Sunday, May 07, 2006

Yukon Gold

Magic Mushrooms

Published: May 7, 2006

Shawn Ryan and Cathy Wood live on a pile of rocks. The pile begins 11 miles south of Dawson City, Canada, where the paved roads end, and meanders like a giant worm tunnel along the banks of the Klondike River. In this sparsely populated region in Yukon Territory, Ryan and Wood run a small geological exploration company. But every so often, when the previous season's forest fires have been good and severe, they stop prospecting for a few weeks and go out with a group of friends in search of another type of natural commodity, one that is also globally prized and instantly exchangeable for cash. With any luck, they'll come back with thousands upon thousands of pounds of wild morels.

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Frank Schweret

Scott Fleming scours for morels, filling each basket with over 10 pounds.

Rumors of a great morel boom began to circulate more than a year ago, while the skies above Dawson City were still hazy with smoke. The promise was tantalizing. Even in comparison with many wild mushrooms, morels are elusive. With their deeply pitted surface, impudent shape and complex smell of fresh dirt and raw milk, morels can be found in modest quantities in orchards and under dead elms, but they can grow most abundantly beneath charred trees after a fire.

The far Northwest has seen big morel flushes in the past, but in the summer of 2004, with more than 10 million acres burning across the western Yukon and the interior of Alaska, stories of an unprecedented bonanza quickly spread by phone and e-mail through an extended network of pickers and buyers. By last spring, the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Alaska was teaching workshops on how to pick, and newspapers were publishing stories about the morel harvest that evoked the history of the Klondike stampede, when thousands of people climbed the Chilkoot Pass in search of gold.

In late June of 2005, I succumbed to the lure and arranged to travel north with David Arora, the author of the classic field guide "Mushrooms Demystified." Arora has been researching the commercial mushroom harvest for many years, and he has deep ties to a world that is simultaneously flamboyant and insular, with something of the frontier in it, as well as something of a traveling carnival.

After flying into Whitehorse, the territorial capital, we drove north, looking for a morel buyer we'd heard about named Bugeye Bob. Twenty-five miles from Dawson City, we pulled into the parking lot of an isolated motel. "Oh, Bugeye got kicked out," said a man with a broad, sunburned, deeply lined face. He was about 50 years old and spoke with a German accent. After a brief, wary conversation, he and Arora determined that they'd met each other before. His name was Wolfgang Habermann, and he was buying morels for a small firm based just outside of Vancouver. The pickers called him Wolfe.

Wolfe had a good spot this year, on the side of the Klondike River Lodge, at the turnoff to a dirt highway heading north to the Beaufort Sea. He was working out of a cinderblock outbuilding 20 feet square, with a folding table at the entrance, a scale and a tarp for shade. Wolfe told us that Bugeye's handouts of free beer and hot dogs to pickers had irritated the owners of the lodge, but he advanced his hypothesis in a dry tone that acknowledged his own self-interest. He didn't mind having the location to himself.

Many of the wild-mushroom buyers know one another. The harvest involves hundreds of regulars who move through the western states picking and buying morels, chanterelles and matsutake, forming improvised camps in the woods, parking their vans and R.V.'s in empty lots, taking over small-town restaurants and cheap hotels for weeks at a time. They compete and argue, but also form fragile partnerships to share costs and split profits when the mushrooms are abundant and teamwork is necessary to get them out of the woods. Pickers sell their mushrooms every day, for cash. The cash comes from a handful of mushroom companies near Vancouver and elsewhere on the West Coast, whose owners front tens of thousands of dollars to field buyers like Wolfe.

Wolfe said his commission was 50 cents for every pound bought and another 50 cents per pound for drying the mushrooms. Over the border in Alaska, some fresh morels were heading to Anchorage, and then onward by overnight delivery to distributors servicing restaurants and gourmet markets across the United States. Here in the Yukon, a small amount of fresh morels were being flown out of Whitehorse, but most were dried and going to Paris, the capital of the international trade. From Paris, the smallest unbroken morels might end up in Bavaria, where tiny specimens are prized; nice-looking, medium-size morels could find themselves in a holiday dish in any bourgeois household in France or Switzerland at Christmas; broken or uglier ones were destined for charcuterie; the dust would be used in seasonings and packaged foods.

