The Elusive Huckleberry

Because Mary asked...

I am not personally a big fruit eater. I would rather have a plate of maple glazed bacon brussels sprouts than strawberry shortcake, but I will go traipsing through the woods on a hot summer day to collect huckleberries. There is nothing else like them on the planet. 

The Wild and Free Montana website has some great background information. It notes that:

There are 35 huckleberry species across North America. In Montana the name refers most often to one of three wild Vaccinium species -- especially V. globulare, the "mountain huckleberry." This species grows in northern Idaho and western Montana, in open areas with just the right balance of sunlight and moisture. These are wild blueberries, only crunchier and more tart, with a more intense flavor. No one has managed to tame, or commercially cultivate the huckleberry, so all of the berries picked and eaten are wild fruits. 

Huckleberries do not taste anything like blueberries to me. They taste like huckleberries. And they are so cherished here—partly because they have to picked in the wild—that they almost exist as a form of currency. The two dozen half-pint jars of jam that I made a few summers ago were either eaten here or given to very special friends and neighbors. To put it into perspective, a gallon of huckleberries purchased at a fruit stand can run anywhere from $45 to $65 dollars depending on the size of the berries and the condition of that year's crop. 

As I mentioned in the last blog post, we are lucky enough to have a few huckleberry bushes scattered around our property. We use them as bellwethers to help us determine when the ones in the woods might be ready. It takes a bit of practice to learn to spot the bushes, which are small and low to the ground, amongst all the other vegetation, but after a while it becomes second nature. The bushes look like this:

You can see some not-ripe berries; they start out green and eventually turn a lovely deep bluish-purple color. These are on their way to ripening but aren't quite there yet:

The bushes up in the higher elevations tend to have larger berries. We don't always get up that far to pick them. The summer I made all that jam, we had such a bumper crop of berries that the husband and I were able to go across the road to the state land, find a patch of bushes, sit ourselves down in the middle of it, and just pick everything within arm's reach. I thought we probably looked like a couple of bear cubs. 


Christi posted to her Facebook page last night that she was allowed to get up and take a shower and her husband wheeled her outside in her wheelchair to see downtown Seattle from the hospital. Apparently, they put a metal cage around what was left of the vertebra that broke and attached it above and below. She will be in rehab for 5-6 weeks, at least, but she is making excellent progress. Her kids also arrived in Seattle courtesy of their aunt, who drove them out there, and I know that will be the best medicine for Christi. We haven't had any further word on my friend Cathy's daughter because there is not much they can do but wait for the swelling to go down. 


I got out in the garden today and weeded a bit before it got too hot. There is at least one ground squirrel out there. It was chirping at me the entire time. Its days are numbered. So far, it hasn't eaten anything, but I am not taking any chances. Poor Ali is just being overrun. Her property is right across from state land and I think every ground squirrel within a one-mile radius got the memo that there was food at her house. They completely decimated her kale and her strawberries. She has shot a couple of them but it's a bizarre version of Whack-A-Mole where you shoot one and five more pop up. 

It felt good to get out and move around the garden. There was a lot of sitting this weekend and I needed to get out and stretch a bit. It looks like there is a line of thunderstorms headed this way, so I am going to go out and weed a bit more before it all lets loose. 


A Weekend Away

I went on a trip this weekend, to Ritzville, Washington. If that name sounds familiar to you, it's because it's the location of the Mennonite Central Committee relief sale held every October, to which Margaret and I donate the quilt we have worked on the previous year. This weekend, it was also the location of the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference annual meeting. I often attend the meeting as a delegate for our church, but I am currently also on the board, so I had even more reason to attend. 

Unfortunately, the morning I left—Friday—I received a pretty distressing e-mail. My friend Cathy, who died in April, has two children. Her son lives in New York City and her daughter lives in Portland, Oregon. Her daughter is the manager of a bakery there. She was out walking around the neighborhood on her break Thursday afternoon when someone hit her with their car and left her lying on the street. A passerby called 911 and they got her to the hospital, but she has what the doctors are calling a devastating brain injury. Her father and brother and other family members are there with her. At the moment, though, all they can do is wait and see.

