Blueberry Autumn

Autumn 2009 had a bumper wild blueberry crop in the subalpine meadows of Washington State’s Cascade Mountains.

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Cascade Blueberries ripe for the pickingKaren’s fingers stained from picking blueberries in the high countryss

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Washington’s Cascade Range has had an extraordinary year for blueberries and huckleberries, with the delicious berries in abundance and rich with tangy sweet flavor. Even the Black Bears are unusually happy, wearing grins instead of their usual scowls and looking rolly-polly with fat for the coming winter.

Traditionalists in the Pacific Northwest call all the blue and black round berries “huckleberries,” and many families would take time each September to go huckleberry picking together. I am from the Midwest, and have a different folk taxonomy. I tend to call the really blue berries “blueberries,” and the dark, nearly black berries “huckleberries.” Whatever, they all taste good to me. Although, this year I had a decided preference for the subalpine species known as Cascades Blueberry, which has the scarlet leaves in autumn that light up vast stretches of the high country. Cascades Blueberry’s scientific name is “Vaccinium deliciosum,” which tells you what the long-ago scientist who named it thought of these “best of category” berries. These short shrubs seem to put all their energy into producing a few big and incredibly tasty berries, rather than the berry farm bushes that produce vast quantities of rather bland fruits.

Huckleberry fields near Mt. Adams historically occupied thousands of acres, and were a traditional and vitally important food for the Indian tribes of the region. They traditionally burned these meadows because they learned that burning kept the huckleberries dominant. When whites began harvesting huckleberries in the area many decades ago, the U.S. Forest Service negotiated the “Handshake Agreement,” in which Indians were granted the right to harvest berries on one side of the road through the huckleberry fields, and whites got the other side. The agreement still stands.

The photographs here were made during two September 2009 backpacking trips into the high country. Both were in the vicinity of Mt. Baker, a huge stratovolcano in the Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest, which towers over the North Cascade Mountains near the Canadian border. One trip took us to Yellow Aster Butte; the other to Watson Lakes. Both were saturated with blueberries.

One final observation: to get the closeup photographs of the low-to-the-ground Cascades Blueberry, I spend extented periods laying on the ground. During these times I crushed a lot of berries and my hiking shorts–and undershorts–were stained purple. And of course, I couldn’t resist photographing them!

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Karen Rentz picking Cascades BlueberriesKaren Rentz picking blueberries near Watson Lakes in morning sunss

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Cascades Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum)Cascades Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum) is a small, subalpine speciesss

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Brilliant Cascades Blueberry in Mt. Baker WildernessScarlet meadows of Cascades Blueberries near Yellow Aster Buttess

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Frost on Cascades BlueberryFrosting on the berry leaves along the shore of Watson Lakesss

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Blueberry leaves with sun behindBlueberry leaves with the sun behindss

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Subalpine lake with autumn reflections near Mt. BakerReflections of a blueberry meadow on a mountain tarnss

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Ghost conifers in the subalpineGhost conifers surrounded by blueberry bushesss

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Noisy_Diobsud-147Morning frost on blueberry leaves near Watson Lakesss

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Betty Renkor Picking Cascades BlueberriesBetty Renkor picking blueberries near Watson Lakesss

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Blueberry-stained shortsNot my favorite picture of me, but there you go ….ss

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Blueberry-stained underwearI wear briefs, not boxers, and the berry stains on my shorts seeped throughss

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Cascades Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum)I laid on the ground to get photographs such as thisss

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Cascades Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum) and sunAn impressionistic view of blueberry leaves against the sunss

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Scarlet blueberries catch the morning lightScarlet blueberries catch the morning light below Yellow Aster Buttess

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Picking Cascades BlueberriesWe picked a quart of berries to take home and serve on vanilla ice creamss

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Cascades Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum)An impressionistic view of autumn blueberry leavesss

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Dwarf Blueberry (Vaccinium caespitosum)Dwarf Blueberry, a different species, produces more berries, but not as tastyss

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Cascades Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum)Another impressionistic view of autumn blueberry leavesss

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Cascades Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum)Cascades Blueberries don’t occur in clusters, but as single tasty treasuresss

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Fresh wild blueberriesBounty of the high country, stolen from the bearsss

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Backpacking at Yellow Aster Butte in the North Cascades

We backpacked to Yellow Aster Butte, where the blueberries were wonderful and the view of the night sky was breathtaking.