A dirty pickup pulled around the corner of the lodge and stopped directly in front of Wolfe's table. The picker, a thin, quiet man whose face and beard were black, asked Wolfe the price, which led to some polite combat.

"Don't know yet," said Wolfe. "I just sent out a couple of spies. I hope it's the same as yesterday."

"What was it yesterday?" asked the picker.

"Weren't you here?"

"I just came. This was my scouting trip."

"Yesterday it was five."

Wolfe meant $5 per pound. There was a prolonged moment of silence. Even under his tarp, it was very warm. At this latitude the sun inches downward and northward all afternoon, sinking but seeming to grow hotter, until by 8 p.m. everybody is sweating and shading their eyes. "I'll give you five, and if it's five-fifty in town I'll make it up,"

Wolfe said. At this, three large, flat, white baskets emerged from the truck.

A commercial mushroom picker does not use a straw or wicker basket, as in folk tales, but rather a large plastic bucket, sometimes drilled with holes. When full, the buckets are poured into shallow boxes of plastic mesh; these are what the pickers call baskets. They are stacked and carried on a backpack frame up to seven high. Each basket will hold more than 10 pounds of morels. Carrying 70 or 80 pounds through the raw brush would seem to require formidable strength, but Arora has seen small men and women do it. "It's not strength so much as toughness," he told me. The best pickers are immune from physical discouragement. Mental resilience is an asset, too, because even in the most likely terrain, morels can be painfully hard to find.

The rocks on which Shawn Ryan and Cathy Wood live are left over from mines, when the dirt was sluiced away from the river banks to expose the gold. Nothing grows on the rock pile, which in places is more than 20 feet high. It is surprisingly beautiful. Ryan runs the prospecting side of their company, while Wood controls the finances. To make a home here, she cinched two tiny cabins together and sealed them with insulation and electrical tape. She waited until her husband was out prospecting, because the new house was hooked up to the electrical grid, which at the time he denounced as superfluous.

Ryan, Wood and their two children are year-round residents in Dawson City, where winter temperatures can hit 50 below. "Don't you get cold?" I asked their daughter, Cheyenne, who is 9 years old. She fixed me with a stare of the widest innocence. "Only when my eyelashes freeze," she said.

As a prospector, Ryan has a great deal of local renown. He has staked many valuable claims. When the bitter weather traps everyone indoors, he keeps himself busy with intricate problems of geology and natural history, which he treats as puzzles. One of his favorite puzzles is: How do morels grow, and when, and where?

The mushroom holds Ryan's interest because it has never been well understood. In the early 1980's, a graduate student named Ron Ower published a landmark paper reporting that he had coaxed morels to fruit in his laboratory. Tragically, just weeks before a patent was granted to Ower and his colleagues, Gary Mills and James Malachowski, Ower was murdered during a mugging in San Francisco. Afterward, his mushroom-growing method passed through many hands, including Domino's Pizza and a mushroom farm in Alabama that claimed to be producing thousands of pounds per week. Today, the Alabama operation is long out of business and Domino's has given up the game. The most popular varieties have never been successfully cultivated.

Ryan hunts for morels using the same tools he uses for prospecting: aerial maps, government data and an intimate knowledge of Yukon geography. He is looking for fires that singe the trees without incinerating all the nutrients below, on slopes where the thick layers of moss burn away. He tracks the soil temperature in the spring, waiting for it to

go above 40 degrees. This year, he planned to take nine pickers 100 miles up the Yukon River to a shallow, silt-obstructed, barely navigable tributary and build a small camp in the woods.

