Burn Morels

I have been trying to find morels for a long time. For years. Last year, I found my first morel on Sauvie Island, but it was my only one. Just one modest mushroom. While I was in North Wales at the cusp of March and April, I kept in touch a forager from South Wales. He posted a photo of a morel on Twitter.

Chills of FOMO went down my spine. Wales, even South Wales, is colder that Portland and it has been an unusually warm spring in Portland. If there were morels in South Wales, there should be morels in Oregon. I checked the Cascade Mycological Society forum for sightings. On March 28 someone who lived not far from Portland had harvested pounds. POUNDS. And there I was in Wales missing the season.

A woman on Sauvie Island had told Eric and I that the morels arrive around the time that the lilacs are blooming. The white lilacs in my backyard broke into splendor when I got home from Wales.

There are a few types of morels I’m familiar with. Throughout the spring, I keep my eyes out for landscape morels. Landscape morels appear where someone has laid down wood-chips. These morels might appear in your very own yard beside your strawberry plants. You never know. What causes these morels to grow in one set of woodchips and not another? It’s very mysterious. I have never found one.

Riparian morels grow in low elevation wetlands. The morel I found last year on Sauvie Island was a riparian morel under a copse of cottonwood trees.

Then there are burn morels: The hopeful silver lining of thousands of acres of lovely Northwest forest burned into cinders by a carless act of the sort Smokey the Bear warns us about.

The 36 Pit Fire began last September southeast of Estacada on either side of the Clackamas River, causing evacuations, significant road closures, and eventually landslides. As the smoke reached Portland, my first thought was shamefully of morels, and secondly “Oh, that’s terrible.”

This weekend Eric and I went to the burn with another mushroom enthusiast couple and their tiny poodle. We first tried a scorched hill right off the road. Eric saw several snakes. But it was steep and there were too many crumbling rocks, not enough biomatter.

Two men were carrying bags, a telltale sign of mushroom hunters. It was a hot day and one of them was wearing a thick hand-knit sweater. The man dressed in weather-appropriate clothing told us it was too dry, look in areas where water is seeping up through the soil. Also, look for a flat area. Not because it’s a better place for morels, but because scrambling up and down hills is tough on the knees.

“I encountered two women who have been combing up and down the hillsides for an hour,” he told us. “They only found 10 morels.”

That didn’t sound too bad to me.

There was one other place we could try. He told us which road to take to get up ridgeline. The elevation was higher, but the weather had been unseasonably warm so morels were popping out early.

“Look around burned out logs,” he said.

I asked to hold one of his two morels. I cupped it in my right hand feeling the flexible rubbery cone with my fingers. I wanted to get the search image of this morel in my mind.

We drove up the ridgeline. It was dry. We searched for a couple hours and found nothing. We drove halfway back down, hoping it would be wetter. A man in an elevated 4-wheel truck carrying off-roading vehicles in the back stopped and shook his head at us.

“Are you looking for mushrooms?”

“Yes!” I said. “We haven’t found any.”

“We found some just around the bend up there,” he said.

“Where?”

“Look for cedar,” he said.

“We were just up there. How many miles back?”

The man shrugged and drove off.

Look for cedar. There was a bit of information we had been missing. We drove back up the hill, past where we had been looking previously, and came across an area with burned cedar. But it was only young cedar with a few stumps from earlier logging. Would this be enough?

I stood in front of a blackened cedar stump and stared at the soil. There. To my right, a gray and tan cone, the color of the ground, the diameter of my pinky. And there to my left, one the diameter of my thumb. I called the group over. Once you see a morel in its habitat, many more become apparent. We found 15 small morels in total. We might have found more in time, but I was feeling overheated and it was getting late in the day. Fifteen morels isn’t much to eat, but enough to feel accomplished.

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