.Evening glow on Yellow Aster Butte, reflected in a tarnss

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Starry, starry night above Mountain HemlocksStarry, starry night above Mountain Hemlocksss

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While watching the last bit of alpenglow fade from Mt. Shuksan, a Short-eared Owl pumped its wings overhead, sailing over the basin of Yellow Aster Lakes. It flew over the cirque, coming up to the ridge on the opposite side, then returning over us, a dark ghost against a deep twilight sky salted with the first stars. After a half-a-dozen silent passes over the basin, the owl disappeared like an apparition fading from view.

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A few minutes later, there was a bright streak of hot yellow light coursing across the sky to the west. Much bigger than the average meteor, it disappeared behind a rocky rise, then reappeared on the other side and split into two parts before disappearing behind a mountain. Was it a meteor entering the atmosphere nearby? Or was it a space probe from beyond our galaxy, randomly choosing the moment of our watching to enter earth’s atmosphere? We’ll never know. The rich color of the object and its tail must have come from the sun’s last light, though the sun was far below the horizon for us.  Within a few minutes, as we walked the quarter mile back to camp by starlight, we saw two more meteors.

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[Note:  Later, we checked the internet and found reports from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon of the same fireball at 8:09 p.m. Pacific Time, with observers commenting that it lasted about 20 seconds and was extremely bright.  The consensus was that it passed east to west near the Canadian border and broke into two parts, perhaps as it hit the atmosphere.  There was one report of a related sonic boom over a community on Vancouver Island.]


Yellow Aster Butte evening reflections

Alpenglow on Yellow Aster Butte, reflected in a tarnss

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Later, at about 3:30 a.m., I arose from the sleeping bag to photograph the night sky and mountains with under a bit less than half moonlight. At first, I was photographing in just my underpants on this uncharacteristically warm September night, but Karen convinced me to put on some real clothes. Then I went wandering in the dark around the basin and saw two more meteors, as well as taking scores of photographs of the Big Dipper, Polaris, and Orion and other stars and constellations above Yellow Aster Butte, Tomyhoi Peak, and Mt. Shuksan. It was a glorious night, with the Milky Way enhancing the sky overhead. I finally returned to the tent at 5:00 a.m. and grabbed a bit more shuteye before rising before dawn for more photography.

Mt. Baker in morning light

Mt. Baker viewed above a ridge from the Yellow Aster Meadowsss

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After a breakfast of dehydrated red beans and rice, with two tablets of Beano apiece (which didn’t seem to work in my case) and two cups of coffee (or in Karen’s case, tea and cocoa), we set out to pick some blueberries. We were successful, and I spent so much time sitting on the ground picking that the butt of my shorts is stained with a score of purple blotches.  Speaking of breakfast, yesterday we grabbed a quick McDonald’s breakfast, then stopped in the village of Glacier for an ice cream desert, justifying it on the basis that we needed calories for the trail.

.Backlit blueberries and hemlocks, Mt. Baker Wilderness

Cascades Blueberries catching the morning lightss

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The berry leaves were turning bright scarlet, and the lowbush blueberries (some might call them huckleberries, but whatever) were big and blue and bursting with flavor. Cascade Blueberries (Vaccinium deliciosum)I pronounced them the best blueberries ever, especially the ones still a bit chilled with the night air. Not only were they the best tasting, they were also plentiful. Berries everywhere, and not a bear sign in sight.

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Hold off on that last thought for a minute. While hiking out, Karen started to say “There’s a big black dog.” But instead called out an urgent “A bear cub crossed the trail ahead!” The Black Bear cub had scurried across the trail in a section of the trail with tall huckleberries bushes under the forest canopy. We stopped, backed up, and Blueberry pickingstarted loudly talking to warn off the mother bear, as in “Hey bear, we’re just some people passing through!” and “Hey bear, you do know it’s bear hunting season here!” We didn’t see or hear the mother or cub after that. The next people coming up the trail were a father with his two daughters, who grew wide-eyed as we told them about seeing the bear.

