“Mushroom hunting folk are a really weird type of person — there’s as many varieties of them as there are mushrooms,” says Chris Matherly of the Morel Mushroom Hunting Club.
DAY TWO — BIG BLONDES
Matherly, better known as “Shroom,” had prepped another stellar breakfast for this inarguably varied group of foragers.
Since the near-bust of the previous day, the group was more motivated than ever to find morels — or to find ANY mushroom that wouldn’t cause a hospital stay.
We drove up the highway towards the Chinook Pass, parking by a county road that meandered down towards the Naches River — a morning test run at lower ground before we headed up into the hills.
Again, I separated myself from the group, dropping down into a cool, shallow ravine close to the water.
I scanned the ground, lifting undergrowth with a thin branch. Then, like one of those impossible 3-D pictures that resolves with a POP, I saw them.
A pair of big blonde Morchella esculenta, glowing golden in the duff, a few feet from a downed cottonwood. They were so lush and earthy and ALIVE, that I waited a while before I harvested them.
Another Chris in our group, a history teacher from Butte, Montana, came upon me and asked if I’d had any luck. I showed him my finds, which were each as big as my hand.
“Girl, those aren’t just textbook, those are fairy tale!”
Teacher Chris radioed Shroom, and he and Jim joined us in the clearing, marveling at my lucky find. Jim and Chris spied another (SMALLER) pair on the bank, hiding under some grasses. Although they gave me credit for the find (‘shrooming etiquette), I learned another lesson: with wild mushrooms, where there’s one, there’s usually more.
“First time out and she finds the biggest and the most,” Teacher Chris says.
We searched the area a while longer, Chris and I moving down towards the river. We both looked across the water, then at each other, the same idea forming. On the opposite bank was a huge grove of cottonwoods.
And then we were crossing the river. After all, this was why I wore my boots.
The Naches is more a wide stream than a rushing river, but it still would have sucked to fall in. Chris told me if I became unbalanced to turn and face square upstream. It worked — we both made it across safely and tromped our way towards the grove.
“Are these something?” I asked him, rooting through a rough patch of deadfall.
“Are these something?” he laughed. I’d unearthed about 30 pounds of 10-15 year-old Conchs growing on a cluster of old, downed trees.
Also called “Artist Mushrooms,” Conchs are an inedible fungus, but are prized by craftsmen and collectors because the clean, white bottom surface can be etched with a drawing that will oxidize to a rich, rusty brown (check out these stellar examples by artist Cory Corcoran). Conchs will harden and last for years as decorations. Doorstop? Bookends?
I split the find with Chris, my share now adorning my porch steps, ready to be turned into a table centerpiece with oyster shells and air plants.
The group spent the rest of the afternoon climbing higher fire roads, with one massive find, by Rain’s partner Daniel, of about 20 lbs. of King Boletes.
But still no morels.
Shroom was determined to make our outing worthwhile, so we drove on to the last, highest spot he knew, at around 6,000 feet. I knew I was in good hands with Jim’s driving skills, but an hour on a high, rocky ledge of a road was a test of everyone’s nerves — despite the glorious views.
Now, I’d seen some memorable wilderness on this trip, but when we finally reached the summit and embarked on our quest, I knew I was in for something different.
The terrain had changed, the ground still had thin patches of snow, the flora was like nothing we’d seen at the lower elevations.
As had become my method, I headed off alone, over a bluff and down towards what looked like an old, burned area. There was barely any color — it was as though I’d walked into a black and white photograph.
I followed an elk trail through the woods, and in the distance, I saw a swath of green. That’s when I stopped hunting for mushrooms, because this high alpine meadow was what I was really meant to find.
It was a rolling carpet of wild grass, dotted with blue Mountain Lupines and red Indian Paintbrush. The slope reached hundreds of feet above me and rolled down into an evergreen wilderness.
God rays of afternoon sun broke through a patch of threatening storm clouds and highlit a valley below. It was hard to believe that such a vast expanse carried such quiet.
I saw Teacher Chris a few hundred feet from me — he waved and joined me quietly at an altar of lichen-painted rock that some previous worshiper of the meadow had assembled. We took turns sitting in the throne, watching the changing patterns of light on the valley below.
“Listen to that,” Chris said, “nothing but the sound of air molecules beating against your ears.”
We were both reluctant to leave, but the light was waning, and we still had a long, treacherous drive home.
I have not yet invested in a GPS (my birthday is in DECEMBER, people), so I’ll have to hit up Shroom or a fellow forager to help me find that meadow again. Someday (hopefully not soon), someone’s going to have to scatter my ashes there.
