The following is Part 2 in Lori Garrison’s series on morel harvesting in the North. Read Part 1. The piece contains strong language that may not be suitable for younger readers.
“Don’t worry,” the boatman says to me, “you’ve just got a touch of heat exhaustion. You’re going to feel like shit, but you’re going be fine.”
I’m laying propped up against a fallen aspen, half on my back and half on my side. Above me, the sparse canopy of red pines shimmers unsteadily back and forth – my eyes cannot seem to find a spot on which to focus – and while I know the Boatman is talking to me, it seems to take much longer than usual for his words sink in, as if they were filtering very slowly through cheese cloth. Someone has draped a tattered, dirty, but gloriously cool t-shirt over my forehead, which smells powerfully of river water and sweat. Its owner is standing nearby, holding a hand rolled cigarette between his lips but not smoking it. My frame pack is near by, looking as tattered as I feel, fully loaded with four baskets of morels.
Jos – my long-time friend and partner for more than one adventure – leans over me worriedly.
“You okay there, kid?” she says.
I think about this. Lick my lips, which are dry and cracked. I feel dizzy and disoriented, but no longer panicked.
“That deadfall,” I say, trying to find my words, “… that deadfall… was unfucking fuckable bad.”
Jos throws back her head and laughs; her neat and angular face contorts with amusement and relief. “Well you’re swearing,” she says, “So I guess you’re going to be fine.”
That morning, a small party from our picking crew consisting of myself, Shirtless Fred, and Long John set out on an all-day expedition. One commonly acquires a nickname in this trade; mine is ‘Pit Pony,’ because I apparently look like a little, short-legged, stubborn Shetland pony when I try to keep up to Shirtless Fred and Long John.
We had been picking for a couple weeks in the burn through the Kechika River. It was late June and the number of fresh, healthy mushrooms which hadn’t spored out or rotted was dwindling in the lowland areas. We had decided to hunt at a higher elevation, up and over the mountain ridge and on the northwest facing slope, where the mushrooms would have less sun exposure and be fresher – if they were there at all. The trek up, begun ugly-early, was gruelling; the first kilometre through thick woodland, nearly untouched by fire, which gave way to a flat land of blowdown that extended far up the mountain side, breaking a kilometre-and-a-half in to give way to sharp slopes populated by scraggly willows. After three hours we summited and descended into a greener, less-harshly-burnt pocket tucked into the northwest side of the mountain, where below we could see the river winding in a grey ribbon. We were sweating, exhausted, and wounded; Shirtless Fred had slipped trying to ‘tree-walk’ (the practice of walking upright on deadfall, often suspended several feet over the ground) and cut his palm trying to catching himself; Long John had been stung by some unknown insect, the bite from which had swollen his left eye nearly shut; and I had bashed my shins up so badly that they looked like leopard print tights instead of legs – but we were happy. We had guessed correctly and found a massive patch of morels; not only were there greys and blondes, which can grow to the size of grapefruit when left untouched in virgin patches, but there were fresh, late-season conicas, the second-flush children of the first mushrooms that had already spored out. We ate a quick lunch of canned fish, boiled eggs, oranges, and juice and began cutting.
A good picker in a good patch is an efficient machine, hovering about on their hands and knees, cutting and putting one mushroom in their bucket after another, entering a kind of Zen-like state. When you harvest morels, your tools are simple – a folding knife and a plastic 10 gallon bucket. You cut from the base of the fruiting body, taking as little stem as possible, because a buyer doesn’t want to pay for stem; if you bring in a basket full of mushrooms with too much stalk you will be made to sit on an overturned milk crate and cut each and everyone properly while more experienced pickers sit around, drink beer, and laugh at you (a personal experience). When you have a full bucket, you pour the mushrooms into a basket, lid it, zap strap it, put your name on it, and set it in the shade. The baskets have holes in them, so the morels can breathe and don’t sweat. The holes also allow the spores to drift out, so that everywhere you walk you’re spreading them around, helping them propagate after the next fire.
We fan out, the sun rising high over head, hot now. We work for three hours, stopping only because we have a deadline; we have a standing arrangement with the boatman to meet us at seven to pick up our crates and take them back to camp to be sold. It had taken us three hours to get up there and it would take even longer to get down with a full load; four boxes each, each box weighing approximately 15 lbs, for a load of 60 lbs plus the weight of the frame pack, gear, and our remaining water.
We begin our descent via a new route – winding down the northwest slope, moving in a southeasterly curve down the spine of the mountain, trying to avoid the difficult climb we encountered on the way up. This route is steeper and we have to lean back, stepping like over-loaded pack horses as we wind our way down, Long John at the head, followed by Shirtless Fred in the middle and then myself, with my short, pit-pony legs, trudging diligently behind them. When we round the curve in the mountain, the whole pack of us comes to a disbelieving halt.
Blowdown. Kilometres of it. Nasty, rough, dangerous, nearly impossible blowdown. A messy, nigh-impassable labyrinth all the way down the mountainside.