It's heartbreaking. That family has had so much tragedy in the past year. This young woman is only a few years older than DD#1. I am just having trouble making sense of any of this. 


I have a lot of cookbooks, but this is by far my favorite:

One of the authors, Cathleen Hockman-Wert, is a member of our conference and she was in Ritzville this weekend. Her husband was also a delegate and we were seated at the same table. I apologized to her yet again for being such a fangirl—I tell her every time I see her how much I love this cookbook, but it's true. When we are overrun with a particular kind of produce, I always consult this book to see if there is something interesting that can be done with it. There are about eight different recipes for rhubarb alone. 

[My very best rhubarb plant, alas, appears to have been beset with some kind of plague. Last week, it was big and lush and now it is all black and reddish and withered. I have two other plants which are okay but have never done as well as this one has. I hope I haven't lost it. And I know I can get some to put in the freezer from neighbors. I just don't know what happened other than we had a terribly wet winter and spring.]

I walked around the garden with the husband this afternoon when I got back from Spokane. It's a bit chaotic out there; one of the things on my to-do list this week is to dig up all the volunteer potatoes that have popped up in all the areas where they were planted in previous years. It's a good time of year for some potato salad. I think we're going to have an excellent corn crop this year, too. The beans look equally good. We need some heat for the tomatoes and squash. And the huckleberry harvest has the potential to be really good. We have a few plants on our property. Huckleberries cannot be cultivated (anyone who could figure out how to do that would be a billionaire) and have to be harvested in the wild. Having the good fortune to have some bushes on our property is as close to "cultivating" them as we can get. We know where the good collecting spots are out in the woods. It's just a matter of getting them when they ripen (and before the bears). That happens any time from the beginning of July to the beginning of August, depending on elevation. It was 2013 the last time we had a good crop and all the jam I made that year is long gone. 

The strawberries are coming on strong:

The husband picked these while I was gone and now I need to clean them and get them into the freezer. The chickens will be delighted. They love strawberry hulls. 


Still Processing

Our fire chief called a gathering of our Creston Fire family Monday night. It included present and former members, extended family, others who had been at the memorial service, and the family of Bill, the firefighter we had all gathered to remember that day. It was a good evening. We got updates on the injured. We laughed and cried some more. We talked about how unique our fire department is and the values that guide the actions of our responders. 

The chief made a couple of points that I hadn't thought about, and I want to mention them here: 

  • The responders who mobilized after the collapse included past and current members of Creston Fire as well as some active and retired nurses from the community. Some of these people have not worked together on a scene in years. Some of these people have never worked on a scene together at all. And yet, everyone knew what to do and came together as though they had trained together for years. Furthermore, they did it without any of their gear. Showing up at the scene of a mass casualty event in full protective gear with all your gloves, tourniquets, bandages, and other supplies is one thing. Being thrust into action without any of that is quite another. The camp staff did begin ripping tablecloths into bandages and tourniquets and filled bags with ice. A couple of guys grabbed some of the rails from the nearby fence and nailed them up to the remaining timbers of the deck to keep anything else from falling, but for the most part, it was—because it had to be—an improvised mass casualty response for the first few minutes. That makes it even more amazing. 
  • Those of you who know me well know that I am a firm believer that not everything is as random as it appears. It doesn't mean that I think we're all moving through life with no free will of our own. It just means that sometimes things happen a certain way for a reason. This was a tragedy, no doubt. It is going to change the lives of many people for a long time to come. However, that deck was going to fail, and it was going to fail soon. The camp has activities booked every week throughout the summer. What if that deck had failed when 40-50 kids were standing on it? What if it had failed when there were kids or people standing under it? What if it had failed on a Wednesday afternoon when far fewer volunteer responders would have been available and the response time had been longer? It didn't. It failed on a Saturday afternoon when an entire group of trained responders were on scene. Our chief noted that Bill always had a habit of checking to see who was going to be in the district on the weekend to make sure that we had coverage. It's pretty clear that Bill was watching over all of us that day. It gives me goosebumps when I think about it. 

Christi had surgery in Seattle on Monday and it went well. Now it is just a matter of waiting for healing. I went over to see our friends Tom and Marcie yesterday afternoon. They are Christi's in-laws and live around the corner from us. Tom had hip replacement surgery in March and knee replacement surgery last week. He was standing on the deck, too, but on a part of it that remained attached to the building. That didn't stop him, however, from getting in there and helping after the collapse. 