Back at camp, we had our finest meal yet — wild nettle quesadillas, grilled King Boletes with garlic butter, and wild mushroom chimichangas.
After a slide presentation of previous mushroom forays and shopping Matherly’s mushroom wares (I got some dried chanterelle seasoning, a cookbook and finally, a mushroom bag), we settled in around the campfire, finishing what was left in the various bottles that had been opened the night before.
We recounted our adventures of hunting for and finding a wild food more elusive than any elk, deer, turkey or salmon (and possibly more delicious).
“I don’t think a person can get rich doing this,” Matherly says, “but it sure adds a lot to your life.”
This big blonde agrees.
DAY 3 — RUNNING WITH WOLVES
As we gathered for our last breakfast, Teacher Chris observed that “What the UN can’t do, a fungus can — bringing together screenwriters, teachers, nurses.”
I checked out and parked my packed car in front of the lodge, as we’d be leaving right after our morning foray and a last mushroom feast.
We headed north again, but stayed at lower ground, to the wettest, wildest spot we could — a swamp, that could be reached after some seriously challenging hiking through the thickest underbrush we’d seen.
Having tasted the fruits of a moderately successful hunt, and confident in my ability to get through, over and across any terrain (surely a fool’s downfall), I pushed my way to where no elk had gone before. If there was a fir tree in my field of vision, I clambered to its base. The hunt was hours long, we all stripped off layers as the day grew warm and steamy.
But no more mushrooms.
The foray was over, but the adventure was not.
Back at home base, Shroom made us our parting lunch with mushrooms from his stash — mushroom bruschetta, his signature creamy mushroom soup — and my morels, delicately battered and fried, just enough for us each to have a taste.
The morels fairly dissolved on my tongue, leaving a lingering earthiness that guarantees I’ll be a crazy mushroom person for the rest of my life.
I planned to wait for Diane to arrive in camp in a few hours. I went to my car to retrieve a change of clothes. But right, my car key was in the pocket of my jacket, which I’d left it in Jim’s truck.
Or so I thought.
A wildly thorough search of the truck, the camp, and everyone else’s vehicles, yielded nothing.
No jacket. No key. No extra key. No way to get into my car. No way to get home.
Daniel and Jerome, a local rancher and who’d been accompanying us, offered to look at our last hiking spot on their way to drop off Jerome.
While we waited for them, David drove me 12 miles down the highway so I could call Triple A (who can only help when you’re silly enough to lock your keys in the car, not lose them in the woods). They suggested towing my car to the nearest dealer to get the $500 replacement key. In Tacoma. 106 miles away.
Another local, Jerome’s friend Tommy, said his half-wolf, Coda, once found his lost cell phone on a mountaintop. He was sure Coda could find my jacket. He offered to search, and asked if I wanted to come along.
Of course I said “yes” — there was no way I was going to miss a wolf finding my car key, and besides, only one of my legs was bleeding from that morning’s tromp through the woods. I needed to even them out.
Coda started off strong on the trail of something (my guess is small woodland creature), but after an exhaustive and exhausting hour trying to retrace my route, we finally called off the dog.
Diane had arrived by the time we returned, and by then I was a weepy blonde mess.
My whole reason for coming on this weekend was to be sure I could be home in time to by my honey’s side on a stressful day. And I had no way to get to him.
Diane to the rescue.
As it turned out, Diane had planned to be in Oysterville the next weekend. She handed over the keys to her car, told me to overnight my extra key from home, and we’d trade vehicles for the week. I’d crash in her room for the night (sleeping in my mushrooming clothes), drive home the next day, and it would all work out.
Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that, (do try to find a FedEx location on the Long Beach Peninsula open past 1:30), but miraculously, it DID all work out (thank you UPS store in Astoria).
And that’s how this went from being a food blog to being an adventure blog.
It’s the beginning of October, and I’m just finishing this series of posts about my mushroom adventure, when I get a call from one of my fellow forayers — Craig from Oklahoma City.
His business card was in the pocket of my jacket — which had been found by Art, a hiker from Everett, Washington. Key and all.
I called Art, a kind, helpful veterenarian, who would not hear of taking money for returning my slightly bruised jacket, and perfectly intact car key.
He has some smoked oysters coming to him.
Be advised that Diane and I have signed up for Chris’s Fall foray for matsutake, lobster and chanterelles on the Olympic Peninsula. Hopefully this one will fall in the “Oysters & Chocolate” category.