In 2004, more than 6.7 million acres of Alaska burned, mostly around Fairbanks and north of Tok. That’s why I’m walking through a dark forest between Tok and Chicken, Alaska, my eyes scanning the ground 20 feet ahead, fine-tuned to discern a certain shape and texture. My heart leaps when I spot it: a morel.
I’m one of about 300 morel pickers along Alaska’s charred Taylor Highway, which stretches north for 160 miles from Tok to Eagle, passing through three major burns. About half the pickers are Alaskans; the rest, like me, have made their way from the Lower 48.
With the pickers come buyers. They set up stations in towns near the burns and pay in cash. Pickers cruise from buyer to buyer, shopping for the best price. Soon the pickers have fat wads of $100 bills in their pockets.
Morels are edible mushrooms in the genus morchella. They sport a distinctive honeycomb pattern on the cap, and each individual has a shape and a posture that’s as unique as a snowflake’s, but still unmistakably a morel. While it’s generally agreed that morels are the edible members of the genus morchella, there is much debate about how many species exist, and how many are edible.
What is certain is that there are two broad categories within morchella: the so-called naturals, also known as yellows, which appear each spring in habitat that’s similar from year to year—often near rivers, for example, and beneath cottonwoods. And there are the fire-following morels, which appear in great numbers and in great variety wherever fire has burned the previous summer.
Within the fire-following morels there are the Blacks, which have a brownish cap and lighter stem. There are also Grays, which are usually black, although some are gray as well, turning blonde as they grow older, though some people think the blondes are a separate species altogether. Just recently science has confirmed what pickers have known for years: the existence of the green, or pickle morel, which is blacker than the blackest Gray, with a greenish tint and an extra-solid build.
Morels taste like a distilled essence of the forest—plants, animals, fire, rocks, trees. Their potent flavor blooms when they’re sautéed with sherry and butter. Hot out of the pan, they recall uneven ground, melting snow and the occasional forest whiff that makes you stop and say, “What was that?”
The global mushroom market translates into big money. Fresh morels fetch up to $25 per pound at upscale grocers, and dried morels can cost as much as $200 per pound.
In 2005’s roughly seven-week season from May to mid-July, the price for freshly picked morels in Alaska fluctuates between $4 and $10 per pound. Many people pick 100 pounds or more in a day. At the end of the season, some pickers bank deposits of more than $10,000.
The bulk of morels picked in the U.S. are shipped to Europe and Asia. (Germany has the world’s highest per capita consumption of wild mushrooms, followed closely by France and Switzerland. The leading Asian consumer, by far, is Japan.)
The temporary cash economies that sprout around morel hot zones can rival the economies of the small towns, like Tok, where the pickers and buyers make camp, eat, drink and gas up. It’s a boom atmosphere, Alaska style, all over again. All that’s missing are the hookers. But unlike the gold of another generation, morels are a moving target.
“This place is boring,” Paco says.
A native of the Philippines, Paco is in his early 20s, and the only non-Mexican member of the morel picking team known locally as the Red Van Crew.
“But at least I’ll leave here with enough money in my pocket to help my family back home.”
One of two unmarried pickers on the crew, Paco boasts that he can spend his money any way he wants. “When I left Montana last year”—picking the burns of 2003—“I was broke,” he says. “I spent all my money on weed and strippers.”
The locals don’t consider their home turf boring, and they know the landscape intimately. They also have the most gear—ATVs, boats, hovercraft and planes. You’d think they could find a respectable fraction of the quantities of morels that Paco and company bring back. Instead, it’s not uncommon to see them by the side of the road, sourly steering ATVs stacked with empty buckets. They’d heard you could make good money doing this, but they can’t find a damn thing.
Then there are the scientists, mushroom experts known as mycologists. Several of them are in this Alaska valley participating in and observing the morel harvest, but few are likely to see as many morels as the Mexicans, or the Southeast Asian crews, or many of the other circuit pickers who made the trip north.
Logic can work against you if you don’t realize you’re missing key pieces of the puzzle. If you’re from the Lower 48 and you don’t know, for example, that the presence of black spruce strongly indicates permafrost, and that what you’ve read in the literature about morel behavior doesn’t apply on permafrost, you could be frustrated. Likewise, if you don’t have the legs to blast far enough from the road, all you might see are ’shroom stumps that the pros leave behind. Thus, the 2005 season turns out to be a boom for some, and for others, a bust.
