At this time of year, when more of us have time to curl up with and appreciate a good story, we like to dig into our archives and feature some of our best long-reads of the year. Today, it’s the story of the people who harvest the elusive morel mushroom. The pickers travel to the charred landscapes of the previous year’s forest fires, where the prized fungus thrives, and harvest them for Europe’s finest restaurants.
It’s two hours down a dusty, gravel logging trail, which turns into boot-sucking mud when it rains. This is frontierland.
And right in the middle of it is Grandma’s, a makeshift bush restaurant, where a mushroom picker can fill up on a bannock burger for $6 or haggle for a better price for a used baseball cap. Down the road, pickers line up for morel mushroom-topped pizzas. Others buy jerry cans full of gas and buckets of ice, and bootleggers are hawking six packs and liquor at a 50 per cent premium. Almost overnight, a temporary town has grown up around the flood of foragers who have come here from all over the world to harvest mushrooms for cash. Their tents form a long line along Ojay Main, a logging road that snakes through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The pickers may be here for the adventure, but they’re a critical part of a lucrative, global industry, and a growing domestic market for wild foods. Morels are nearly impossible to grow commercially, so each morel must be picked by hand from foreboding landscapes. That leads to scarcity, which, as economics dictates, drives up the price. Not to mention all the labour that goes into each mushroom. Most of the morels picked off this burn will make their way onto the most expensive dinner plates in Europe, where they go for hundreds of dollars a pound. First stop is the buyers, almost all of whom work off commission for a wild food or mushroom distributor. The buyers dry the mushrooms on site before shipping them out to the distributor, such as Richmond, B.C.’s West Coast Wild Foods, which sells an array of foraged foods, from stinging nettle to maple syrup to fungi. In the case of West Coast Wild Foods, a fraction of the morels are packaged and sold on the domestic market. But the real demand for morels is in Europe, where restrictions on recreational picking and fears of contamination from the Chernobyl disaster have limited the availability of mushrooms. So the majority of these fungi will be shipped to importers across the Atlantic, who in turn sell them to local retailers and restaurants. There, they’ll be savoured by only the wealthiest of diners. It’s a long way from the grubby fingers of these vagabonds, and they’ll go through many more fingers before making their way into the hands of a French chef. But it all begins here, in the Canadian wild.
But for the plethora of azure-blue tarps, the scene along Ojay Main bears a striking resemblance to the early days of the Klondike gold rush. Like the Stampeders who made the treacherous journey over the Chilkoot Pass, most everyone here was lured by the dream of prosperity. At a time when almost every sector of the economy is regulated and credentialized, just about anyone can walk into a forest, pluck morels and trade them in for cash. Even tree planters have a boss. These mushroom pickers work for no one but themselves. “You do what you want,” says one picker, while cooking rice and veggie stew over a campfire. He says he’s come from Germany via Vermont, neglecting to get a work visa along the way. No one’s checking documentation here. “If you go up early, you take a lot, get a lot,” he says. “There’s nobody that tells you, ‘At seven or eight o’clock you’re at work, at five o’clock you’re out, no matter if you feel like it or not.’ ”
The majority of these pickers will tell you it was a rumour that drew them here. A rumour that they could make quick cash picking mushrooms in Canada’s charred forests, where morels grow most plentifully. For most of them, the rumour proved true. The fit and willing can make between $300 and $400 a day plucking the phallic-shaped fungi off the year-old burn near Red Deer Creek. Legends of $1,000 hauls spread through the camps like wildfire, and the prospect of a windfall sends everyone back into the evergreens each morning.
It’s grueling work – averaging 12 hours a day trudging through ashy dirt that turns pale skin black, and clouds of mosquitoes so unrelenting, you’ll wonder if you wandered into hell. The biggest concentrations – where morels grow in carpets on the forest floor – hide in the most hostile terrain: the side of cliffs, up steep mountain ridges and deep into bear country. The buyers pay by weight, so the heavier the pack, the bigger the paycheque. Pickers trek out of the forest with 40, 50, even 100 pounds on their backs in hopes of earning a few thousand dollars by the end of the season. If it was just for the money, it might not seem worth it. Few can earn a year-round living off this work, and even then only those who shirk urban comforts. But most will tell you the cash is just a bonus. Down the road from the German, a man who introduces himself only as “Buckshot” slouches in a plastic lawn chair. He has the feral look of a full-time cabin dweller. “We come for the adventure. For the stuff you’re going to see. One day we could be out pickin’ mushrooms,” he points to a snow-capped peak on the blue horizon, tucking in his chin and squinting beyond the tip of his finger, “and the next we could be on top of that mountain over there looking down on the whole fire. Just for the fun of it.”
