At 5:00 a.m., thick morning haze slowly gives way to daylight. In an area of the Pioneer burn designated for commercial morel picking, charred trees dot the forest. The ground is a mix of black ash and new plant life.
Siong Lee of central California walks through the forest, eyes downcast. He is looking for something very specific: morel mushrooms.
Lee and his picking partner spread out from each other, but stay in touch over walkie talkies, speaking their native language of Hmong.
Minutes go by without a single mushroom. Then . . .
"Mushroom over here!" Lee shouts. It's a small one, but Lee cuts the mushroom from the base of its trunk and plonks it into his bucket.
Late last summer, the Pioneer fire in the Boise National Forest was the largest wildfire in the entire American West. It burned for more than four months and consumed nearly 200,000 acres. But life rises from the ashes.
Nearly a year after the blaze, a diverse flock of foragers are scouring the charred ground for a gourmet treasure: morels.
Not long after finding the first morel of the morning, Lee points to a small cluster of tiny white stumps.
"See, somebody take this one -- they take all the heavy ones."
Even though it’s the first day the Pioneer burn is open to commercial morel harvesters, someone has been here before, and they’ve taken all the big mushrooms. It's a big disappointment.
Lee drove to Idaho from Oregon, where he was picking morels in another burn area at lower elevation. He was hoping to hit big in the Pioneer, and has spent nearly a month scouting good mushroom spots before the season officially opened June 1.
Morels are a culinary delicacy. They are nearly impossible to cultivate. So each spring, foragers like Lee take to the woods to harvest the wild mushrooms. Burn areas are known for being particularly fecund.
Morels are one of the more lucrative quarries for professional foragers. Aaron Campbell of south-central Washington is another picker banking on the Pioneer.
"This is big. When these burns come, you make your money for the year in these burns," Campbell says.
By changing crops and picking what’s in season, Campbell can make a living as a forager year-round.
“Basically year-round I’ll start up north and work my way down south for the winter. And then when spring comes I come back up north and keep making the loop on the mushroom circuit." Campbell says the lifestyle suits him. "It's pretty free . . . you can go where you want and work where you want."
Mushrooms are a big part of Campbell’s income. He picks yellow chantrelles, white chantrelles, matsutakis, cauliflower, chaga, yellowfeet and black trumpets -- but he also depends on berries and greens, like fiddlehead ferns and miner’s lettuce, to round out his year.
Like Lee, Campbell says picking in the Pioneer burn hasn’t been as profitable as he hoped.
“I know what good mushroom ground is and should be, and it’s here, but there’s these huge portions of the burn that’s closed, and they cram pickers into these tiny little areas, and just the amount of pickers overwhelms . . . well, the mushrooms can’t keep up with us.”
To manage pickers here, the Forest Service set up specific zones for personal-use pickers and commercial pickers. But most of the burn area is open to neither. Campbell says that's unusual in his experience. As is the $300 price tag for a permit.
In other words, the overhead trumps the undergrowth.
Lowman district ranger John Kidd says they set the picking zones based on access and safety.
“We looked at road access and elevation and where we thought people would have the best chance of getting mushrooms," Kidd says.
As for the $300 permit:
“We set that price based on the market. To you and I it seems like a lot of money, but if they’re getting $10/lb. for mushrooms, it doesn’t take very many pounds to make up $300."
Kidd’s office is saddled with a major restoration process -- they have plans to reseed, plant trees, restore riparian areas to prevent erosion, log salvage, remove deadfall that’s blocking roads -- the list goes on. Mushrooms, he adds, are a very small part of their workload right now.
“We didn’t have people to spend a lot of time planning for mushrooms. We did the best we could," Kidd says. "We would’ve preferred not having a mushroom season, but we knew it was coming so we did the best we could to prepare for it."
Kidd points out that wildfire isn’t the only thing that triggers morels.
“If there’s a timber sale or some kind of disturbance out there, those areas are good to go and pick in also."
One forager described the process this way -- any disturbance in the forest stresses the mushroom’s underground mycelium. If you liken a mushroom to an apple tree, the mycelium is the tree, and the morel is the fruit, or the apple. When the mycelium is stressed -- by a burn, for instance -- it spurs the organism to sprout morels that’ll spore in hopes of repopulating an area.
After nearly an hour of picking the first day of the season, things are finally looking up for Siong Lee. He finds a pocket where the morels are flush. More than a dozen large, plump mushrooms stare up at him.
"Nobody picked these ones!" he laughs.
The person who picked this area before Lee missed these.
At the end of each day, Lee will drive his harvest over to Idaho City or Lowman, where a commercial buyer looks over his haul and pays him by the pound. The going rate is about $10/lb. -- but it fluctuates based on how many morels pickers are bringing in and the quality of the mushrooms. Lee needs to make a couple hundred dollars a day for the trip to be worth it for him.
If the morels keep up, Lee says he’ll stay on the Pioneer for the entire 30-day picking window. After that, he’ll point his truck West and start after the season’s next prize: huckleberries.
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