There are dozens of varieties of edible, wild mushrooms to be found in the Pacific Northwest. In June, I went in search of the queen of them all, the mighty Morel.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, my new circle of PNW friends are an adventurous bunch who hunt, fish and forage. In March, my Seattle friend Diane sent out an email blast looking for any pals who wanted to join her on a guided Morel foray with the Morel Mushroom Hunting Club.
In my Los Angeles life, I would have scoffed, driven the .28 miles (in a hybrid!) to the local farmer’s market and paid $36 for an ounce of these prized morchellas. (I have, in fact done this). But I left that culture for a reason, and if travel has taught me anything, it’s that wild food is better, and food you’ve gathered yourself is an act of the divine.
So I opted to pay $325 to drive 253 miles (in a hybrid) for the mere chance to find morels.
After all, it’s really about the hunt. Plus, blogortunity! Little did I know….
Diane and I signed up for the second of two three-day ‘shrooming excursions led by Chris Matherly and his fair assistant, Levena, who are featured in the Nat Geo show, Filthy Riches. (To their annoyance, and not surprisingly, the show focuses more on ‘gator mishaps than foraged finds.)
More impressively, Matherly is blurbed in the August 2015 issue of Afar magazine, in an article on mushrooming in Morocco (oooohhh, next foray?).
The cost of the excursion would cover the $25 fee to join the Morel Mushroom Hunting Club, the remainder covered the guided excursion, plus a total of six mushroomy meals. HQ would be the Squaw Rock Resort, which delivered the Squaw Rock….
and the resort….
In truth, it was a lovely spot — with cute cabins, campsites, fire pits and a pool — even as it was squeezed between the highway and the Naches river. Miles from most everything (including cell reception), the music of the water and crackling bonfires muffled the sound of passing pickups, and the air was sweet with the smell of pine and and the scent of cottonwoods, their fluff floating through the air like fairy snow.
It was the perfect setting for a girls’ getaway, but things didn’t pan out quite as planned. The trip was booked and paid for in March, and one month later, my paramour, the Oysterman, learned he would be having a long-awaited, thrice-postponed day in court (in a long-disputed battle against nefarious county government actions against his business, Oysterville Sea Farms — please, get me started).
Blood, sweat, tears, and more blood — it all goes into preserving an historic structure.
The court date fell right smack on the middle day of the foray, and there was no way I would miss it. But I also wasn’t going to let this sorrowful state of affairs taint every corner of my life. Just because the pea-brains of Pacific County are the enemies of mirth — they weren’t going to ruin mine.
Chris accommodated my joining the first foray, a Friday thru Sunday the second weekend in June, but Diane would need to stick to the original schedule. We were both bummed, but it worked out in ways you cannot even imagine (don’t most things?).
I set out solo on a Thursday afternoon for the Naches area, east of Mt. Rainier on highway 410, roughly midpoint between Yakima and the Chinook Pass.
All of which means it took me five and a half hours to get there from Oysterville (the half-hour being it takes a half-hour to get ANYWHERE from Oysterville).
Mt. Rainier from Highway 12.
The drive was long but gorgeously scenic, once I left the drone of the freeway. I finally had to stop pulling over for Instagram ops for fear I’d arrive in camp after dark — lost, out-of-gas, and bear bait.
Dacite Lava Flows, Coyote Creek
Rimrock Lake from Horseshoe Cove
I was the fourth to arrive, and after I checked into my cozy cabin, the growing group sat on Chris and Levena’s back porch with their Boston Terriers, Fisher and Jackson, and traded moonshine and mushroom stories.
The menfolk discussed the different breeds of elk and turkey, I learned about the oysters of Maristone Island, and spent more time being entertained by a former Penthouse Pet than I ever imagined (you might as well Google Levena Holmes, but trust me, the 3D version is infinitely more interesting than what you see on screen).
I hid my fancy bottle of red wine, accepted a plate of elk pepperoni, and tried with no success to refuse the apple pie moonshine.
‘Shroomers are an interesting lot. They use terms like rain events, burn sites, veils, umbrellas, on wood, off wood, nipples and duff.
I was the only newbie in the group, so I listened, and despite the moonshine (I’d moved on to the peach), I learned.
In Washington, morels can be found under living — or even better, downed — firs and cottonwoods.
When a trees dies, the mycelium organism (of which the mushrooms are a fruit) gives off a last gasp effort to propagate before its host root system dies. This is why mushrooms are especially abundant the season after a burn. Even at that, conditions of temperature and moisture must conspire for an optimum flush.
Some wild mushrooms, like Porcini, can be eaten raw, but others, including Morels, have toxins that don’t break down unless you cook them. It’s unlikely they’ll kill you — rather, you’ll have the unpleasant effects of about five Ex-Lax.