“This isn’t what I came to Alaska for,” says Missoula’s Larry Evans, who came from Montana to buy mushrooms and dry them for later sale. That early-season sentiment is echoed by many buyers, most of whom come from Oregon and Washington state. While few buyers will lose money in Alaska, few are able to buy as many morels as they hoped, and the price they pay is driven up by the high number of buyers and the scarcity of product. In other years and other places, buyers have been known to buy thousands of pounds at $2 per pound.
Still, this year’s “scarcity” is relative, created in part by expectations based on the morel harvest following the 1990 Tok River fire. In the 1991 season, more than 300,000 pounds of mushrooms were harvested off 98,000 Alaska acres. This year, with 10 times the acreage that burned in ‘90 accessible from the Taylor Highway, everyone expected a bonanza. The resulting influx of pickers diluted the bounty.
Meanwhile, the experts forgot that morels are full of surprises. You find them where you aren’t supposed to, or you show up at the perfect habitat and the only imperfection turns out to be…no morels.
Competition is stiff along the Taylor Highway. The easy mushrooms are picked quickly. Real success comes down to the ability to find virgin habitat, because a million acres is only useful if you can get to it. Of all the tools available to pickers, eyes and legs seem to be the most useful, along with the ability to forget what you used to know and learn quickly from scratch.
The leader of the Mexican team is a man in his early 50s. I’ll call him “Chalo.” Most pickers choose to remain anonymous, and go by nicknames. (The names of the Mexican team members in this story are pseudonyms.)
I ask Chalo if picking in Alaska is any different from picking in the Lower 48.
“The only difference,” he says, “is the mosquito.”
While the mushroom scientists fret about the effects of 24-hour daylight, or if and when the northeast slopes will produce, and why they can’t find mushrooms, Chalo helps load a thousand pounds of morels into his crew’s red Ford van. Chalo’s crew will take them to their buyer and divide up thousands of dollars for their day’s work. They walked about nine hours today: three in and six out, heavy with fresh-picked fungus.
Chalo’s son Francisco started picking in the mid-’90s, during summers off from high school. He, his dad and some of his uncles went full-time in 1999, and they’ve been on the mushroom circuit ever since, following morels, matsutakes, chanterelles, lobsters, hedgehogs, black trumpets and other species of wild mushroom around the North American West.
The mushroom-picking itinerary is predictable: matsutakes in central Oregon in late summer, chanterelles and lobsters along the coast in late fall and winter. The fire-following morels are the wildcard, appearing in different places each year. Because the terrain varies from site to site, success at morel picking requires the ability to adapt.
David Arora, a renowned mycologist and writer, is the author of Mushrooms Demystified, widely considered the bible of wild mushrooms. Arora is the first to admit that migrant pickers like the Red Van Crew can outpick experts like him:
“They are quintessential outsiders: figuratively, because they stand outside the mainstream, and literally, because they spend most of their waking existence outdoors. They are the latest (some say the last) incarnation of a wandering community as ancient as humanity itself—one that is nature-immersed and moves with the seasons…Knowledge is acquired through days spent in the woods and is communicated orally…trust and camaraderie are cemented and sustained through the exchange of nature—the buying, selling, and bartering of mushrooms—and just as importantly, from the exchange of stories about nature and mushrooms.”
You won’t find a shred of Gore-Tex or Capilene on the backs of most pro pickers, or a map, compass, or plant book among them. Yet they navigate the land comfortably, and intimately.
“How do you figure out if habitat is good?” I ask Francisco.
“By looking at it,” he says.
“It’s always changing,” he adds, after I roll my eyes.
“First we were finding them in burnt-out black spruce forests. Then we started finding them in the needles below white spruce growing in half-burnt aspen forests. Then we started finding them all over the barely burned aspen groves—even in green moss. They’re always on slopes, though, usually south-facing.”
