan. 1 of this year.

She suspects that many people don’t know a permit is required to take special forest products home. People can be fined without them though, so she hopes to spread the word that the permits are required.

To the frustration of some, the permits may not be acquired online but must instead be obtained at a Mt. Hood National Forest ranger station.

As the Estacada Ranger Station is closed on weekends, this can make things difficult for people coming through Estacada on their way huckleberry hunting at the end of the work week.

Sprinkle said that forest officials are working toward getting the system back on the web (years ago it had been online, but was discontinued).

Photo Credit: ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Amber Sprinkle, special forest products coordinator for the west side of the Clackamas River Ranger District of the Mt. Hood National Forest shows off a huckleberry find.“We know it’s important and we know it would be a very useful tool for a lot of members of the public in order to get a free-use permit,” she said.

The permit stipulates the rules for gathering berries. For instance, rakes may not be used for gathering as they could damage the plant and harvesting is banned in wilderness areas, research natural areas, developed campgrounds, administrative sites the Tilly Jane Proposed Wilderness Area and within a quarter of a mile of Old Maid Flats.

Freshly acquired permit in hand, I returned to the clearing with the purple wildflowers three days later.

A family with small children was working its way through the clearing.

I travelled on for a quieter area, but when I came back several hours later, the clearing was far from cleared of huckleberries.

Huckleberry hunting along the upper reaches of Road 58, there would be spaces of nearly an hour before another human passed by.

Every now and then another huckleberry hunter would reveal themselves.

We eye each other suspiciously, sizing each other up before admitting to spots that were still good or already picked clean.

Sprinkle had said during our interview three days earlier that in her three years of working for the Mt. Hood National Forest, she’s never run into someone picking huckleberries, and was surprised when we came across two ladies gathering huckleberries for a pie.

Maybe huckleberry hunting traffic is thicker on the weekends; I saw several huckleberry hunters.

Photo Credit: ESTACADA NEWS PHOTO: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Huckleberries are in season late summer into early fall.With that in mind, you might want to get them before they’re gone.

Sprinkle suggested checking other areas where she’s seen huckleberries in the past, though she’s not sure how well they are currently stocked.

The list included spur roads of Forest Service Road 58 east of High Rock and west of Little Crater Lake, the Summit Lake area of the 42 Road (Skyline Road) and spur roads, the 45 road and Memaloose and Hillockburn side roads and spur roads, Rhodedendron Ridge along 4670 and nearby roads, the 4220 road near Lemiti Butte north of the Olallie Scenic area and spur roads and the Trillium Lake area of the 2613 Road and spur roads.

Sprinkle advises huckleberry hunters to bring a forest map as the 42 and 45 roads go through areas on non-Forest Service land.

She also reminded huckleberry gatherers of good general forest practices. Along with a map, bring extra food and water and tell someone where you are going, as cell phone service goes from spotty to nonexistent.

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