An amateur Alaskan mushroom hunter learns of resilience and revival.
By Ken Marsh
“There is something inscrutably satisfying about finding a good patch of morel mushrooms that travels far beyond their excellent flavor, perhaps a trace of the glad hearts of hungry earlier gatherers in the long weary path of evolution.”
– Jim Harrison
“The Summer He Didn’t Die”
The fire had withered the ferns and devil’s club leaves and burned off the sphagnum mosses that once shag-carpeted the forest floor. Skeletally the forest still stood, the trees charred and lifeless as telephone poles, but the shrubs, grasses and mosses had burned completely, the ground left blackened and bare. After the fire burned itself out, the autumn rains came and when snow fell early that winter everyone seemed to forget the fire and left the place for dead.
Now a year had passed and we’d returned, parking our Subaru wagon south of Big Lake off a remote gravel road the flames had jumped. The morning was still and mild as we started walking, the air smelling of stale ashes. Wood frogs uttered love songs from the snowmelt-filled ditches bordering the road and buds sticky with sap opened in green splashes against the blackened moonscape. At last, the new season had settled in and there in the sunlight with the frogs singing and buds popping it was easy to forgive the past winter’s bitterness and accept the losses of the fearsome wildfire summer that preceded it.
For twenty minutes we pitched along, stopping and stepping over fallen trees, my eyes sweeping the ground for something specific but new to me. Natalie, 4 years old, followed closely asking about the birdcalls, stumps, and bugs around us. I remember feeling lucky to have a daughter who shared with me such enthusiasm for nature.
I’d answered Natalie’s latest question, prompted by a woodpecker heard tapping on a charred spruce, when I spotted at my feet a rubbery protuberance.
Natalie scurried forth and crouched by my knee. The object, about the length and diameter of my thumb, was unmistakable. Tan with dusky highlights and topped with a honeycombed cap featuring the pits and ridges typical of the genus Morchella, we’d found our first morel.
I reached and pinched the stem where it met the soil and, as I turned, Natalie whispered, “I see another one.”
And so she did. Not a foot from the first. Indeed, as we scanned the area, we saw morels all around us, emerging from the ground singly, in pairs, and occasionally in clusters.
Wild morels are elusive, or so lore had it. Locating them requires experience and exhaustive searching. Yet scattered there before us not 100 feet from the road, popping up among fireweed sprouts and bursting from soot-covered soil, were more of the coveted mushrooms than my daughter’s blue gallon beach bucket could hold.
That first hunt for wild mushrooms 25 years ago this spring was inspired by my readings of the late poet and novelist Jim Harrison, a renaissance man who wrote fondly of morels (along with the subjects of birding, fly-fishing, food, and French wines).
“Mr. Harrison has a peculiar passion for morels,” observed The New York Times in a 1994 profile, “Will Write for Food.” Indeed, best known for his novella, “Legends of the Fall,” Harrison was also famous for preparing multicourse meals featuring morels. The mushrooms accompanied his wild food creations of roasted ruffed grouse and woodcock, while more civilized entrée favorites rolled on like a listing by Forrest Gump’s shrimping buddy Bubba Blue: Morels with chicken in puff pastry, porterhouse steaks covered in morels, morel-stuffed raviolis. …
A self-styled weekend chef, I was intrigued by the idea that morels might be found in the forests around my Southcentral Alaska home. So, in late winter 1997 I began researching local wild mushrooms. In the mornings over tea, or at night with a finger of scotch, I read and learned. And as the snowbanks outside softened and withered, I was delighted to find that morels, related closely to truffles and similarly cherished for their savory flavor, are indeed present here in springtime. Further, because not all mushrooms are edible – certain species are known for toxic side effects – I was encouraged to discover that morels are easily recognized, even by those new to gathering them, for their distinctive high-topped, deeply pitted caps.
So, where precisely might a guy in Alaska, this big, wild country, begin to look for these tiny truffles? References tying morels to wildfires seemed key. Species like Morchella tomentosa, the gray morel, were said to bloom bountifully on lands scorched by forest fires the year prior. And as it happened, a large blaze the previous summer had stormed through the forests all too near our home.
Devastating at the time, the 1996 Miller’s Reach blaze consumed some 37,000 acres and more than 300 structures. Our house was among many threatened as flames rampaged west of Wasilla, gray smoke spanning the horizons and billowing three miles high. Forced to evacuate, we’d joined the refugee hordes fleeing bumper-to-bumper out Knik-Goose Bay Road. Luckily, strong winds turned the fire and ultimately our place was spared. Unlike some, we returned home, grateful, after three days away.
Now a year later, our good luck held. As we drove home, Natalie riding shotgun in her car seat, the little blue bucket on her lap heaped with morels, I knew without question we’d witnessed a resurrection.
Driving east the Talkeetna Mountains rose before us, the Chugach Range holding strong to our south, high, pointed peaks bright with sunlight on snow. Natalie had fallen quiet, her cheeks pink as wild rose blooms, blue eyes reflecting in our family wagon’s passenger window. We’d walked common ground, father and daughter, a privilege worth more than anything else. And along the way we discovered a pursuit that would ignite in me a lifelong passion.
As for the morels, I would prepare them simply that first time. Clean them on the kitchen counter, halve them lengthwise with a sharp knife, and sauté in butter. Lightly seasoned they would be succulent, of course, and for a time the house would smell rich and wonderful.