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Rohse: Homesick for huckleberry season

Every year in late August, I get homesick for huckleberry picking trips. Eastern Oregonians anticipated those trips as much as they did Christmas.

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I’m like the old codger who tells the grandkids the same story every time he sees them. I’m prone to tell huckleberry-picking stories every year — but, after all, isn’t it true that we get excited about Christmas every year?

I wonder if ranching families still make those trips. I hope they do, so the kids can talk about them when they grow up. And those families needed that vacation. In those days, it was the only one they took each year.

No travel agent booked that berry-picking trip for the ranchers. One reason was there may not have been a travel agent in all of Grant County.

But it was true, those annual trips required considerable planning.

About eight or 10 ranch families made this annual trip by horse and wagon. A favorite site was in the High Mountains in the Strawberry Lake area near Prairie City. It was a two-day trek with camping along the way on the first night. The next day we continued on, found a good picking site and camped there for the rest of our vacation.

We were a self-sufficient bunch. We had to be. All cooking ingredients and kitchen utensils had to be taken and enough food to last the entire trip because no grocery store or store of any kind would be available on the way. All bedding had to be packed in the wagon. Tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses were not part of our camping gear. Ranchers cut fir boughs for us to sleep on. They were softer than the ground.

Wives made complete menus for every meal of every day and packed all ingredients. Every wife took along a few jars of her favorite pickles. Beans were handy on those camping trips and sheep-herder potatoes was a favorite dish. Mother had never heard of them before moving east of the mountains.

It was simple and nourishing: cut up bacon and cook until crisp, add lots of chopped onion, lots of peeled sliced potatoes, seasonings; add water to cover, simmer, covered, until potatoes were tender.

For dessert during this vacation, huckleberries were the choice for almost every meal. Sometimes it was just fresh berries topped with condensed milk from a can with two holes punched in the top. We had no food chests filled with ice. Ice was not available and fresh milk and cream quickly soured. The next day we might have huckleberry dumplings, probably followed by huckleberry cobbler.

Picking a gallon of berries was a good day’s work.

Ranchers’ wives could do magical things cooking over a campfire — including canning huckleberries by open kettle method and then carefully wrapping jars for the wagon trip home.

Every day was a picking day. Every day, berries were canned.

Wives today with their pressure cookers and modern canning equipment perhaps visualize that method as akin to food poison. But their forebears had taught those ranchers’ wives well.

The families did not have potlucks. Although they ate together, each family cooked and ate its own food. They gathered around the campfire for the meal, and sang songs and told stories — one big family.

But picking huckleberries every day was slow, laborious work. Unlike grapes, huckleberries do not grow in bunches. It is necessary to pick one at a time. And since they are only about the size of a currant, it takes considerable time just to cover the bottom of one’s pail.

The prize picker of the day was always a hero. Sometimes it was a man, although generally we thought women were faster pickers.

When pickers found a little prize patch with many berries, they never shared that information. If someone called out about how the berries were over there, the answer did not encourage them to come join.

As the ranchers reveled in their vacation idleness, almost every rancher reached for the little sack of loose Bull Durham tobacco in a shirt pocket, and a pack of cigarette papers. Each dexterously “rolled his own,” licking the edge of the cigarette paper, to make it better adhere to its rolled formation.

From his pocket came a wooden match, and with forceful swoop, he brought the match down across the side of his pants’ leg, and it burst into flame. On the side of the pants’ leg of every rancher is a considerable grayish-white streak where many matches previously have left their mark. The rancher leans back contentedly. No chores tonight. He revels in this vacation life.

None of the women smoked. The kids smoked only behind the barn.

Looking back, I find it interesting that never on our gatherings on the huckleberry trips was there a glass of wine in hand, never a can of beer, never a bottle of whiskey. And I do not think of many recent social gatherings where that was the case. It was as if a vacation trip was reason enough to celebrate. They needed no other stimulant.

Vacations were not dependent on anything else. It was a vacation loved by every family member and they needed it.

I further remember, even during winter, when snow covered Hill Road, the Mason jars of huckleberries canned over the campfire, carefully wrapped in newspapers and packed in the wagon for that trip home. Those canned huckleberries would be the culminating delicacy for many a meal.

And perhaps at that meal would be a planning session for a trip the following summer — a trip that did not require even a filled tank of gas — or tipping.

On those trips, a rancher was never compelled by his wife to put on a tie. Never did a housewife have to wear pantyhose. Never was a teenage son commanded to put on a clean shirt. Mothers were not aware of their teenage daughter’s attire.

During the year following each trip, on the birthday of every family member, a Mason jar of huckleberries was opened to become the favorite huckleberry dessert of the honored one.

Never was a rancher required to take out his billfold to extricate money on a huckleberrying trip. No one came home exhausted. They had had a change of scene. They had laughed and slept under the stars and smelled the smoke of the campfire. And no bears had invaded their camp.

“Do we get to go again next year?” asked the son.

And there was no doubt as to what that answer would have been.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at rohse5257@comcast.net.

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