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MORAN: Spinning a tale about the Yukon ‘Mushroom’ Rush

March 22, 2017 - 12:13 PM

 


OPINION


Lately I have been cheering on the growth of my plants like they are doing an Olympic sprinting event. In one more week and I can begin wild harvesting of culinary greens from the Okanagan Valley.

This is the perfect time to tell a story from the past, like an old Yukon miner telling tales for entertainment waiting out the last miserable weeks of winter before springing into action.

There was a rush to get to Carmacks, Yukon as soon as possible. All a person had to do was be there to get in on the action. Experienced pickers and rookies alike could all cash in on the northern morel harvest of 2014. I heard about the first few days of picking, weeks before my delayed arrival. Morels as far as the eye could see, whole fields of them. Just get yourself across the river with the aid of the local First Nations boat taxi and bring a good backpack. Men in their seventies and eighties were coming out of the bush with a hundred pounds. At $17 a pound some made a years salary in a few weeks.

Word of these riches began to trickle down south through the network of mushroom picker gossip. It was difficult to tell fact from fiction, but I soon decided that it was too good not to try the trek north. The path is straightforward. Take Highway 97 across B.C. until you see bison, then go for eight more hours to Whitehorse. Until that trip I had never realized that the Alaskan Highway went through my hometown of Kelowna.

It is best to allow three days of travel to get from the Okanagan to the Yukon by car. The trip was quite smooth until arriving in Fort Nelson on a Friday afternoon. The rear brakes had fallen apart. Fort Nelson did not rub off on me in a positive way in the time I was forced to stay there. Some advice; never have a breakdown in or around that part of the province. After four days of downtime, the journey resumed. Unknown at the time, the repairs were totally faulty. The brakes seemed a little weak as I stopped abruptly on a steep hill high on a windy canyon stretch of the Northern Rocky Mountains Provincial Park to allow a herd of sheep to cross. I thought nothing of it and continued for the day while my brakes degraded steadily. Things fell apart for good with that car about 600 kilometres from Whitehorse. A good Samaritan (this is a massive understatement) let me put everything in the box of his pickup and gave me a ride to the big city, depositing myself, and my belongings at Wolf Creek, a cozy campsite ten kilometers from Whitehorse.

This good Samaritan was actually a saint; Jeremiah, the saint of the Northern highways. This generous person rented a U-Haul car dolly and drove the 1,200 km round trip to pick up my car and bring it to a local mechanic. He also spent a few days with me at Wolf Creek while going through a traditional Yukon spring breakup. In the Yukon, leaving your partner is a seasonal activity. It has something to do with no person wanting to be alone during that long and dark winter.

After five desperate days trying to get in touch with my contacts at mushroom camp, I finally secured a ride. Camp was setup in the woods surrounding a boat launch on the Yukon River. This river was once the main transit hub for the province, providing a connection to Dawson City hundreds of kilometers north. The only comparison to this temporary shantytown would be a camp from the Yukon gold rush over a hundred years ago. The camp consisted of temporary shelters built from small trees and tarps setup without a plan; small groups of scruffy, grumbling pickers talking about the highs and lows of the season and plotting their next step using wild predictions of the remaining season; a generally rowdy atmosphere filled with firecrackers, bear bangers, and gunshots. Several families and opportunistic locals had setup shop running businesses on the side. The classic beer and tobacco sales rep is a staple in any mushroom picker camp. This one also had the food vendor who sells chips, chocolate bars, coffee, moose stew, and there was even a tent with a piece of torn-up cardboard functioning as a sign that had scribbles reading 'massage tent $60 - $100 per hour'.

I staked my claim in the middle of all this hustle and bustle and assembled my home under a tarp strapped from bent treetops to the edge of the dusty dirt track. I was finally ready to do what I came for and pick some fungi.

If you didn't know, morels are a wild mushroom that only grows in the spring in burned forests one year after a forest fire. There is a huge demand across from chefs in every major city, including Asia and Europe. The buyers setup stations in the wild with the pickers and mushrooms are bought and transported at all hours of the day.

When I arrived at camp the price per pound had settled to a steady $13. Much better than previous years which ranged from $5 to $10. My best day was just less than 60 pounds. To get this weight I had to hike over 5 km to my secret spot, pick for 8 hours, and hike back with my harvest strapped to my back. I managed to squeeze in 10 solid picking days before the season dried up. It took all of my experience picking morels (at that point a total of 15 years) just to cover the costs of the trip. It did not matter when I woke up or went to sleep, the sun only set for a few hours a day and there was never full darkness. Most days I would finish around midnight, sometimes later.

I had always known the risk I was taking by dropping everything to go north in chase of riches. I paid a month worth of bills and broke even after expenses. After hundreds of dollars in repairs, my car managed to take me back to the Okanagan. It then broke down permanently a few minutes from my home after driving less than fifty kilometers. If I ever do something like that again, I will take a plane.

— Scott Moran is a local forager discovering his own path to food freedom.


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