Blowdown – also known as deadfall – is a common occurrence in burn zones, caused when wind and snow exerts pressure on fire-killed trees; the trees no longer have functioning root systems to hold them in place, and much of the topsoil is burnt away, so when a major weather event moves in, a few trees start falling and knock into other trees, which also fall. This causes a domino effect which can collapse tens of kilometres of forest into natural obstacle courses; one where, if you fall, you can impale yourself on a broken branch or catch your leg between two trees and break it.
Shirtless Fred laughs; I hate it when he does that. It usually means we’re screwed.
Long John consults his GPS. “It says we are about 2.5 km away.”
We look at each other, at our watches. Three o’clock. We have to go down, or we will miss the pickup, which means we will have to hold the mushrooms for a day, during which time they will lose about a third of their weight – and value – as they dry out. We don’t have time to go back.
“It’s not far,” Long John says, taking the first step forward “but it’s ugly.”
We descend. We don’t have a choice.
Four hours later, Shirtless Fred and I are nearly to the base of the mountain. Long John – the more experienced mountaineer and bushwalker – has gone on ahead to warn the boatman that we will be late. Shirtless Fred and I are keeping back, moving at a painfully slow pace, mostly, much to my embarrassment, because of me. I am 120 lbs and my pack weighs nearly 70 lbs; it is digging into my back, digging against my spine and shoulders, and rubbing the flesh into blisters. My muscles hurt a while ago, but now my legs just feel numb. We are out of water, and my mouth is impossibly dry and cakey feeling – it’s hard to swallow. Shirtless Fred is tired too, but he is talking animatedly, trying to keep me motivated. I’m embarrassed – I’m 29, fit and healthy, but I have been struggling for two hours now to keep up. I keep falling behind. I feel weak and strangely distant from everything.
We get to the base of the mountain, find the moose trail we used to come in on. We’re about a kilometre from camp when we hear the snarling roar of a boat motor. Shirtless Fred looks up in alarm.
“Boat’s coming,” he says, “you got one last push in you, Lor?”
“Sure,” I say, panting, even though I most definitely do not have one last push left in me.
And then Shirtless Fred – that crazy, unbelievable beast – starts to run. So I start running too. He’s getting farther and farther ahead. I’m getting more and more exhausted but I can hear the boat coming so I put my head down and just go –
– and go and go. Suddenly the boat engine stops. I look up. I’ve lost Shirtless Fred.
I am very dizzy suddenly. The trees seem to be moving about and even though I’ve been on this trail a dozen times now, it occurs to me that I don’t have any idea where I am anymore. I can see the mountains behind me, I can hear the river, but whenever I try to move in either of those two directions I become confused, have to stop and reorient myself. I keep getting caught up on the undergrowth, can’t seem to make it to the water. I know the camp is here, somewhere; I know it’s along the river… but I’m so confused and disoriented and tired and thirsty that I can’t seem to make my feet go the way my brain wants them to.
I whistle. No answer. I call out. No answer. I shout. No answer. I become more and more tired, more and more dizzy. Nausea and a preternatural kind of panic settles over me and I start to yell for help in earnest. My throat gets raw. I don’t know how much time is passing but it feels like a long time. I’m trying to move in the direction of the river but my legs feel hollow, wobbly.
Long John – tall, lanky Long John. He comes vaulting over a fallen tree.
He’s found me. Relief washes over me. I’m so exhausted that he has to take my pack off for me. The others are coming up behind him – I can see their shadowed faces silhouetted against the falling sun. I fall back and let myself rest – finally rest – against the base of a tree.
“I’m so embarrassed,” I say, when I have recovered enough to say things which are not swear words. I’m powerfully thirsty and drinking juice box after juice box. It turns out that I was actually so close to the camp that, in my blind dash to keep up with Shirtless Fred, I over shot it and stumbled into another copse of dead fall, where I became disoriented as my body shut down; I was so dehydrated I had ceased to sweat. Long John brings me a salt shaker, and I shade some directly into my hand, lick it up off; it tastes unreasonably good, because my electrolytes are dangerous depleted.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” the boatman says. He is a short, well-groomed, bearded man with the solid nerves and easy gaits of a person who has spent most of his life in the bush. He, Long John, and Shirtless Fred are loading the crates of morels onto the boat in a chain gang.
“Everyone has done it at least once,” he assures me. “I certainly have. Being lost is an awful enough feeling, but you add heatstroke to that – you’re in a real damn fix. You just hauled half your body weight across some of the worst terrain in the North; you’d put a Marine to shame, girl.”
I smile, try to feel a little proud, but I get the impression he’s just humouring me.
“I’ll be back tomorrow with your payout!” he says, turning the boat. Then he blasts out into the current and rips off across the water.
The next day he does come back with our payout. I am aching, still heat sick; I’ve slept for 12 hours straight and could sleep for 12 more. I am desperately hungry all day, no matter how much I eat. When he arrives he looks disappointed; the price of morels fell while we working, and instead of the six dollars a pound we were expecting, we’ll be getting five.
“Makes me sick,” he says, “to see you guys work so hard and then have the buyer drop his price like that…but I guess when you come out here, you’re not just out here for the money.”
And he is right, I’m not just out there for the money – although at moments like that, I do wonder what it is exactly that I am out there for.◉
Photo: The Kechika River. The burn just kissed the one side, but totally devoured the other. Credit: Lori Garrison