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Hunting huckleberries is tradition for longtime resident

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| August 6, 2009 12:00 AM

Jeanne Spooner plucked each ripe huckleberry carefully, holding a certain amount of reverence for the wild fruit collecting at the bottom of her heavy cup.  

Her tiny purple 4-year-old fingers smelled of the sweet, sticky fruit, and her mouth was also tinged with its deep hue.

While her mother and grandparents picked gallons of huckleberries, Spooner could always see the bottom of her own miniature bucket. As she ambled over to empty the contents of her cup into the bucket, she found that the huckleberries had somehow jumped out.

“My mother would give me a cup and I would just about get it full before I would spill them,” Spooner said. “Maybe that’s what taught me how precious they were.”

Though Spooner is shy about her age, she admits she has picked huckleberries for more decades now than a person can count on one hand. Those early days of berry hunting on the Idaho-Montana border with her family left a lasting impression.

“Even when I spilled them and cried, my mother would give me a few more to start my cup again,” Spooner recalled. “As I grew older, the love of being out in the woods and the solitude and the beauty stuck with me.”

Spooner’s grandfather was a railroad substation operator, so her family lived near the railroad tracks along the state boundary. By the time Spooner was 8 or 9 years old, she was allowed to go out picking on her own.

“Maybe I just loved the freedom of being in the mountains with no one around and great big huckleberry bushes,” Spooner said. “I would just sit in the middle of them and start picking.”

Many more roads have been built since Spooner’s introduction to huckleberry picking, which has allowed easier access to berry bushes. It has also reduced some of the element of solitude. Spooner recalls having whole hillsides to herself.  

“As Libby became more populated,” Spooner said, “it wasn’t many years before it was hard to find a place to call your own.”

Spooner picked berries last season, but hasn’t gone out yet this summer. She says that at her age, it’s not wise to go alone like she has in the past.

Though she was the berry expert in her time – she retired in 2000 after a 30-year career with the U.S. Forest Service – now she depends on hints from other huckleberry hunters to locate the best picking.

“I have to ask around until someone drops me a gem,” she said, “and tells me, ‘berry picking is good on such-and-such mountain.’”

Though in her lifetime Spooner has picked many more berries than she could ever eat herself, she has never tried to make money off of them. It goes back to her childhood days when every single berry dropped into her cup was a valued treasure.

 “The berries were always too precious to sell,” Spooner said. “I never wanted to sell any of those and I never did.”