In search of an elusive, yummy California native

by on October 03, 2012

 
California huckleberries. Photo by OutdoorPDK/Flickr.
 

 

A blindfolded boy with shaggy hair and worn out blue jeans stumbles down a trail and through thick coyote brush, led by two other boys and their parents.

“Why do I have to wear this, Jackson?” he asks.

“Our picking spot’s secret, and we’re going to keep it that way,” I say.

Through the brush and misty fog we come upon an overgrown junction.

“You can take your blindfold off now if you would like,” I say.

“Finally,” he says.

Photo by Jackson Karlenzig.

It’s mid September and as the days begin to shorten and the leaves begin to fall, huckleberries cluster in the forest. This is the ideal time to pick and every year, my family and I venture to the lush hills above Tomales Bay to harvest these succulent native plants.

My great, great, great grandparents Louis and Dehlia Selby, who lived in Oakland, fell in love with the raw beauty of the area and established a summer camp in the late 1800s known as Camp Azulikit (“As You Like It”). The camp evolved into a summer community and eventually became the permanent hamlet of Inverness. Since then, my mother’s side of the family has spent their summers sailing on the bay and foraging for huckleberries in the fall.

This year my family and I decided to bring my Danish friend, Andreas. He was excited to be invited along and willingly agreed to the blindfold.

Onwards from the junction the landscape changes dramatically. We now trek under a thick canopy of bishop pines, tan oaks and bay laurels. The understory is carpeted in sword ferns, sticky monkey flower, poison oak and huckleberries.

“We’re almost there,” shouts my younger brother, Owen, with glee.

Dense huckleberry plants interspersed with shiny red poison oak engulf the trail. The bushes are laden with navy blue and black berries. Everyone stakes out a spot and begins to pick. With my yogurt container in hand, I carefully select the ripest berries and let them plop in.

Andreas, huckleberry picking. Photo by Jackson Karlenzig.

Picking huckleberries is not as painful as blackberry-picking, but it is much more time consuming. A huckleberry is slightly smaller and darker than your average blueberry. They grow in thick bunches on stems generally towards the middle to the crown of the bush. There are two different species of berries, an East Coast variety called Gaylussacia, and the West Coast Vaccinium. On the coast, we get the California huckleberry variety, Vaccinium Ovatum, and it’s a good food source for many wildlife. Deer, elk and rabbit graze on the foliage, while the berries feed chipmunks, black bear, mice, thrushes, scarlet tanagers, bluebirds, and other songbirds. And of course, people.

I pick nearly every ripe one from a bush,  yet my container is only halfway full.

“Hey, Andreas want to move to another spot?” I ask.

We make our way up a barely visible deer trail until it disappears into dense scrub. Then comes the bushwhacking. I took the lead climbing over a rotting bishop pine log. On the other side we are greeted with more scrub. Plenty of huckleberry plants, but no berries.

“There’s not enough light down here for the berries to grow, we need to go higher up,” I say.

We are nearly to the top of the slope where we we see faint rays of light illuminating the landscape. Then we come upon the thickest wall of scrub yet. The only way to get around is by crawling under. Yogurt container in hand I drop to the ground and army crawl between a narrow opening in the thicket. Andreas follows my lead.

Halfway through I looked down and to my horror I spot my worst enemy.

“We’re crawling through poison oak,” I say, glumly.

It’s too late to turn back and the damage has been done. I power through the last few feet to the other side and spring to my feet. The plants are carpeted in the biggest berries I had ever seen! Andreas pops his head out of the brush, and we pick, filling our containers in no time with plenty leftover to eat. In the distance I hear the faint voice of my father calling us. We find an alternate route back and show off our rewards.

The fruits of our labors. Photo by Jackson Karlenzig.

“Wow,” my mother says. “I hope you didn’t have to go through poison oak to get these.”

“No comment,” I say.

The next night I’m restless. Calamine lotion covers my legs arms and chest. The one thing that consoles me when I try to drift to sleep is the thought of huckleberry pancakes.
I wake up to a familiar smell. Rushing downstairs in my pajamas, I see pancakes piled high. The sweet yet tangy tastes of the berries stimulates my taste buds.

“So was it worth it getting poison oak, for these pancakes?,” my mom asks.

“Oh, yeah,” I say.

Jackson Karlenzig

 

Jackson Karlenzig, currently a senior at Drake High School, is an avid wildlife enthusiast and intern at Bay Nature. In his spare time he enjoys surfing, backpacking, mountain biking and photography.

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5 comments:

Lynda on October 3rd, 2012 at 10:49 am

I love this! We enjoyed the huckleberries Andreas brought home for days after. Since then, we always talk of that trip when it’s huckleberry season.

Gordon on October 7th, 2012 at 7:51 am

Wonderful article I enjoyed reading it.

Eric Gower on October 15th, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Well done Jackson! Where do I sign up for my blindfold? Or at least the pancakes? Really great piece.

E. Spear on November 25th, 2012 at 6:56 am

Jackson,

Holy Cow…

What a great article.

You are a very gifted writer to go along with your extraordinary appreciation for the outdoors and Point Reyes in particular. I happened upon your blog entry on a completely unrelated “web search” and could not stop until I had read the story and then jumped to your other entries. You bring the whole scene to life.
(I am sure that by now you have heard of “Tech Nu” as a preventative for poison oak. It really does work if applied “before exposure”. Maybe an essential to pack for your next “harvesting trek”. I am sure your friends would appreciate it.) :)

You didn’t mention how poor Andreas fared with the poison oak :) ???

You also didn’t mention if you blindfolded him again for the return trip so that he still really doesn’t now where he was ??

Anyway,

Keep up the great work. I am sure that you have a truly bright future ahead of you. Thanks for sharing your passion and your talents with us. You have inspired me to explore more of Pt. Reyes with your wonderful stories.

jackson on December 3rd, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Thank you for the compliments E. Spear! Andreas happens to be pretty allergic to poison oak and he got it pretty badly. We did blindfold him for part of the way back. I am glad to inspire you to explore Point Reyes and the surrounding area, it is truly a wonderful place!

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