Morel madness strikes Tumbler

Trent Ernst, Editor


For dozens, perhaps hundreds of years, they’ve lain dormant, waiting. Waiting for a unique combination of factors to come into play before rising from the earth. And it’s happening here in Tumbler Ridge.

Sound like the next Zombie Apocalypse summer blockbuster? It’s not. It’s morel madness.  And it’s happening down the Ojay Main.

Here, gray morels are issuing forth from the scorched ground where last year the Red Deer Creek Fire burned about 33,000 hectares of forest. In the next few weeks, other wild mushrooms will begin popping from the ground: blacks, yellows, grays and the elusive green appearing in wave after wave, or flushes. An area that was picked clean last week can be fruitful the next.

Over the course of the next few months, if the weather holds, nearly $150-million worth of mushrooms will be collected by hundreds of mushroom hunters stomping through the burned bushes around Red Deer Creek.

Next year, not a single mushroom will be harvested here.

Picking for fun and profit

Kyle looks like he should be an extra in a post-apocalypse movie. Indeed, most of the people moving around here have that look, face covered in soot, clothes a dull gray from weeks spent tromping around the burn area, gray figures moving through a blackened landscape.

His attitude belies the look, though. He moves from location to location with purpose, calling out excitedly whenever he spots a group of morels poking up from the ground, and his face often breaks out into a wide grin. It is the face of a man who is doing something he loves and getting paid for it. Every once in a while he bellows a hearty “hello!”, both to scare off any bears that might be around, and as greeting to the other pickers in the area.

A Pomeranian follows him about as he tromps through the bushes. Every time that Kyle stops, she flops down on the ground. Kyle grins. “She’s tuckered out,” he laughs. “It’s been too many days straight. It’s a hard life out here. Had a grizzly bear and two cubs the other day, and she chased them right away. She’s a good guard dog.”

Today, he says, he’s working with a group of people who are from the same area. “We’re sharing the mushrooms,” he says. “We’re going to take them all back and going to split what we make amongst the camp.”

He begins tromping through the bush, all but ignoring the clouds of mosquitoes that have formed around him. “It’s not the best picking right now, so I’ll take anything the size of my thumb,” he says. “We’ll zig-zag back and forth, because they’re tricky little buggers to see.”

He holds up one of the mushrooms he’s just picked. “These babies are conicas. These are the black morels. They’re the start. They’ll be followed by the blondes. These will usually flush out, then the blondes will come but they’re all flushing out at once on this fire. It’s going to be a good fire. All the morels are coming at once.”

A mosquito hands on his face, and he slaps it away, adding another layer of black to his already sooty face. He laughs. “These bugs. That’s the only thing that really bothers me. These buggers are horrible. We’re not allowed to use bug spray, because it gets into the morels and changes the flavor. I’ve got long johns and a sweat shirt on, and it was 28 yesterday. You’re always slapping yourself in the head; I come out of the bush completely black. I have a bug screen, but they tangle up, rip. If you were in an open field, they’d be great, but out here…” he trails off as he spots another pocket of mushrooms, which he moves determinedly to, squatting down so he can harvest them properly.

“They grow in pockets, or veins. If you find one, there’ll be more. They’re hard to see in this country, because of all the pine needles. You can walk right by them and not see them unless you have your eyes on.”

He points to an area slightly farther uphill. “See how it gets swampy up there? That’s what they really like. I was here May 4; morels didn’t start popping until May 8, and I didn’t bring my first basket in until May 12. It’s a waiting game. I’ve already been to Quesnel, Vanderhoof and Williston Lake to check out those fires, but they’re not the same kind of fire. This fire is going to produce.”

Why? He says it’s just a good area. “There’s not a lot of dead trees around. In Vanderhoof and Quesnel, it was all bug kill. It wasn’t good picking.”

His grin is infectious, his laugh frequent and often, and his attitude is laissez-fair and carefree. His goals don’t stretch much beyond today’s picking, except for a vague notion that when everyone picks up to move on to the next picking location (probably Saskatchewan come late summer), he’ll be going with them. “We’re all going to die. It’s a hard life out there. I’ve made lots of money, but it’s easy to spend. This is a great life. I have a hard time with the government; they just suck the money out of you. I did my taxes and I got seven grand back. They seen how much I was getting, so they redid my taxes and I had to give it all back.