[Tom, the husband, Bill, and my friend Susan's husband, Jim, are all firefighters and there were quite a number of years when the four of them responded together. Engine 4, the engine that we keep up here on the hill (we are on "the hill" as opposed to being in "the valley") was dubbed "The Bus," because Tom would get it out of the hall to drive to a call and stop and pick the others up on the way. If he was going north on our road, he would stop and pick up Bill and Jim. If he was coming south on our road, the husband would stand at the end of the driveway in his turnout gear and Tom would stop the engine long enough for the husband to hop in.]

Marcie, Tom's wife, is pretty banged up, too, but as she noted, she and I have nothing to whine about because we are not lying in a hospital bed in Seattle. 

The husband and I are going to get checked out this morning. My friend Tera's husband is an orthopedist and we have an appointment to see him. I am feeling a bit better every day, but his feet are really sore and he thinks he may have cracked a bone when he landed. He was wearing his steel-toed work boots at the time, which are probably not conducive to acrobatics. The one thing that is driving me batty—and Marcie is having the same issue—is that my mental focus is just a bit off. It's like having a head full of cobwebs in the morning that takes a while to clear, and that is very unusual for me. (It's why I can't come up with any creative blog titles.) The husband says he thinks we all have mild concussions. I would have liked to have taken a few days off from work but there are only three of us on this account and one of the other women is on vacation this week and they won't let the other two of us have any time off at the same time. I was able to get today off for a couple of doctor's appointments. I already had a checkup scheduled with my naturopath for this afternoon. He called me on Monday afternoon to make sure I was doing okay. 

I think that both the husband and I are starting to feel frustrated with being at lower capacity. He and I are so used to running full steam on all cylinders that to have that diminished in any way feels incredibly unfamiliar. You know that *I* am not at 100% when I don't even feel like sewing. I walked out to the garden yesterday just to see what is happening out there. The strawberries are ripe:

And I am looking forward to having currants this summer:

My currant bushes came from my friend Cathy, who is a physician and a farmer. Her husband is also a physician and he was on duty Saturday when the wounded started arriving at the hospital. I talked to her a bit and noted that her husband probably worked on some friends of mine after the accident. Just another tiny way we are all connected here. 



Physical injuries are usually obvious. It's important to remember, though, that there is a component of emotional trauma that comes after an event like the one we experienced over the weekend, and it is important to acknowledge and work through that, too. 

There was a lot of checking in with our friends yesterday morning—through Facebook, phone calls, at church, visits to our neighbors, etc. Our fire chief and his wife were making the rounds yesterday afternoon and stopped in to see how the husband and I were doing. I said we were "moving slowly," which is true. The mood was very subdued around here. We rested a lot. I've been replaying the whole thing in my head over and over, trying to remember additional details. 

This is like a big puzzle and we are all collectively trying to put the pieces together. Each of us has a different perspective based on where we were on the deck when it fell. The husband, with 30 years of construction experience, looked at what was left of the deck after everything was over and he is pretty sure he knows where and how it failed (right below where we were standing, as it happens). He doesn't remember jumping. I remember seeing him land on his feet. Based on the location of my injuries and how I was standing—my right leg is turning some lovely shades of green and purple—I think I actually fell sideways when the deck went out from under me. I took the brunt of the fall on my right leg and then slid down the decking. Had I fallen straight down, I likely would have a couple of broken ankles. Lots of people have cracked ribs and vertebral compression fractures.  

Christi has a shattered lumbar vertebra. We thought they were going to do surgery yesterday, but it is now scheduled for 8:30 a.m. this morning. She is on a pain pump and yesterday was asking for a milkshake. Her husband, Matt, is with her. My friend Louise and her husband, Bill, who are in Washington teaching EMT classes, drove two hours to Seattle yesterday to see them. (Bill and Louise are both on the fire department with the husband.) It's going to be one day at a time. Some friends of theirs have set up a GoFundMe page for them. If you are so inclined, please donate. Christi is a teacher and has health insurance, but Matt won't be able to work for a few weeks and there are always expenses that aren't covered, especially because they are in Seattle and not Kalispell. 

