In Search of Morels
The back, and the soul, suffer to bring this divine mushroom home
I have a love-hate relationship with morel mushrooms.
They are beautiful fungi: Their caps look like a soft form of DNA, the interconnected strands twisting in a lacelike pattern. A well-formed morel is a biological blueprint of what mycelia can do, given the chance.
What’s more, they taste divine.
They emerge from scorched ground the year after a wildfire, and crowds of professional mushroom pickers and buyers from across the Lower 48 flock to Alaska each summer, plotting their destinations months in advance based on the previous year’s fire reports. Revered in Europe, these are money mushrooms, providing a healthy payday for those lucky enough to find them.
Ah, but there’s the rub: Finding them is backbreaking, soul-sucking work.
The town of Tok is rarely considered a destination—more like a crossroads on the Alaska Highway, a place to gas up or spend the night on the way in or out of the state. But, during summer 2005, Tok became a get-to place. A wildfire had swept through the area the previous summer, and morel mushrooms were appearing. People descended on Tok that summer, setting up camps, pitching tents along the highway and harassing the local real estate agent for property to rent. Large, red and fluorescent-orange signs appeared around town: “Mushroom Buyer!” There was money in the woods and, suddenly, Tok had a multicultural population chasing the money.
The Cambodian pickers set up in a dilapidated, empty store. The Laotian group set up with Kye, “the world-famous mushroom buyer.” The Mexican pickers camped in the woods, their red van identifiable at the store or parked along the highway. Then there were the dope-smoking pickers from Oregon, who all wore tie-dye T-shirts and looked really relaxed.
Representing the Tok locals were my partner, Dan, and me. I had moved to Alaska from Australia earlier in the year, and Dan and I had purchased land near Tok to build our first log cabin by hand. Every day I was learning more about Alaska, and the arrival of morels in the blackened woods escalated my frontier learning curve.
A worthy prey
Word around Tok early in the season suggested that people could make as much as $50 a pound harvesting wild morels. That was tempting, so we started reconnaissance missions. We knew morels appear the year after a wildfire; that they would “pop” on a southern slope; and that they didn’t like getting their feet too wet. Armed with this information, we began our search. It took us nearly two weeks to find them.
Naturally we made beginners’ mistakes. First, we looked in forest that was far too charred. Instead we needed to concentrate on areas that were not completely toasted, with a mix of spruce, birch and poplar. We also had to train our morel eyes. We discovered that if you didn’t know what you are looking at, you could be standing in a patch of beautiful mushrooms and only see one. I soon learned to live by the creed: “Follow the mushroom; it will lead you to others.” Look up, get on your hands and knees, peer through root-balls and log piles, look down, circle a spot and you will be rewarded.
Our first day of harvesting was fun. I found the first morel and excitedly took photographs. We worked up a slope, staying mainly on our knees as the mushrooms were plentiful and winked enticingly up the hill ahead. We would slice the stem and blow gently on the mushroom to remove particles of dirt and spruce needles. We called happily to one another as bigger mushrooms appeared and our boxes began to fill. That night we dined on morels cooked with garlic, cream, white wine and pasta. After all, you have to know your product, we reasoned. We would start picking to sell the next day.
In the hunt
We obtained picking permits for $50 and invested in a bucket. And it felt like an investment; in true entrepreneurial style, the store in town had realized that 5-gallon buckets were in great demand and had raised the price to $10. They soon sold out. That was our first introduction to the fickle world of pricing by the mushroom lords. Buyers reportedly carried up to $100,000 in cash, and they were determined to squeeze every last mushroom out of their wad. That day the price for fresh picked morels was $3 a pound. We walked all day through burns, up hills, through muskegs only to make $15. We decided that our time was better spent working on our cabin.
Three days later the mushroom buyers’ lowball price had failed; no one was picking. The price soared to $9 a pound. We would return to the slopes for that money.