He says he wants to see more locals coming out to pick this fire. He started out as a local, too, back when the fires raged near his hometown of Clearwater. Someone suggested he go picking, back in 2007. “I was a local. I would just come out and camp, and I was making 500 bucks a day. It’s hard to go back.”

But go back he did, back to a job in the oil patch, where he spent six years, until all the work dried up. “The oil patch just isn’t the same anymore. And this? It’s very addicting.”

This is his first year trying to do this professionally. Before this, he was harvesting cedar boughs. And in winter?  Chaga, which he describes as a medicinal super-fungus, good for nearly everything that ails you. It’s a type of mushroom that grows on birch trees, and can be found down in the Clearwater area. “It’s worth $60/lbs, and you can only collect it in winter. It looks like cancer of the birch tree.”

He missed the pine and chantrelle harvest, which happens earlier in the year out on the coast, but he says he wants to try that, too.

He points down at a patch of fire cups, small, brown cup-like growths on the ground. “Wherever you see these fire cups, there’ll be morels. Those are the indicators that they’ll be here. If you see them, you’ll find morels here in a few days, almost growing inside the cup.”

So far, he says, he’s been averaging about 40 lbs per day, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. “It’s a hit and miss game. A guy does wind up walking a lot of country in a day. You’ll see nothing for a long patch, then you’ll come into a patch and it will be endless. They like it wet, they like blowdown.”

He leaves nearly as many mushrooms as he takes. It’s early, and they will get bigger. “It’s hard to come into all these beautiful patches,” he says. “I’ve watched people come in and take everything. They’re baby killers. They’ll take everything.”

Kyle says that the best way to do it is to do it. “Even if you’re just a weekend warrior, you learn it by doing it. It’s everyone’s game, and it’s not a hard game to play. You’ve got to be outdoorsy. You can’t be scared of the bears, but it’s not that hard. You just about have to dig the buggers out sometime.”

Last year, he says, prices were nearly double what they are now at $8/lb, but even at $8, he says, you can still make good money.

He says he’d like to see more locals up picking. “I was a local,” he says. “I was just camping there, and the mushroom buyer said ‘hey, go pick me some mushrooms’ I said sure, and I came out with $300. You’re out camping for most of the summer, doing what you love to do. We’re never going to be able to pick them all. Even if we can cover all the ground, in two weeks there’ll be another flush.  I’ve told all my friends who were working up here to come out and pick. It’s better than just sitting at home.

“I used to frack. It’s not very bloody good. This just feels better, being out in nature.”

The seller

As we move, we pass into an area where grass and other vegetation is returning, green against the black ground. This, says Tim Weighill, is death to mushroom picking.

Weighill doesn’t look like the Chief Operating Officer for Mikuni Wild Harvest, a company described as “A food geek’s Disneyland.” Indeed he looks like anyone you might meet camping in the backwoods of BC. But the camp he and his crew have set up at km 67 of the Ojay Main is a little more elaborate than most, complete with a portable wood fired drying furnace and racks upon racks of drying morels.

Weighill has been in the business for about thirty years, but in the last ten culinary haute couture has turned to found food. Indeed, in 2011, Food Arts magazine declared foraging the culinary trend of the year.

Weighill is from Nakusp, and he and his brothers were exporting matsutake mushrooms from BC to Japan, and shipping morels and chantrelles to Europe. A decade ago he and his brother hooked up with Tyler Gray to form Mikuni Wild Harvest, a company that comfortably bridges the gap between Michelin rated restaurants across the globe to the nomadic lifestyle of the forager.

Weighill says they have descended on this burn because it promises to be a perfect harvesting ground for morels.