I am monitoring the husband and me pretty closely. We did not go to the hospital after the collapse. That was a calculated decision on our part, made with the understanding that we both had a lot of adrenaline coursing through us, which tends to blunt the pain after a physical trauma like that. We also knew that the hospital would be overwhelmed (which it was). Neither of us had acute injuries that needed immediate attention, and there really is nothing that can be done for any hairline fractures except rest and time. We check in with each other every couple of hours, and we're taking ibuprofen regularly. The goal now will be to take the time we need to let our bodies heal without risking further injury. That is going to be a lot harder for him than it is for me, because he does very labor-intensive work. Our three employees are just going to have to pick up the slack for a few weeks. 

I think our fire department is going to have a debriefing session in the next couple of days. We tend to do that, anyway, after major incidents like structure fires and motor vehicle accidents, but the chief said he thought it was especially important because this was a mass casualty incident and so many of us were directly involved. And it's just part of the training. There will be lessons; there are always lessons. I am still so proud of our group of responders who jumped right in and let their training take over. They operate as a well-oiled machine. Our department is a bit unique in that we have a core of responders who have been with the department for decades. Our chief has been chief forever. (He would be the first to tell you it has been a long time.) Not many other departments in the valley are as bonded as we are. We have worked together, played together, watched our kids grow up, and we are a family as well as a fire department. It's the reason so many of us were at the memorial service to begin with, to honor one of our own. We need to process this together. 

As for me, I have already decided that I will never go out onto a deck like that again as long as I live. Ever. I don't ever want to hear the cracking sound of a beam failing underneath me. 


Battered and Bruised

Yesterday was an eventful day. 

I spent a few hours in the morning with my friend Twila making soup for a fundraising meal for her daughter, who will be spending 11 months in Ukraine with Mennonite Central Committee. Afterward, I ran to town to do some errands. The husband and I planned to meet at 2 p.m. at the Glacier Presbyterian Camp on Flathead Lake for the memorial service for our friend, Bill, who died unepectedly in April. After the service, I planned to go back to the church to help with the dinner. 

The memorial service was lovely. There were probably close to 200 people in attendance. I have been to weddings at this particular facility; it's on the west side of Flathead Lake and overlooks the lake with stunning views of the mountains to the east. A goodly number of our fire department members were there because Bill had been a member of our fire department for over 20 years. After the service, the family invited people out onto the deck to blow bubbles with his granddaughters in Bill's memory. I walked out there with my friends Matt and Christi. We all blew some bubbles, they moved on to talk to the some other people, and then the husband came out and joined me. He and I were standing there talking to another friend of ours, who was telling us about the birthday present his kids had gotten him, when all of a sudden I heard a huge CRACK! and looked down to see the deck beneath our feet breaking in two.

That was the longest three seconds of my life and yes, it does happen in slow motion. I remember realizing that we were going to fall—about 12 feet—and thinking to myself, "I hope we don't get hurt too badly."  The husband, being closer to the edge, was able to jump off as the decking went down. I came down hard on my right leg, lost my balance, and fell backwards onto my butt onto the decking which was slanted behind me. The husband reached in and grabbed my hand and pulled me out. I yelled at him to get me to the grass because I was worried about more stuff coming down.

He deposited me on the grass about 10 feet away and went into full EMT mode, rushing back over to help the injured. It's what he is trained to do. I am a big girl and perfectly capable of assessing my own injuries and there were people hurt far worse than I was.

I started with my feet. My right shoe was missing. My right leg was all scraped up, presumably from the decking, and my right leg and hip hurt like hell. By then, other people who could were starting to extricate themselves. My friend Joyce ended up on the grass next to me with a big goose egg on her forehead. Several of our firemen friends came over to check on us. There was a lot of screaming and yelling. 

This is the aftermath. The husband I had been standing right next to that tall log pole in the left side of the picture when the deck collapsed. I landed right where that table is. 