The core of the Mexicans’ success, however, is simply the ability and willingness to walk farther than anybody else. While most pickers try to keep their rigs hidden from the road to hide their patch, the Mexicans pull their red van onto the gravel shoulder in a brazen cloud, and leave it there for all to see.
Anyone who sees that van knows there are mushrooms back there—way back there. Farther than anyone else will walk.
Hell, they’ll even tell you where they’re going. They truly don’t care if you know. “We walk ’til we find a big patch,” explains Francisco. “Then we pick, load up and walk out. That’s it.”
The terrain “accessible” from the Taylor Highway offers some of the toughest bushwhacking I’ve ever experienced, but I’m determined to pick like a Mexican. Each day I go deeper, across muskeg bogs, over downed timber, underneath burnt snags—widowmakers—that remain standing only by force of habit, waiting for the slightest excuse to fall on my head. After a day of picking, I return torn and filthy, and humbled by the Mexicans’ cleanliness.
We are on the bank of the Dennison Fork of the West Fork of the Fortymile River, which empties into the Yukon east of Eagle. Paco shivers with a blanket on his shoulders, recovering from an ill-fated attempt to float 200 pounds of mushrooms down the river on an air mattress. It seemed like a good idea at the time: they were picking near the river, and floating beats walking. But Paco hit a submerged log and spilled himself and his precious load. Accident notwithstanding, the team still loads several hundred pounds of mushrooms into their van. They drive into Tok to cash in, leaving me to scheme a way to realize my dream: to go picking with the Mexicans.
Jay Southard is a buyer from Yamhill, Oregon, who sets up next to the flea market in Tok. Southard’s setup consists of a canopied table with a digital scale. A line of propane dryers stands behind him, ready for his next purchase. Southard is known around Tok as “the Mexicans’ buyer.”
I ask him if I can go picking with the Red Van Crew.
Southard explains that the Red Van Crew belongs to no one. Even though Southard helped with their travel arrangements, found them cabins with kitchens and running water, secured their famous red van, and picked them up at the airport, he has no control over their decisions, he says, or even their choice of buyers; if another buyer offers more, they’ll sell to him. Southard lives in constant fear that another buyer will bribe, charm or otherwise compel the Mexicans to switch. Pickers compete for habitat, but buyers compete for pickers.
Further behind the scenes, the mushroom companies like Alpine Foragers Exchange and S&K Holdings that hire the buyers have their eyes on all the global hotspots producing morels. There are many productive burns in Canada’s Yukon, for example, and the quantities coming out of Canada—or Turkey, or India—help determine the price brokers authorize their buyers to pay for morels in Alaska.
Each day I push farther into the thick bush. I don’t know if the mosquitoes are afraid of me, or if I don’t notice them anymore, but they plummet from my list of concerns as I bring back more and more mushrooms.
It’s addictive, this foraging for profit—an ancient, powerful and intoxicating feeling. When your eyes adjust to morel-vision, it’s amazing how far away you can spot one, and how large they loom.
You drop to your knees, one eye on the mushroom you’re about to pick, the other scanning for its friends. When that one mushroom turns out to be the leading edge of a huge patch, you love your life. You never want to be anywhere else. When you close your eyes to sleep, that patch comes back to haunt you on the backs of your eyelids.
By day, the quest for unpicked habitat continues. Pickers partner with locals, renting their ATVs and hiring them as boat pilots in order to reach the innermost reaches of the burn. But there’s not enough turf to go around. A few pickers are successful, but most are barely covering their expenses.
One morning, the red van pulls into my camp. It seems even the Red Van Crew has reached the limits of what they can walk, and are trying to rent a boat to take them farther.
They’ve come to negotiate with Dennis, Bryan, and the Frenchman—aka “the Boat Boys”—in the campsite next to mine. Dennis and the Frenchman are here from Montana. The Frenchman is from France, but he lives in Montana and makes his living selling morels and his paintings in his homeland, exploiting the French fascination with the American West. Bryan is from Oregon; in the mushroom off-season, he makes snow in Sun Valley, Idaho. Dennis grew up in Switzerland, now lives in Missoula and quit his day job to chase the morel harvest north.