Following the Fire
The key to a successful haul is long hours, stamina, and knowing where to find them. Everyone has a different theory about where morels like to hide. Some say they grow well in ravines near the river. Others say they like to be near decaying logs. Buckshot, true to form, argues that they’re the male counterpart, “the dink,” of the buttercup. “No buttercups, no fuckin’ morels,” he says.
But Eric Whitehead’s theory is by far the most elaborate, equal parts science and metaphysics. Whitehead is the owner of Untamed Feast, an Alberta-based wild food company he started with his wife after more than two decades picking mushrooms recreationally. He started picking with his grandmother at the age of six, and began selling mushrooms to buyers, and later chefs, when he was a teenager. He never thought much about the price his mushrooms went for in restaurants – that is until he and his now-wife, Michelle, dined on mushrooms they’d picked at a high-end restaurant in Victoria. When he looked at the bill, Whitehead balked. “This is for the one percenters,” he thought. “Who can afford to eat this?” That’s when he had an idea: Why not sell them directly to consumers on the retail market, at a price that the masses can afford? So he started picking mushrooms, drying them, packaging them and selling them at farmers’ markets and later stores. That was the beginning of Untamed Feast. And then one day, he realized he was too busy with Untamed Feast to continue his day job as a logger. Over time, the company grew. He added pre-packed foods like wild porcini risotto, and new foraged foods including Canadian wild rice and seaweed.
Whitehead recites his mushroom philosophy while he and his crew of pickers hide out from the rain under a lean-to they’ve built out of old tarps and sticks. The pickers, most of them in their early 20s, stare silently into the fire as Whitehead talks. With a sturdy build and the cadence of a cop, Whitehead is the alpha at this camp. He explains that morels act like a boreal Internet, carrying nutrients and photosynthetic energy like data from one part of the forest to another through an expansive and complex underground network. The network is called mycelium. If you were to dig into the dirt and expose the mycelium, you would think you were looking at layer upon layer of marrow-white cobweb – like the ruins of a massive spider colony. The morels sprout up from that like fruit on an apple tree, Whitehead says.
But that’s where Whitehead and science diverge. Whitehead says, to know where to find them, you have to become a morel whisperer. “It’s a really granola-crunchy thing to say, but it’s almost like the mushroom speaks to you,” he says. Sometimes he’ll just sense where to find a mushroom grove, and there they are. There’s no empirical reason they should be in that spot – he just knows, he says. “We’re just slaves to the spore.” He sounds certain. The crew of mushroom pickers standing around him nod their heads in agreement. “The mushroom is ancient, intelligent,” he says. “It’s been here for eons. I think they’re probably higher-evolved life forms in some way, and they want to go around the world. So I think they speak to you and say, ‘Come find me. I want to go infiltrate other places.’ ”
What everyone can agree on is that the mushrooms are most plentiful the year following a fire. Morels don’t necessarily need a burn to grow. What are called “natural morels” can be found scattered throughout the forest that haven’t been scorched in decades. But anyone looking for paydirt, as all of these pickers are, follow the fire.
“I never eat money”
It’s not lost on anyone that the pickers would be left penniless if they patronized a restaurant with morels on the menu. For Buckshot, the moment he hands over a morel to the buyer is the last time he’ll ever touch it – partly because he doesn’t like the taste (“I think they stink when you throw ‘em on a frying pan,” he says). But mostly because he lives by the principle: Don’t swallow what you can sell. “I never eat money,” he says.
But Buckshot is a rare breed. Many of the pickers along Ojay Main will be taking home a healthy chunk of their spoils – that is, whatever they don’t eat here at camp. Out on the burn, Blaine Tchir rushes over to a patch of a dozen or so morels nestled up to a fallen tree. “That’s a nice one. That’s a nice one.” He repeats the refrain while snapping the mushrooms off their stems and squirreling them away in his coat pockets. “We will bring back our own dinner,” he says. He knows he could sell the morels he eats for $8 a pound.
But anyone who came out for the money this year will most likely leave disappointed. By mid-June, most buyers are paying between $6 and $8 a pound. Last year, when morels were scarce, pickers in the Yukon were fetching as much as $14 a pound. But those burns proved challenging to access, and costly. To get into the burn, pickers had to pay $20 for a ferry taxi, then $50 for an ATV ride, one way. Some of the most fertile ground was found on Little Salmon-Carmacks territory. Deterred by out-of-towners who scattered their garbage around their campsites, the First Nation only allowed Northern Tutchone citizens to pick on their land. But for anyone who could find their way in, it was a real bonanza.
Tanner Coyne, a picker on this year’s Red Deer Creek fire, was there. “That was crazy money,” Coyne says. “Carmax was insane. Like you just go out two K, find your own patch and pick in a circle all day.”