He says nobody is quite sure why morels appear when and how they do, but they are usually found in abundance after a forest fire. “The spores are in the ground and are triggered by the fire. They can be triggered by logging, too, but fire really seems to trigger them well,” says Weighill. “It takes about six weeks for a mushroom to grow from a spore to a fruiting body. People will say ‘but I picked on this fire for three months’, but as you pick, you keep moving. You move around the corner and you’re on a more north facing slope. Or you go up higher. It’s these micro-climates. At the beginning, you might think you’re on a south slope, but you’re actually facing more east. Then you come around and there they are again. It’s like that. Some spots where they’re not growing right now, they’ll show up in a week or two. If you’ve got enough range, you can pick right into August. Your life cycle is a couple months, usually. The weather has to be so good to get that long season.”

Weighill says the best theory as to why fires trigger morel growth is that it burns the plants that are on the forest floor, giving the morels space to grow. They don’t need fire to grow, and morels can be found in smaller numbers in the woods around town. But the fire triggers these massive growths. While morels still appear in abundance two, three, and even four years after a fire, they are far more commonly found in freshly burned areas, and professional pickers never return to the same spot the next year.

In fact, says Weighill, some fires are better than others. A fire that burns early in the year and is put out in June or July is far less productive than a fire that burns into August or September, as grass and other plants have a chance to start growing that year, choking out the morels for the next.

The buyer

Between the seller and the picker stands the buyer. In the case of Mikuni, that’s “Shotgun” Shelley Labree, a former esthetician who has spent nearly 35 years driving about the province chasing the mushroom harvest.  For most of that time she worked part time as a buyer on the west coast but in the last few years, she has made the leap to doing this as a living, following the harvest across the province and into Saskatchewan.

As buyer, she has to serve both the picker and the seller. While some might get squeezed out due the pressure, Labree thrives on it. It is her the pickers develop the relationships with and she switches hats with ease; for some she is like a mothers, for others, a boss. To others, she is a friend and a mentor. “When pickers come in, there’s coffee there, and water and pop,” she says. “Just to keep them hydrated. That’s kinda my thing.”

Next to the tent where she buys the mushrooms is a gazebo, where every night there is a Texas Hold’em tournament. “Every Sunday night we have a Sunday jam, because there’s lots of musicians out here. Every morning, we have coffee here and coffee that we supply to the picker.”

Her main interaction with pickers is “weigh and pay,” but for some of the new pickers, she’ll go through their harvest and evaluate the mushrooms. “They need to have a quarter inch stem,” she says. “And there’s certain mushrooms that are too old, or too dry. Some are too small. I inform the new pickers what’s good and what not to waste time picking, because I’ll just reject it.”

What she does, she says, is a lot of talking: teaching, informing, encouraging and just keeping people’s spirits up. “It’s a lot of fun,” she says. “And you want people who come out to have a good experience.”

She says she’s seeing a lot of weekend warriors out of Tumbler Ridge, Dawson Creek and Chetwynd, some bringing their families out. “You have seven year old kids out doing this and the kids are making 60, 80, 100 bucks, and their little faces light up.”

Most of the mushrooms are dried, but they do buy some for fresh market. If the mushrooms are to be dried, they are placed on screens and then laid out in the sun to dry. “Sun dried is the best,” she says. “You want to pre-dry them as much as you can before they go into the final dry, which can take anywhere from four to eight hours. But the more time they can spend in the sun, the better. They turn out better, they look better, they stay rounder because we can shake the racks…”

Labree says one of her big issues is keeping the camp clean and recycling. “I have bags for recycling metal, propane canisters, pop cans and bottles. We burn paper and most food waste. There was a bear problem up the way, because people were leaving their food out. I visit all my tents and campers, and it’s my job to inform people how to keep a clean camp. Everyone is really good.”

Morel Madness

While morels have been gaining in popularity, attempts to grow morels in commercial settings have been rarely successful, leading to the gold rush in the woods around Tumbler Ridge. Weighill says this area has a number of things going for it that make it an idea place to pick mushrooms. Broad, wide valleys offer much easier access for pickers, and different elevations, allowing for a longer season.