The Boat Boys are monster pickers, up there with the Mexicans. They recently emptied their pockets to buy a jet boat, to ply the rivers into the heart of the burn. I went with them once, and saw more morels than I’d ever seen in one place in my life. Even the Frenchman was humbled by what we saw that day. “Normally, I try to stay organized when I’m in a patch,” he said. “I work my patterns and clean it out. But this time I was just turning around in circles. I didn’t know which way to go.”
The Red Van Crew, while legendary on their feet, are not known for their savvy around water. First there was the air mattress fiasco. Then, that very morning, they experimented with an inflatable kayak from Wal-Mart that wouldn’t even go in a straight line, much less up the river. They dealt with the kayak with a .357 Magnum. Now they’re searching for bigger guns.
They stand around, several of them wet up to their knees, waiting for the Boat Boys to make a deal. “It’s still early,” mutters Chalo. “I still want to go picking.”
No deal. The Boat Boys conclude it wouldn’t work to bring the eight-member Red Van Crew up the river. It’s at least two trips up, and many more trips down to transport all the mushrooms the Mexicans could pick. The Boat Boys would have to spend the whole day shuttling. Even at $100 a head, it’s not why they bought the boat.
That evening, I stop by the Mexicans’ cabin. Chalo and Francisco emerge, smiling. I explain that I’m a journalist who’s pretty harmless as a picker, and that I want to go out with them.
Chalo holds a can of Bud Light in one hand and points to me with the other. “You don’t bother me, man,” he says. “If you want to pick, you can pick. You want to take photo, take photo. You can do what you want, man. You don’t bother me.”
Francisco confirms that it won’t be a problem as long as I can keep up with them. And tomorrow, it turns out, I’ll be in luck. They’ve found a jet boat pilot willing to take them up, and there won’t be a lot of walking. If I’m willing to spend $50 for the ride, I can tag along.
I ride the second shuttle, raging up a fast river. When we round a bend in the chocolate-colored water, we hear the first shuttle’s riders on our two-way radios. They’ve already picked three crates each. Each crate is worth about $70 at today’s price.
Normally, each picker in this crew keeps track of what he picks, and earns accordingly. But today, due to the multiple boat trips, they decide to pool their take and divide it evenly.
I don’t know how this affects the dynamic on the ground as we sweep west along a ridge, cleaning a vast carpet of morels. All I know is that I’m in the midst of a consciousness greater than the sum of its parts.
I’m swarming with locusts.
The radios buzz with Spanish as the pickers dart around, looking under logs, inside burnt-out stumps, and in every other place a mushroom might hide. They fill plastic grocery bags with morels as they go. When the bags are full, they set them on the ground and keep walking.
The crew moves quickly—one minute I’m in the eye of the storm, the next I’m alone in the woods. If the morels sit around too long confined in plastic bags, they produce intense heat and cook themselves, becoming worthless through a process colloquially known as “meltdown.”
After about two hours, we head back, retrieving full plastic bags as we go. The bags are dumped into crates and loaded six-high on frame packs. We carry 650 pounds of mushrooms back to the river, where the boat waits.
The next day, the Red Van Crew goes upriver on the boat again. That evening I run into the pilot at the bar in Chicken. “That’s it,” he says. “I’m not doing that again.”
“Why?” I ask. “They seemed like nice guys—good money for you.”
“They picked over a thousand pounds today,” he says. “The boat almost sank. It was really, really scary.”
By mid-July, the action seems to be ending; the pickers and buyers are clearing out. Meanwhile, another wave of mushrooms is popping from the ground. In a good year, the morels continue popping long into the summer, long after the bulk of players has moved on.
“The competition has gone home, and the second flush is fat,” says Larry Evans, no longer frustrated, who is last seen selling fresh morels at the Fairbanks Farmer’s Market.
Those who remain are pickers who realize what the buyers already know: the real money is in selling dried morels in the off-season. The remaining pickers scour the empty burn, drying what they pick. They’re sleeping more, and licking their wounds.
“Few people have the sand to finish the morel season,” says the Frenchman.
The Red Van Crew left Alaska July 14. The Boat Boys sold their boat. The Frenchman and Dennis are in Dawson’s bars. Bryan still wanders the burns, picking alone and learning to field-dry his mushrooms. He considers himself a student in a game he’s determined to master. “I’ve got all summer,” he says.