Huckleberry Fever – and Two Surprises
Ahh, mid-August. ‘Tis the time to enjoy the bounty of Oregon both in the Willamette Valley and up in the mountains. Oregon’s higher altitudes are home to a multitude of wild berries, from salmon berry to thimbleberry and the much-sewought-after huckleberry. Smaller and more flavorful than their domesticated cousins, wild huckleberries can be found probably close to the 4,000-5,500 elevation in the mountains. Before going on a berry-picking excursion, though, make sure you can properly identify the berries – as there are many look-a-likes out there that might be poisonous or definitely make you sick.
Today we set off on a huckleberry excursion that wasn’t that far of a drive – just to the west side of Mount Hood. Our trailhead was the Burnt Lake Trailhead, and the road to our starting point can be reached off of Hwy 26. Just 1.5 miles past the village of Rhododendron, you will want to take a left on Road 27. This is a busy traffic corridor, so you’ll want to be very alert and start signaling well in advance of your turn.
Once on Road 27, it is paved for .6 miles, then it turns into gravel. Please note: this is a fairly rough road – we see passenger cars at the trail head but extreme caution should be used. When you wind your way through the forest and pass through a clear cut, then you’ll come upon a viewpoint overlooking the Sandy River valley and Hwy 26 below. The road continues – but be careful- right as you start on the road again, there is a fairly formidable rock in the road that would require skill in navigating around and could do damage to a car whose driver was not paying attention.
Once you pass this hurdle, though, you continue to your trailhead destination after 4.5 miles on Road 27. Make sure to lock your vehicle and take your valuables with you- which are a prudent thing to do anytime you are parking in a remote area.
The first two miles of Burnt Lake Trail 772 of the trail are easy and relatively flat, accessing a very old road that lead to an abandoned campground at Devil’s Meadow. The trail itself skirts the edge of the meadow which is fairly lengthy. Bracken ferns as tall as a person tower over you and give a primeval feel to the landscape.
Keep going straight past two trail junctions – stay on Trail 772. Shortly after the Devil’s Tie Trail, you cross a small stream and then start climbing. This particular day, I was pretty low on energy and found myself ‘dogging’ it (yes, even experienced hikers have days where they’d rather lounge in bed than hit the trail), but the call for huckleberries urged us on. We reached a ridge crest and the bottom part of Mount Hood loomed over the cavernous valley below us, and an expansive view for 90 degrees revealed the wilderness terrain we had been hiking in. Huckleberry bushes dotted the area and had some fruit, but none were the complete ‘mother load’ we were seeking. Brad knew of a good picking spot, so at the trail junction at the view, we turned right to go towards Burnt Lake and followed the ridgeline. To get to the fields, we had to go down off the ridge crest and this took us down one of the most steep trails I had been on for quite some time.
Brad even said that this was the trail that sold him on getting hiking poles, because the poles help stabilize you when traversing such an incline. My best guess was that this was about a 60 degree angle in a couple of spots. Not quite a rock scramble, but definitely cause to take it slow (which was easy for me since I was moving slow today anyway). As we continued along the trail, it was lunch time and Brad took me to a secret spot of his that has a remarkable viewpoint overlooking Mount Hood.
The day had started out sunny and was clouding up with some sunny patches, and it was in one of these sunny patches when the warm light was on the both of us that Brad took my hand and asked me to marry him!! I said yes!!! This was such a romantic thing being in the outdoors that we love and the view and the day – it was perfect. So that was surprise number one for the day. Needless to say, there was more of a spring in my step for the rest of the day (and neither of us could stop smiling ear to ear).
But our mission today (in addition to getting engaged) was to find huckleberries and get to the field that Brad knew about. After lunch, we continued past the trail going down to Burnt Lake and finally got to an open expanse of tall huckleberry plants. Surprisingly, many were already stripped clean of their berries – only a few plants here and there had fruit remaining. I was disappointed, thinking that perhaps some other hikers had beat us to the punch. However, just around another switchback up the trail, we found the real reason why there weren’t many huckleberries- bear droppings tainted purple from a huckleberry feast. That reminded me that the outdoors isn’t just for human recreation- it’s the living room of animals too.
We proceeded with caution and finally found a field where the bear hadn’t yet dined. Cautiously, we started picking, filling up an empty Nalgene water bottle with the purple fruit. We drifted through the field, and I was mid-reach for a particularly ripe plump berry when I felt a sharp jab in my inner thigh. I thought it might be a branch, but then I got another jab on the back of my calf. At that same moment, I heard a sudden roar that sounded like a cloud of insect buzzing and screamed, “Yellow jackets!” to which Brad responded, “Run!” I had stepped smack-dab into a yellow jacket nest in the ground and had aroused the ire and attack instinct of thousands of the angry insects. The dogs thought this was a game but Brad and I started running pell-mell down the trail. I could feel about three or four of the stings on my posterior. We stopped for a second and Brad told me to turn around only to find another yellow jacket firmly attached to my pants and furiously stinging me. He knocked it off and told us to keep running. My adrenaline was pumping so madly that I barely saw the log lying across the path and didn’t lift my foot in time to clear the branch sticking upwards and down I went. Knocked the breath out of me. I laid there for a half of a second and listened with dread for the swarm to follow and start attacking. Fortunately, by that point, they had given up the chase. I was still completely freaked out and wanted to keep hustling down the trail for another eighth of a mile just be safe. So there would be surprise number two for this trip. Just a reminder that when you are traversing in wild areas, yellow jackets are ground nesters and it pays to keep an open eye out for a repetitive flight pattern which might suggest entry/exit to a nest.
Smarting a little and also pretty much freaked out, we finished picking huckleberries and made the 4.5 mile return trip back to the trailhead. The reward this evening: enjoying summery fresh huckleberry milkshakes at home with my new fiance’!
For more information on hiking in Oregon, please visit our Outdoor Recreation section.