near dawson city — To misquote Robert Service, strange things are done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for mushrooms. One such man told me he picks in the nude, because it’s easier to wash charcoal off your body than off your clothes; another typically picks for forty-eight hours non-stop; and yet another says he can tell when he’s close to a good site because he gets what he calls “a mush rush.”
Such pickers talk about the mushroom in question—the morel—in much the same way as prospectors talk about gold, using phrases like “motherlode” and “a real bonanza” to describe their quarry. This isn’t surprising, since in a good year a pound of dried morels will bring $100 or more on the European market. Once they’ve been rehydrated, these prized mushrooms will grace a particularly expensive menu item in a five-star French or German restaurant.
That expensive dish will owe its existence to, in all probability, global warming. Due to hot, dry weather during the summer of 2004, wildfires raged across the Yukon, burning 17,000 square kilometres of boreal forest. Says one resident of Dawson City: “Even people who weren’t smoking were blowing out smoke, they’d inhaled so much from the fires.”
This same person admits that in his greedier moments he might be thinking, “Burn, baby, burn,” since forest fires accelerate the growth of morels. The reason is not exactly clear. Something about fire-related nutrients or disruptions in the soil inspires the mycelium (the mushroom’s vegetative portion) to send up biblical numbers of fruiting bodies. Thus a veritable stampede of pickers arrives in the Yukon the summer after a big forest-fire year. Many of them leave with impressive bulges in their billfolds.
Now it’s the summer of 2005. Outside Dawson, on the Klondike Highway, and on backcountry mining roads, there are buying depots with signs that advertise “Top $ for Mushrooms.” Late in the day, pickers begin dropping by these depots with baskets of their bounty. Before you see the pickers, you can smell their aroma, a pungent amalgam of burnt forest, sweat, and bug dope.
Some have tales of woe to tell. One woman lost her glasses, after which, she says, “I did my picking by Braille.” The Braille method doesn’t seem to impress the buyer, a man who goes by the sobriquet Psycho Pete. He finds a number of “blowouts” (mashed, soggy, or otherwise worthless specimens) in the woman’s baskets and flings them against the wall of his drying shed. “We call these ammo,” he observes.
But many of the pickers are doing quite well. Buyers are paying $6 a pound for “wet” (fresh) specimens, and at a depot near Dawson a soot-covered man with a ponytail has just pocketed $910, not bad for eight hours of picking. Upon being asked where he found his mushrooms, the man fakes an Indian accent, saying, “No Tell’um Creek.”
Such reticence is not surprising. Just as in the gold rush days, when no miner in his right (or at least his sober) mind would reveal the whereabouts of his claim, a morel picker regards everyone as a potential raider of his burn site. This isn’t simply paranoia. Most of the 2004 fires occurred on Crown land, so every man, woman, and child is indeed a potential raider of one’s burn site.
And just as in the gold rush, nobody seems to use their actual name. If you hang around the buying depots, sooner or later you’ll run into such luminaries as Ivan the Terrible, Klondike Mike, Nancy the Pig, Bugeye Bob, and Captain Carl. One remarkably dishevelled picker, who calls himself Grizzly Spasms, says, “Outlaws never give their real names. Let’s say you’re on the run or wanted for child support. This is the only job you can get. You don’t need papers, a driver’s licence, or a credit card. It’s cash up front, no questions asked. Best of all, you don’t pay taxes ‘cause nobody knows how much you’ve made… and, of course, nobody knows your name.”
According to a buyer named Wolfgang, not enough mushrooms are making the journey from the outlaw hands of Grizzly Spasms to the mouths of well-heeled diners in Paris and Berlin. “I need a ton of product a day, and I’m only getting 800 pounds,” he says. “That’s not because there aren’t enough mushrooms, it’s because there aren’t enough pickers.”
Even so, vehicles with Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Alberta, and even Quebec plates are rattling around local roads. One picker who’s not rattling around is a lanky fortyish man named Doug. Doug has a car, but he decided to leave it at home, “because you lose more than you gain by pounding the shit out of your car on these blasted roads.” He hitchhiked to the Yukon from Squamish, just north of Vancouver, and when he arrived, he had only $1.80 in his pocket. Four days later, he has almost $2,000.
Camped in a lonely spot off North Fork Road, he doesn’t seem to mind the company of a writer, especially when that company promises to hand over all the morels he finds. It’s eleven o’clock at night, a pleasantly cool and relatively mosquito-less time to search (the midnight sun provides the necessary light). Doug pulls out a government-produced map of the burn sites and points to an area in the Stewart Plateau, several kilometres from his camp.
At the edge of the burn in question is an almost impenetrable jumble of downed trees, brambles, and underbrush. Doug hacks through the more difficult sections with an axe. In the easier sections, the only morels are “cheerios”—hollow stems that indicate a fellow forager has been here first.
“The morel prefers the southeast or southwest parts of a well-drained slope,” Doug observes. “Also, you’re not going to find any unless there’s some tree canopy overhead.”
Shortly after uttering these words, he exclaims: “Look! There’s a nice blonde” He’s referring to a light-coloured morel rising from the blackened ground. A few centimetres away is another. Then another. And yet another. Doug enters a beatific state, cutting off each mushroom at the stem and placing it in his basket. An hour later he’s still in more or less the same place, hunched over a batch of darker morels, called “greens.” A second basket is nearly full. At one point he stops, lights a cigarette, and offers this bit of advice: “What you gotta do is be low, eh, creep down low, and then you can see if they’re around. ‘Down and dirty,’ that’s the name of the game, and it’s why I’m covered from head to toe with charcoal.”
Could this large fruiting of morels be the proverbial motherlode so eagerly sought by pickers?
“I’ll let you know after Wolfgang pays me for it.”
As it happens, Doug makes $597 from his ten-and-a-half-hour excursion into the Yukon’s burnt backcountry. Two days earlier, the same trip would have netted him $900, but the price has dropped to $4 a pound. A mega-shipment of morels from Asia hit the European market yesterday, causing the global price to plummet and local buyers to respond accordingly.
Doug admits that he could probably make more money if he dried his morels and trucked them to Vancouver himself, or joined one of the teams being helicoptered in to remote burn sites. But if he did this, he would no longer be his own boss. “Right now I’m dancing to my own tune,” he says. “I can set my own schedule, go to sleep or wake up when I want, pick when I want. I’d rather make less money and be happy than be rolling in it and have ulcers.”
He seems to have found the motherlode, although it doesn’t consist entirely of mushrooms.