Soon we got into a routine. We’d wake between 4:30 and 5 a.m. and, after a generous breakfast, we would check that day’s price and head out on the Taylor Highway. We were often the first to park on the shoulder of the highway for the day. This gave us a small advantage over the professional pickers who would crowd favored sections of the burned hills with teams of pickers. If we walked quickly, we could harvest some of the easy slopes before heading farther out into the burn.
Through trial and error, we assembled the right equipment: a sharp knife each, plenty of water, chocolate for energy, a gun for bear protection, bug dope, a head net, hat and sunglasses. I wore a large backpack with two 5-gallon buckets inside and carried a third. Dan used an external frame pack with three buckets, carrying a fourth. We also carried empty pillowcases for those glorious days when we happened on patches, with morels as far as the eye could see.
A day’s harvesting could involve six to 10 hours of hiking, carrying a progressively heavier pack. The hills in the Interior are steep and unforgiving, especially when covered in mud. I often slipped down a slope, landing with a thud on various parts of my anatomy. As I came to a halt, I would quickly check to make sure nothing had broken and then scan eagerly for mushrooms; you never knew where the next one might be.
Some days, the heat was oppressive and there was little shade. The bug dope, applied liberally to our exposed faces and hands, would assist in crisping our skin. I grew accustomed to a cloud of flying predators around me—white socks, gnats, black flies, horse flies and deer flies of fantastical proportions. When they became overwhelming, the head net provided a hazy, green relief. My arms and legs became torn and bruised from crawling under logs and through thickets of green alders. Within an hour out in the burn, Dan and I would begin to soot up. Black dust filled our lungs and covered our bodies.
We also had wildlife to worry about. The wilderness around Tok is home to a large concentration of grizzlies, uncountable black bears and belligerent moose. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game posted large signs along the highway: “Mushroom pickers beware, grizzly bears inhabit this area,” and “Bear baits have been planted in this area!” We saw evidence of bears, I once heard a bear, and we saw bears in the distance but, fortunately, I never had a close encounter. It would not have ended well, because no bear was going to take my hard-won mushrooms!
Morel picking is a daily exercise in the power of positive thinking. I would start the day full of energy and excited about the hunt. That excitement would slowly wane as the hours passed and reality of the exercise sunk in. I never gave up, but I would hurl silent insults at Dan, striding ahead, effortlessly clambering over logs, through burned moss and over gushing streams while I floundered. We were often spread out, covering different terrain, and I spent lonely hours staggering through tough, crisp forest.
My mind recited poems learned in school, wrote chapters of my great novel, and moved from euphoria, to anger, then despair and back again, all in about 20 minutes. Some people may be able to feel at one with the natural world while carrying a heavy load but, with a blackened landscape, numerous insects, the threat of bears and moose, heat and exhaustion dancing around me, I failed to free my mind from all its demons. At least once a day I would promise myself never to pick mushrooms again. Then I would find the next batch and the delirium would overtake me again.
We consistently made money so, even when I was exhausted, I stubbornly carried my bucket and backpack into the forest. Even without the boats and four-wheelers the professional pickers were using, a day on the slopes could gain us anywhere from $60 to $500. One buyer admitted to us that it is unusual for locals to do so well compared with the professional pickers. Grit, determination and covering the miles worked for us.
After a day of harvesting, I am sore, sorry and sure I will never go again. Refresh me, feed me a mushroom and restore my sense of humor, however, and I will be up before anyone else in camp, lacing my boots and sharpening my knife. While I am able to explain the perils and hardship of chasing the morels, I fail at describing the excitement that overcomes me when a perfect specimen is within my line of sight. Dionysus is purportedly the god of mushrooms. He must laugh when he sees me, kneeling in blackened mud, hot, tired, sunburned and bug-bitten, worshipping the morel mushroom. But, somehow, morel fever overcomes me, and I am always willing to push on for just one more perfect mushroom.
—Jane Teague lives near Tok and swears she’ll never pick mushrooms again (until next time). She wrote about great hiking trails in Alaska in the May 2011 issue.