Coyne and his friend Sage Nowak have come to the burn from Whitehorse. They’re a couple of trim, dark-haired men in their early 20s. They talk in a lazy stoner’s drawl, and Nowak uses profanity like an adjective. When they’re not picking, Coyne is a self-proclaimed “international diamond driller” working as an electrician at diamond mines all over the world. Nowak is a carver of First Nations masks. Neither of them has been able to bring in the kind of money they were hoping for. They’ve been pulling in about 40 pounds a day, which they sell for between $250 and $300. And they can’t pick every day. Buyers won’t accept rain-soaked morels because they don’t want to pay for the weight of the extra water hiding in the mushrooms’ stems. So, on a day like this, when the clouds roll over, Coyne and Nowak are sitting idle.
“I came out here to make my fortune and it’s just not working out,” Nowak says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to make 10 grand!’ And I have, like, 600 bucks.”
But Coyne would rather be here than anywhere else. “I didn’t come here to make my yearly wage. I could have had a $50 [an hour] job just hatin’ life. But I get to camp out here,” he says.
Who Buys Alberta's Wild Mushrooms?
Across camp, buyer Earl Jorgensen sits in front of a cooking fire nursing a beer. As a buyer, Jorgensen is the king of this camp. The 40 or so pickers here all pitched their tents in this spot to be close to him. Many of them know him from previous years, and he keeps a clean camp, refusing to sell alcohol on site because he doesn’t want to attract “that kind of crowd.” He has brown locks curving around his cheekbones and the gentle demeanour of a kindergarten teacher.
He got into mushroom picking as a young man. He heard there was money to be made in foraging for pine mushrooms, which were going for hundreds of dollars a pound back in the 80s, so he rushed to the mountains along the Sunshine Coast.
“I kind of fell into a mushroom patch,” he says. “It started with $35 a pick. Then I went in the next day and it was $385 and I never looked back.”
He now spends up to eight months of the year on the land foraging and buying for West Coast Wild. It starts in December with maple syrup, then on to stinging nettle, fiddleheads, maple blossom and elderberry blossom. And in May, the morel harvest begins.
“The biggest demand is for the morels,” he says. “Absolutely.”
Jorgensen walks over to what he calls his “MacGyver” tent, because it’s cobbled together with whatever they have around. Like many of the drying tents out here, it’s wood-framed and covered in a thick, white sheet. Inside, hundreds of mushrooms, which look like cone-shaped sponges, dry on thin pallets stacked two metres high, and which slide seamlessly into racks. The whole contraption resembles a cafeteria tray-return centre. About 75 people a day unload an average of 1,200 pounds of morels at this drying tent each day. Business is so good, Jorgensen has to ship out the morels as soon as they’re dried. He’s been here since May, and he’ll stick around as long as the forest bears fruit.
The Mushroom Picking Lifestyle
Down the road, Whitehead is preparing to pack up for the year. His crew shakes perforated plastic containers filled with dried morels. They’re trying to loosen the dirt and pine needles before packing them into boxes. When dry, morels have the consistency of a peanut shell. So from a few yards away, you’d think they were having a maraca dance party. They don’t get paid for this. They do it to help out Whitehead. Everyone at Whitehead’s camp started out as strangers, coming from all over Canada to pick for Untamed Feast. But after a month in the wild, they’re leaving as friends. The season could last for another month or so, but Whitehead has what he needs: about 600 pounds of dried morels.
Unlike most wholesalers, Whitehead doesn’t export his products. He packages them into small pouches and processes them into stovetop-ready meals. Every one of them will stay right here in Canada.
“I’m exposing Canadians to the great resources right here in our backyard,” he says, while raking his fingers through a pile of dried morels. “I got about $100,000 worth of mushrooms in camp right now,” he says. “I could sell it tomorrow on the phone and just walk away. I make the same amount of money and I work all year to get it into my little packages and hand sort it and stuff. But then I have a brand.”
Wild food has been gaining favour among Canadians in recent years. It’s seen as an extension of the militant food purity movement, which started with organic, then moved on to local and raw. Now food purists are hungry for products that have been foraged by hand in the Canadian wilderness. “It’s all part of the same path for people,” says Jeremy Budd, co-founder of West Coast Wild. “We’ve always known that wild food is the true organic. It’s what organic tries to emulate.”
In 2013, Whitehead landed an appearance on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. One of the Dragons, Arlene Dickinson, was won over by Whitehead’s pitch. The deal eventually fell through, but the exposure garnered interest from other investors looking to partner with him. In the end, Whitehead declined their offers. “You start thinking, ‘Why did I do this in the first place?’” he says, while lounging in front of a campfire. “To do my own thing. To be free. To be able to go out in the bush for months at a time. Do I want to be in a suit in an office trying to jangle somebody’s horn? It’d be great financially, but you’d sacrifice your lifestyle.”