Monday, June 02, 2014

Weekend Mushroom Hunting Report: The Elusive Black Morel

Just wanted to give a quick report of our first hard-core spring mushroom hunt. My son Nathan and I spent the weekend (Friday-early Sunday) in the mountains just south and slightly east of the Blewett Pass area in eastern Washington, hunting for the elusive black morel.

Our spacious free basecamp site
on Williams Creek.
We arrived early Friday afternoon and found a lovely base camp spot at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campground on Williams Creek near the historic gold mining town of Liberty, Washington (just a mile east of the 97 on Liberty Road). The sites were spacious, well lined with trees, plentiful, and best of all free for the first 14 days. We had good walking access to a clean pit latrine and the sites had good firepits with steel cooking grates, and most had picnic tables. You had to bring in your own water and haul out your own trash. A small price to pay.

Our site was directly across the trail from an old gold mine, well posted with claim and no trespassing signs. In fact, our only complaint was a crazy woodpecker that began rat-a-tat-tatting on a corrugated tin claim sign about 5:30 each morning. What an alarm clock!

A tinpecker used this to
wake us up at 5:30 a.m.
The sign was full of bullet holes, so you could tell other campers had experienced the same frustration with this confused tinpecker.

After setting up camp we launched in Nathan's new fourwheel-drive Toyota pickup. Our first stop was at about the 3,500-foot level in a burn area near the forest service road. Terrain was steep but accessible, and we were encouraged to find our first five morels within the first 10 minutes, less than a hundred yards from the road. (No, I'm not going to give you an exact location!)

Black morels gathered during the
first day of our hunt.
So we anticipated better things to come. But alas, two more hours of hunting in this same stretch of forest yielded only one more morel (growing in a the hole formerly occupied by a burned tree which had collapsed). But it was huge.

Beautiful view of snow-laden
mountains from the Forest Service
access road.
We then started heading uphill toward more of the burn areas. Some ninety-odd wildfires plagued this area in the fall of 2012, and morels are known to grow in year-or-two-old burn areas. We looked at several other spots with no success. When we arrived at about the 5400 foot level we were on a high ridge which looked quite dangerous due to a large volume of loose shale which had showered the narrow track during frequent landslides. And we were also into snow at this point. But we gave it the college try and hunted once more in a burn area, but found no mushrooms at all. We decided it was still too cool that high for morels, and returned to base camp.

Black morels, tri-tip, asparagus and
mashed potatoes — quite possibly
the best meal I've ever had.
The evening's meal was fantastic -- we had two large tri-tip steaks, asparagas, and mashed potatoes, grilled together in cast iron over a campfire of smoky maple wood, well seasoned (which we brought with us). We sliced our 6 black morels and grilled them with shallots, sea salt and cracked pepper, and reduced with a nice sweet tawny port. Mixed with the gravy from the tri-tip, this made for a truly unforgettable meal. Nathan is an extremely skilled cook and despite a downpour of rain during the preparation, we ate like kings and retired in comfort. (I really want to write a blog about how to camp in style!)

We anticipated our next day's hunt, which we hit hard and early (thanks to our tinpecker alarm clock) after a fortifying breakfast, would be lovely and would restock our mushroom supply. We hunted all day long, mostly at lower elevations. We basically hunted fruitlessly all the way from Liberty, down to the high desert north of Ellensburg, before looping back around on the 97 and returning for a late lunch. We then picked up the hunt again, returning to our original spot in desperation, as it was the only place in about 10 hours of hunting we'd seen any morels.

During this time we also talked to a number of other morel hunters we encountered, including one couple which resided in a remote cabin at the 4,000-foot level and was climbing a steep road up to it in an ATV.  Everyone confirmed that their luck was as bad as ours had been, and the local couple blamed a relative lack of moisture in the area. (Some years, they said the morels were so plentiful you could pick them while walking alongside the forest service roads, without even going far into the forests and climbing the steep slopes, which is hard work indeed.) But not this year.

And the forest ranger had forewarned us with a similar warning that she was receiving very few find reports, either from the professional collectors or the amateurs like us.

So in a way this is encouraging. We plan to return to our "spot" at a time when the mushrooms are heavy, hopefully next spring.

Most of the other amateur hunters we talked to had found only a handful, a half dozen or a dozen, just as we had.

So, Saturday afternoon we found only one more (smallish) morel, pictured here, which we were able to bring home to prove we actually found something. Plus I found about five impressive Gyromitra montana (a false morel, pictured below) growing in a suspicious, spider-webby animal hole of some sort. (I'm reading up about their edibility on various websites, which disagree on the topic. I may these in very small quantities somtime this week. I'll let you know if I survive. Gyromitra shrooms supposedly taste like morels but contain a small amount of toxin which is supposed to evaporate out if you cook them well enough. And I'll cook the heck out of mine, I can assure you. Also, the G. montana are the variety which is supposed to be the most edible of the lot.)

Gyromitra montana mushrooms
deep within a she-lob lair.
We slept great on Saturday night, despite the disappointing day's hunt. (Tromping for hours through steeply forested burn slopes is a good way to work up an appetite and ensure exhaustion!) In fact, I even slept through the tinpecker alarm clock on Sunday morning.

After breaking camp we headed north to the lovely town of Leavenworth and enjoyed a pint of raspberry wheat ale at the new-ish Icycle Brewery facility there. Then it was home to clean off the charcoal-y grime of two days of mushroom hunting amidst haunting burned-out pine forests.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. If the Cle Elum Forestry ranger tells me the morels are "on," you can expect me up on the ridge in about three hours. Hopefully next time I'll bring back enough to share with friends.

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