Berries and Birds

I associate fires and smoke with summer, though more specifically, summer that’s almost over.

By Rob Breeding

The smoke is thick in the Rocky Mountains these days. Fires — predicted all winter and spring to burn frequently and hot in the summer — have arrived. They’ll burn until it snows, I suppose.

I associate fires and smoke with summer, though more specifically, summer that’s almost over. We get early summer forest fires, but often the worst of it comes in the final days of August as the weather cools and there’s a touch of fall in the air.

I headed up into the mountains the other day in a desperate bid to get out of the heat and smog. It was cool up there, almost too cool. Definitely too cool for wet wading in river sandals fishing for brookies. At one point, as clouds scudded over the mountains, it appeared as though a light dusting of snow clung to the highest peaks.

Late August can be cruel that way, but fortunately this was just an illusion of light as it parted the clouds.

On the warmer, timbered slopes above the creek I stumbled into one of my favorite late summer treats: a patch of grouseberries. These little berries are tiny, reddish orbs related to huckleberries. They’re sweet and I like the taste better than hucks, but the berries are so small and sparse it takes some time to gather just a mouth full.

When I’m cooking over a campfire and the grouseberries are ripe I’ll force myself to work the ankle-high shrubs first thing in the morning. A small handful sprinkled across the still-wet batter of a pancake, just before it’s flipped, is a treat. If you gather enough, the sweet, slightly smoky pancake doesn’t need syrup.

Grouseberries get their name from the mountain grouse that eat them. It’s a berry made for these birds. The shrubs are just the right height for the foraging grouse, and since the birds don’t have anything better to do than walk about eating all day, they can probably make a pretty good living when the berries are on.

On this day there was another surprise mixed in with the grouseberries: wild strawberries. These little nuggets are about one-tenth the size of your average grocery store strawberry, but pack 10 times the flavor. I’ve never found a concentration of strawberries like the one mixed in with those grouseberries. I briefly toyed with the idea of picking enough for a pie, even a small one, but I was probably exaggerating the extent of the fruit mixed in with the low shrubs. Besides, there were more fish to be caught.

Actually, I didn’t really find those berries. That honor goes to my fishing companion, the elk hunter. The elk hunter has a keen eye trained to find game, and almost always spots animals before I do. She knows these woods like her backyard, and had that berry patch marked before I was even out of the truck.

The elk hunter is a worm drowner, and was the first to catch a fish. She put it back, and since she uses circle hooks — a clever design that makes catch-and-release bait fishing feasible — her brookies are no doubt still swimming alongside the fish that fell for my Purple Haze.

The elk hunter found more treats — wild raspberries — as we walked upstream to the lake the creek drains. Most were still pink, but she found a few dark red ones too. The berries were packed with flavor, though they were a little tart and quite seedy. I was tempted to dig a few canes to start a patch in the backyard and see what regular watering would do for the fruit.

We found plenty of rainbows cruising the shallows in the lake. It’ll be September 1 soon. Next time, if I pack the shotgun along with the fly rod, there just might be a grouse or two in the truck on the ride home.

Rob Breeding writes and teaches when he’s not fishing or hunting.

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