Another day in the blasted, blackened morel woods.
In the East and the Midwest, morel hunting is a pretty affair. The world is green, the air cool and, for the most part, the morels are blonde, making them stand out against the verdant landscape. This is not like hunting morel mushrooms in the West. Here, most of our morels are the bittersweet fruit of the forest fire. Fire causes the morels to fruit in huge numbers. It can be epic.
This year, the Rim Fire near Yosemite is one such place. I’ve heard reports and seen pictures of thousands of morels within one frame of the camera. Unbelievable numbers. A Gold Rush bonanza. But I am not at the Rim Fire. For reasons only they can know, the mandarins who oversee the Stanislaus National Forest have refused to allow mushroomers access to the fire zone; normally we can buy permits to pick in national forests. Word is the rangers are handing out huge fines and are patrolling the area on horseback. It’s a total shitshow, one I want no part of. So I stick to quieter places.
You should know that all burns are not created equal: Some might look good, but produce no morels. Sometimes this is because of elevation — in my experience, burn morels occur mostly above 3000 feet — sometimes it’s the soil, sometimes tree composition (morels out here like conifers), and sometimes it’s a matter of the intensity of the fire and the age of the trees burned. A fierce burn in an older section of forest will be a better place for morels than a controlled burn in a young wood.
Timing is also important. Every morel hunter knows the best mushrooming is in the year after the fire. Some burns peter out the following year. Some are nearly as good in the second year as the first. Most progress something like this: First year after the fire being a 10, the second a 5, the third a 3, the fourth maybe a 1. But not always. I know of one wildfire that’s seven years old and still produces a nice little crop of morels. Why I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because loggers keep chewing up the area, cutting salvage wood and gnashing the soil.
Burn morels are a creature of disturbance. If the forest is a hellscape, you are in the right spot.
Catching the flush is even more important than catching the year. In general, I look for days in the 70s and nights in the 40s, although I’ve seen flushes in the mountains when the daytime temperatures top 85°F. Good indicators of morels are the wild onions that grow all over after a burn: They should be just starting to send up flowers.
The ground will look terrible, but it’s deceiving you. Feel the soil under the matted fir needles. It should be cool and moist. If it’s not, you are too late.
There are two fungal neighbors to morels you should also look for. Both are cup mushrooms. The first is easy to spot: It’s a little orange cup that looks superficially like a piece of tangerine peel; I think this is Aleuria aurantia. The second is mostly buried in the soil, but breaks through as it opens. This is the violet cup fungus, Sarcosphaera coronaria. If you see those two mushrooms, morels should be nearby. Note the emphasis on “should.”
I keep a Google alert for fires in my part of the Sierra. Some are wildfires, some prescribed burns. Once the spring hits, I head up the hill to scout them. I am always too early. Always. Our morel flush isn’t the earliest in the country, so the Southerners and even Midwesterners are getting big numbers by the time our morels show up. It can be frustrating, so I look and walk and look and walk. I think the earliest I’ve yet found morels in the Sierra was Tax Day, but it’s normally the first week of May. I climb up the mountain chasing them as far as there are burns.
It’s a lot of long days in the truck, and on foot. Usually the forest is quiet but for birds. Oregon juncos trilling, chickadees singing “cheese-bur-ger! Cheese-bur-ger!” Flickers and creepers nasally honking to one another. Every once in a while, I’ll hear that subterranean thrum that always startles me. It sounds like its beneath normal human hearing, but you can sense it anyway. Then there’s a furious rush of wings and the blue grouse has rocketed off to the next ridge. Heart-stopping and wondrous all at the same time.
My footfalls crunch and crackle over burnt twigs and matted pine and fir needles. That rush I hear: Is it car? No, just the wind in the pines. I rarely see other humans when I am mushroom hunting, and I do most of my mushrooming solo. It lets me be quiet, for at least a little while.
Hunting morels in a burn isn’t all fun and games. I’ve fallen waist-deep into the burned-out root ball of a ponderosa pine. I’ve turned my ankle, slid down charred hillsides and have had burnt twigs narrowly miss my eyeball. And about once a year, I have a visitor. Usually it’s a black bear just at the edge of the forest, where I can barely see him. Intellectually I know he’s probably not a threat, but after spending countless hours alone in the woods, it’s alarming nonetheless. Twice, however, I’ve felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck and had the feeling I was being watched. I was. Once I saw the lion sprint away, the other time I only heard him. Sobering.
Mostly, however, it’s all a matter of putting in miles. Secondary burns are not bonanza spots. They’re more like regular mushroom hunting in that you might find one here, two there, a patch of 10 under one particularly nice tree. But putting weight in your sack takes time. A good day is a pound, maybe five. A bad day is a whole lotta hiking for nothing.
Actually that’s not true. It’s not nothing. It’s a chance to see up close and personal how a forest resurrects itself. Even after a catastrophic fire, the very next spring life re-emerges. Fir and spruce and pine sprout by the thousands. Manzanita and gooseberry shake off the cinders as if nothing special had happened the previous summer. Wild onions get all the light they need and grow fat by the thousands. Fireweed sends its floral spires three feet into the air, a phoenix after the flames.
And standing above it all are the Lords of the Forest, the great ponderosa and sugar pines that seem impervious to time and fire and snow and ice. These are the mother trees, sometimes soaring 200 feet above me. I kneel at their feet, partly in awe — and partly because I know that under these trees grow morels.