I sat on the grass for about ten minutes until the ambulances started coming in. They needed to clear the scene, so I hobbled over to the fence where a bunch of chairs were set up and sat down. It was a partly sunny day, but only in the high 60s with a breeze coming off the lake. My friend Luann—our fire chief's wife—found me and sat down next to me. She put her jacket on me and hugged me close to keep me warm. I was shivering, but I am sure some of that was a bit of shock at what had just happened. Eventually, the camp staff started coming around with glasses of water and blankets and they got me all swaddled up. For some reason, I was really annoyed that I had lost my shoe. 

Luann and I, and eventually our other friends Marilyn and Gloria, sat there and watched what was happening. I was so grateful that so many of our Creston fire responders were on the scene. The news reports keep overlooking that fact and trying to give credit to the fire department whose district we were in, but it was our guys who were first on scene and doing triage. Our chief, as usual, stepped up and calmed people down and got things moving in the direction they needed to be going. I found out later that the call had gone out for a mass casualty incident. Within half an hour, five or six ambulances and two helicopters were on scene. 

About six or seven years ago, Flathead County Office of Emergency Services held a county-wide mass casualty training at the airport. My friend Louise was in charge of making up volunteer "patients" to look like they had been injured and she invited me to come and help her. We gave people different fake injuries ranging in severity from green to red, which is the triage system that we use. I got to be one of the last patients, a red patient with old coffee grounds smeared all over my face to simulate third-degree burns. I then had to go out and lay down in the field and wait for the paramedics to come and triage me, strap me onto a backboard, load me into an ambulance, and take me to the hospital. The whole thing was as real as we could make it. Our chief often says "You perform as you practice" and if you don't practice, those skills won't kick in instinctively when the chips are down. 

It's one thing to be part of a mock mass casualty event. It's quite another to be involved in one unfolding before your eyes. I had my eyes on the husband the whole time; he had on an orange sweatshirt so he was easy to track. We started to get reports about who was hurt. The wife of the guy we had been talking to when the deck collapsed had a compound fracture of her lower leg. His mother, who had been with her, had a fractured ankle and possibly some other injuries. By far the worst one hurt, though, was my friend Christi. They took her to the hospital but then airlifted her to Seattle last night. Her husband's younger brother is our renter and we are waiting for updates this morning on her condition. My friend Susan—my kids' other mother—was on the deck at the end closest to the lake, but she says that she was not injured very badly when she fell. The people who landed with the decking underneath them seem to have had fewer injuries that the people who landed on the concrete pad. 

I called Twila to let her know what had happened and that I wasn't coming back to the church for the dinner. I called DD#1—who is in Spokane this weekend visiting her boyfriend—and asked her to let DD#2 know what had happened and that their father and I were okay. 

Marilyn brought me some pretzels—I hadn't had any lunch because I was anticipating having lots of good homemade food to eat after the service. Gloria found my shoe. I got checked out—repeatedly—by several EMTs and also my friend Laurie. She is a neighbor and goes to our church and is a retired nurse. She examined my neck and spine to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be. By that time, they had gotten the most severely injured of the patients loaded and the husband came over to stand with us. Eventually, everything was cleared and we came home. Louise, who hadn't been at the memorial service because she and her husband are teaching EMT classes in Washington state, called us after Gloria called her to make sure we were okay. 

I am sore this morning, but I knew I would be. It does not feel skeletal to me. It's mostly in my right leg and feels all muscular—I moved in ways my body wasn't used to moving—and I think a good long soak in a hot tub with some Epsom salts and repeated doses of ibuprofen will go a long way toward making me feel better. I've got bruises up and down my leg. The scrapes on my leg were superficial; I cleaned them off with soap and water and painted them with Betadine swabs from my apocalypse kit. (Apocalypses come in lots of different flavors and this certainly qualified as one in my book.) 

I had the thought yesterday morning, as I was heading to the church to help Twila with the meal, how very important this community where we have lived for the past two decades is to me. We are all interconnected—neighborhood, church, school, fire department—and without this group of people that upholds and sustains each other through all of our life events, we would be so much poorer. Things are bad. I am very worried about Christi. But things are also very, very good. People stepped up when they were needed. Almost every single responder who showed up yesterday is a volunteer. I know that my friends will be checking in with me as I will be checking in with them. We do what we need to to take care of each other and for that, I am so very grateful. I would not want to live anywhere else.