Creative Writing Lands and Environment

Waiting game: The life of a Northern mushroom picker

This is an olive morel,” says the Old Captain, pushing out his hand at me. He is holding a small, off-green mushroom in his palm. His palm is coarse and flat and greasy-black with soot. The mushroom is about the size of my thumb, plump, with the honey-comb structure and phallic shape common to morels, with a white, creamy stem.

We’re standing on a ridge in a red pine forest. The ridge drops down a slope facing the southwest, into a ravine in which the ground is soft and shady and needle covered, with very sparse undergrowth. This is what we refer to in the trade as beautiful or creamy ground; ground which has the potential to contain huge patches of morels, where the fire has burnt neither too hard nor too lightly, where there are still large standing trees to provide the shade and firm soil to hold the moisture that the mushrooms crave. I kick a little dirt with the toe of my boot, have a look at it; soft, brown, and loamy with ash and burnt plant matter. I’ve learned it’s important to look at the soil like that, as even the most-tempting ground can mislead you. I’ve walked a full day through blowdown, bog, and mosquitoes to get to what, from a distant mountain top, looked like prime real estate, only to find it burnt so hard that the topsoil was gone. In such conditions nothing, not even the hardy fireweed, let alone the delicate and particular morel, can grow.

Currently, this ground has only begun producing, and in disappointingly small numbers.

We have been working here, collecting morels in the Barney Lake Burn on the nebulous border country between the Yukon and northern British Columbia since late April. It’s nearly the end of June now, and absolutely everything we own is black with ash; when people smile, their expressions seem exaggerated and comical because their eyebrows are always darkened with soot and when you blow your nose you blow out a black slurry. Morel season usually runs from mid May into mid July, depending on how far north or south you are, and your elevation (higher elevations start later in the season, and thus can run later under the proper conditions). Morels require extremely specific conditions in which to grow; their spores can lay dormant for years, awaiting a forest fire, preferably a late-season one, after which they will grow the following year. Conicas (sometimes called black morels) are usually the first to “flush”, or come out in significant numbers all at the same time. In some places, they will come up in little pocket-patches of dozens or even a hundred mushrooms. In spots where the conditions – moisture, rain, temperature – are all just right, entire glades can be full of morels, some as big as the palm of your hand, for as far as they eye can see, numbering in the thousands. These areas – referred to as “The Patch,” as opposed to “a patch” – are often remote, shrouded in a buzzing pall of black flies, surrounded by swamps or hidden in valleys protected by steep mountains or unimaginable deadfall where a misplaced step could send you tumbling five feet into a pit of jagged, fire-sharpened sticks. They are also what all morel pickers long for, that big score at the end of a day’s hike where you can finally set down your frame pack, snarf a can of tuna, and cut your day’s wages in a few hours before packing out again.

A good picker can, depending on size and physical stamina, pack out between 40-70 lbs of morels in a day, all by hand, all on their backs.

Those sweet days of creamy flushes are usually short lived – two to three weeks, a month at most – and then there is a brief lull season, where production falls off dramatically. This is followed by the second flush of “fire” or “true” morels – the greys, blondes, and olives. I am personally unsure whether these are three separate subspecies, or just colour morphs of the same species, but they differ significantly from the conicas in that they seem to prefer a drier, brighter terrain and do not often grow as numerously but, when allowed, can grow much larger, sometimes as big as grapefruits. They are also much heavier than conicas – where as the conicas are single-walled, the second flush morels are double walled and are thus much meatier.  Because of this, they are a favourite of late season pickers, as we are paid by the pound.

It is this second flush that we are currently waiting on at Barney Lake while the Old Captain is giving me this lesson. We’ve been waiting now for two weeks. It’s been raining almost constantly for the last three days. Back at camp, things are grey and sad and gritty, the men sitting on the back of their pickups, drinking cans of Old Milwaukee and Budweiser and talking about what they think might be wrong, where the mushrooms might be. The waiting game is getting on everyone’s nerves.

“Still just a baby,” he says, turning it over with his thumb, “Never as many as the conicas, of course, but they’ll come in little flushes right into August.”

The Old Captain is a short, squat man with a broad nose and the easy-come, easy-go smile of a man who has been working with his hands all his life. He walks with a slight limp, dresses in sweat pants and ball caps, and could be anybody’s favourite uncle. He has been picking morels for 30 years – literally 10 times as long as I have – and is taking a moment to educate me on the finer points of morel growth and development. Whether or not the second flush comes – it might and it might not – is always unpredictable, as is anything where one deals with nature, and so I am grateful for the lesson. Each morel season is an opportunity to learn and be a better hunter for the next.

“They’ll come in, don’t you worry. People get impatient, but they’ll come in. But this is where you want to look for them.” He waves a hand down over the valley. It’s nearly midnight, and the skyline is pale blue. In the far distance, a hillside has erupted in a spray of pink fireweed, rimmed by yellow arnica. In the pastel light of a late Northern evening, the sudden rush of colour against the burnt-out landscape of last year’s forest fire seems like a painting.

“Five days, maybe a week,” he says, walking me back to the truck. We get into his battered 2500 Dodge Ram with the mismatched doors and drive back down the dirt road towards the main camp. All we can do is wait.◉

Photo: A typical ‘grey’ morel and a typical very dirty picker. Credit: Lori Garrison

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