Obviously, with wild mushrooms, you don’t want to make any mistakes.
It’s best to travel with an expert, and just say no to anything iffy (my mother doesn’t think I already know this, and begged me not to eat anything I found).
Las Amanita pantherina
There was plenty of joking about psychotropic mushrooms, and apparently one that could be found locally, the Amanita Pantherina, (which we remembered as the lethal combination of a panther and a ballerina), is 10 times as hallucinogenic as the Psilocybin variety, and yet completely unregulated.
And if we DID decide to indulge in “magic” mushrooms, we were warned to not look in the mirror. You will apparently believe that you’re looking at a monster and beat the living daylights out of yourself. I’ve seen the pictures (and I didn’t really need the warning).
At the end of the evening, David from Bainbridge Island leaned over and said to me, “Mushroom people are different.” And now, I guess I’m one of them.
DAY ONE — THE PANTHER AND THE BALLERINA
After a delicious night’s sleep in the mountain air, we were stoked for ‘shroomin’ by Chris’s camp breakfast. Matherly is originally from Indiana, and has been foraging for food since he was five.
“There’s food everywhere,” Matherly says, as he stirs a handful of chopped Morels into a pot of oatmeal (strange-sounding, but deliciously addictive).
Mushroom pancakes, sausage and fruit rounded out the meal and fueled us for a day of tromping through underbrush.
Our group was having so much fun breakfasting that we didn’t get underway until 10 AM, and it was 82 degrees and windy as hell.
The group, getting ready to head out.
Fisher’s got the right idea.
David, Fisher, Rain, all so hopeful….
While there’d been a significant “rain event” a few weeks earlier, it was hotter and drier than Matherly’s eight previous forays in the area. We’d be driving up the fire roads to a higher elevation to try to find some damper soil.
Since my little hybrid was clearly not the vehicle for such an excursion, I paired up with Jim, a retiree from Puyallap who had a spare seat in his F150, an extra walkie-talkie, and a back-of-the-hand knowledge of the territory, as he’d been elk and deer-hunting there for years.
After twenty minutes of rumbling up mountain roads, we parked in a cool, shady spot. Chris scanned the woods, and directed us in his midwestern drawl towards some promising-looking groves of firs on either side of the road. We would search for a half-hour — if we had no luck, we’d move on to another spot.
I scampered off in the general direction of some of the other experienced foragers, but I was going to find my OWN secret stash.
And that’s when I realized the truth about foraging for wild mushrooms — they’re in the WILD. Which means tripping through duff, clambering over deadfall, or sloshing through a swamp.
I spent the first 15 minutes getting lost, and the next 15 minutes getting unlost. But I found mushrooms. Two earthy buttons, speckled with white.
I sliced the stems with my knife (yanking them out harms the host plant) and stashed them in my jacket pocket before I trekked back to the car, happy to have survived my fairly shaky walk in the woods.
The group’s pickings had been thin, so we piled into the vehicles and headed to higher, cooler ground. We parked near the end of a dirt forest service road, with thick woods on one side, and THIS on the other:
And perhaps this is the true lure of foraging — you are in places that see very few people; which still feel primitive and wild.
It was a glorious church of nature, and frankly, distracted me from the matter at hand for most of the weekend.
After forest-gazing for 1/4 of my allotted hunting time, I finally headed alone down an old, overgrown fire road, seeking north facing slopes that were more likely to hold moisture. It was peaceful, quiet, and wild, but all I found was bark shreds (which looks like Sasquatch hair) and elk scat (which is a fancy name for poop.)
Jim found me and I decide best practice was to stick in his vicinity. He told me if I happened to get lost in the woods (what, me?) to look for the elk trails.
“Elk are lazy,” Jim said, “they’ll always find the easiest path.”
I nibbled some of the plentiful sweet, wild strawberries that were vining over the dry, rocky soil, but there were no Morels to be found.
After venturing north and south, to lower and higher altitudes, the rest of the afternoon was fairly free of mushrooms, but still full of woodsy goodness.
Another dog picture!
As the sun lowered, we gathered around a campfire, all pitching in to chop, shred or pour, as Matherly and Levena made ready our first camp dinner: Swiss and wild mushroom bison burgers, baked beans, and fresh corn boiled with a stick of butter (TRY it, it will change your world).
We finished the moonshine, I finally open my bottle of wine, and we discussed our finds.
Rain, a nurse from Chehalis, found two helium balloons, in two separate spots. But no one found more than a few false Morels (which are potentially deadly).
I remembered the mushrooms in my pocket and showed them to Matherly. “Are these something?” I said. “Yep, those are Amanitas.”
I’d managed to find two perfect specimens of panther ballerina. I tossed the mushrooms in the river — realizing too late that some poor fish was going to have a hell of a time if he looked at himself in the mirror.