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Actually, we saw hundreds of hikers on this trail on Saturday, which was a wonderful warm, sunny day after a rainy Labor Day weekend that canceled many hikers’ plans. The trailhead parking lot was full, with more cars parked for hundreds of yards along the road in each direction from the trailhead. Most were day hikers, but enough were backpackers that we felt an urgent need to get to camp early enough to get a spot. We needn’t have worried; the Yellow Aster lake basin is vast enough to accommodate scores of camps.

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While hiking we met an older woman with a hiking stick taller than she was.  I stopped and asked her if she spoke softly, but she said “pardon me?,” not getting my silly reference to Theodore Roosevelt’s famous statement.

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Golden reflections of Yellow Aster Butte

Evening light on Yellow Aster Butte, reflected on tarnsss

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The next day there were no day hikers entering the basin until afternoon, and then there were only a handful. Why? Because the access highway was closed from the village of Glacier all the way to Artist Point for a tough bicycle race: Ride 542, the Mt. Baker Hill Climb. The closure happens once a year for this race, and lasts for the morning. People were thus unable to drive to the trailhead until Sunday afternoon. After all the people along the trail on Saturday, the quiet Sunday was a welcome respite.

.Cascades Blueberry in Mt. Baker Wilderness

Cascades Blueberry on steep talus slopes at the base of Tomyhoi Peakss

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Sunday afternoon we ascended Yellow Aster Butte, which was vivid with blueberry leaves contrasting a bright blue sky. On the way up, we watched a Northern Harrier tangle with a Common Raven, then watched as the hawk proceeded to circle the butte several times, hunting as it arced over the alpine tundra meadows.

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Snag of a fire-killed conifer on Yellow Aster Butte

.Snag of a fire-killed Mountain Hemlock on Yellow Aster Buttess

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Atop the butte, there were the twisted remains of Mountain Hemlocks that perished in a long-ago wildfire. There was also a loose swarm of tiny flying ants that tickled when they landed on us, but didn’t bite. We also observed some songbirds, Water Pipits, that may have been enjoying the ant swarm for a late lunch.

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Partridgefoot (Luetkea pectinata)

A few late wildflowers remained; especially the yellow and magenta monkey-flowers, purple asters, yellow arnicas, and a few Indian paintbrushes. But for us, the ripe blueberries stole the show.

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We ended the hike tired; I had a blister and a backache, and Karen fought a few hot spots on her feet.  But those minor maladies meant nothing compared to the early autumn glories of the North Cascades.

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Yellow Aster Butte is located near the Canadian border, in the Mt. Baker Wilderness of Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington’s North Cascade Range (home to 75% of the glaciers in the lower 48 states).

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Skies above the North CascadesMt. Shuksan (L) and Mt. Baker (R) with a magnificent morning sky abovess

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Tarns and campsite below Yellow Aster ButteYellow Aster Meadows is a basin filled with beautiful tarns and campsitesss

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A cup of blueberriesCascade Blueberries (Vaccinium deliciosum) were the best we have ever had!ss

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Mountain Hemlocks  Mt. Baker Wilderness against a twilight skyMountain Hemlocks against a twilight skyss

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Reflections in tarn below Yellow Aster ButteReflections of blueberry bushes in a tarnss

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Mt. Shuksan with hemlock silhouettesMt. Shuksan with silhouetted Mountain Hemlocksss

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Intricate subalpine leaves, Mt. Baker WildernessDelicate green shades of Partidgefoot, moss, and Mountain-heathss

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Big Dipper and North Star, Mt. Baker WildernessThe Big Dipper and Polaris (the North Star) in the northern skysss

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Mt. Shuksan with subalpine forest in foregroundMt. Shuksan with subalpine forest in the foregroundss

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xxCascades Blueberry in Mt. Baker WildernessThe lower slopes of Tomyhoi Peak covered with blueberry bushes in autumn colorss

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Tent in Yellow Aster BasinOur tent with American Border Peak and Mt. Larrabee distantss

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website