Wherever there’s a fire, you have a chance. On the west coast it’s typically too wet, so a fire doesn’t burn all the foliage. The further you get away from the Coast, the better they get. Right now we’re getting them out of Montana, Idaho, Washington, BC, there’s people in the Northwest Territories, Yukon.

The camp here looks more like an outdoor music festival than a work camp, and indeed, every once in a while a smell drifts on the air that adds to that perceived atmosphere. But people looking for any mushrooms other than morels (perhaps the magic kind?) won’t have any luck, at least not out in the bushes, as this is not the right place for that type of mushrooms.

But while the atmosphere is laid back, the work is anything but. Because people are getting paid per unit, there is a strong emphasis on hard work. A five gallon pail, which many pickers carry, can hold about ten pounds of morels. At $8/lb, that’s $80 per pail. With long days, many people are staying out ten, twelve hours or even longer. Others are going out in the morning, resting during the heat of the day, then heading back out later in the afternoon.

Like Kyle, Weighill says he’d love to see more locals out picking. Last year’s Carstairs fire, at 18,000 ha, supported 400–500 people, says Weighill. This fire, at nearly twice that size, has the same number of people working it. “We don’t have enough pickers to pick it. If it wasn’t for the new pickers, we wouldn’t have enough people.”

He says all pickers are welcome. “They’re sitting there on the ground, waiting to be picked. They don’t belong to anyone. It’s just knowledge. You have to take the time to teach new pickers and treat them right. You have to put the effort into the new people.”

It’s not for everybody, though, he says. “There are already people who have said they’re out of here. There are negatives. The bugs. You’re black all the time. But there are people here from Chetwynd, from Dawson Creek, from Quebec, Europe, Costa Rica…from all over the place.”

Part of the demand is driven by a burgeoning North American market. “The bulk is going to Europe, but over the last ten years, we’ve turned towards the North American market to wild mushrooms. The cooking shows have them, so everyone wants them, to try what they’re doing. You can sell them in a grocery store now. Maybe not Save-On Foods, but all your specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods.”

Palette-wise, he says, these are a mild, mushroom. “If you like button mushrooms, you’ll like this one. It’s not offensive. It’s found around the globe. These are one of the three big ones: Chantrelle, Portabello and these. The flavor is unique, but not offensive.”

However, while the flavor is mild, they are also mildly poisonous, containing small amounts of hydrazine toxins, which are removed by cooking. Rule one, says Weighill, is never eat these raw.

He also advises not to eat too many at once, as some people can have allergic reactions. Finally, he says, avoid alcohol with them, especially the first time eating them, as this has been known to cause reactions.

Morels, or Morchella is a type of mushroom with a honeycomb-like upper portion. They can be found from California to Alaska and from the West Coast to the East. The appear to have some sort of symbiotic relationship with certain trees, but, Weighill points out, understanding morels is a bit of a black art. They are one of the few species of mushrooms that have not been domesticated Some companies have had a little luck growing them, but the bulk of the mushrooms are harvested like this.

Weighill says there’s a handful of companies present at this fire. Each company will have a couple buyers, one at the bottom, one at the top. “It looks like a whole bunch of buyers, but really, there’s just a handful of companies,” he says. “There are a few independent buyers, but not a lot. There’s maybe five companies. Nothing crazy. It just looks crazy. It’s organized chaos.”

And while the buyers will offer advice to planters, they don’t offer much direction. “For the morel business, people are isolated out here, so they gravitate towards buyers, and they build relationship. It’s not always based on price. You’re always giving them something, catering to the right people.”

And is it true that people can make $500/day? “That’s the hype,” he says. “Is it possible? Sure. Can you do $1000 a day? Depends on how far you want to walk and how hard you’re willing to work. How much can you carry? Right now we’re paying $8. One basket full is about $100. Some guys will go out and pick half a basket, and in the same time, someone else will come back with three. Once you find where they’re growing, you can start to pick out similar spots on the mountainside. Or you just walk, three or four miles, and then you hit the spot.”

Weighill agrees with Kyle that picking mushrooms is addicting. “If you never tried picking them, you won’t know what I’m talking about. If you have…well, you’ll be quitting your job and following us for the next three or four years.”