His motives are only partly economic. For years, Ryan and Wood were full-time circuit pickers, and the experience left Ryan with a sense of frustration that he has never been able to resolve. Pickers walk and search, travel for thousands of miles, analyze the weather and the terrain, and then, at last, the mushrooms might come up for a few short weeks in overwhelming amounts. Most of them never get picked. "It's like the guy who found all the gold and didn't have the ability to carry it out," said Ryan. "He fills his shirt and his socks and he still can't get it. It's a hundred-million-dollar strike, and he only gets nine."

This kind of thing drove him crazy. He had long wanted to overcome the uncertainties of the harvest, to have his crew and his boat on the scene when the flush came.

"It's all greed," said Wood. She didn't mean greed for money. She and her husband own nothing fancy, and no picker in history has ever gotten rich off morels. She was talking about a different greed, a primeval desire stimulated by an abundance that owes nothing to human work. "When he is coming out with a boat loaded with mushrooms, like he was a few years ago," she said of Ryan, "he feels like a trapper of the old north coming out with his canoe piled high with furs."

Ryan, who spent his teenage years trapping for fur in the north of Ontario before turning to mushrooms and gold, looked up from the little spreadsheet that detailed the morel fortune he intended to make this year. "Ay," he said, conceding her point, "it's not as fun when you are up in the leprechaun land of the north all by yourself and all those mushrooms are going to waste."

Mushroom populations are not diminished by picking, according to David Arora, who is among the foremost experts on the commercial harvest. This makes the morel harvest a safe harbor for a foraging instinct that has increasingly been chased from the wild and forced to satisfy itself in discount outlets. Arora says there isn't any credible evidence that pickers damage the fungal life cycle; he's been out on the mushroom trail in India and China, where villagers and schoolchildren take almost every morel out of the ground, and still the mushrooms return, even proliferate. Morel mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the fungus, analogous to blackberries on a blackberry bush.

Analogous, that is, if the branches of the blackberry were underground, nearly invisible and typically fruited in a different place every year.

Driving near Dawson City one afternoon, I noticed a large, empty lot near town that was full of junked equipment. In the middle of the lot was an overturned table and a wooden sign half-tumbled in the dust. The sign was unreadable, but by now I was familiar with the gestalt of a morel-buying situation, so I made a sharp turn and went in. There, next to a non-working Dodge Caravan, introducing himself with the kind of blustery friendliness that must have helped thousands of pickers over the years shake off the gloom of the woods, was Bugeye Bob. He was a stocky man whose blue eyes were entirely normal. "I used to be known as Barnaby Bob until a spider bit me," he explained. The swelling went away, but his new nickname stuck.

Bugeye's season was not going well. His Dodge was broken down. His situation at the lodge had proven untenable. He did not yet have his station going. But the biggest problem was one that he shared with all the other buyers this year: the mushrooms were up, but the pickers were scarce. "Come welfare day, they'll come," Bugeye said. "Their checks arrive, they can buy gas, they'll be here."

He did not sound sure. The ups and downs of the mushroom market are mysterious even to its participants. Most morels in the Yukon are gathered by itinerant pickers, which means that buyers must rely upon the unplanned, unpredictable convergence of many small, independent groups: ex-loggers, Southeast Asian immigrants, students on break, pensioners, Mexican and Central American crews who organize themselves for a trip north, recipients of government disability checks who prefer not to report extra income and many other wanderers who have little in common except a streak of nonconformism and, if they are to succeed, an economically irrational love of foraging that compensates for frequent failures. The circuit swells and shrinks in response to last season's field prices, regional trends in employment, the cost of gas, the hassle immigration officials give pickers moving back and forth across the border and, most obscurely of all, the pickers' judgment about whether the season will be good. Recently, competition in morels from Asia had been putting pressure on the buyers, who were working hard to keep the field prices down. Also, a decline in Japanese demand hurt the matsutake season, which bankrolls many of the circuit pickers for their subsequent journeys. For these, and possibly for other, unknown reasons, Yukon buyers were facing a labor shortage.

The structure of the North American mushroom harvest is unusual. Arora, who first encountered the circuit pickers in the early 90's while working with the Department of Forest Science at Oregon State University, noted that the United States and Canada have a rare combination of vast, publicly accessible lands and widespread private ownership of automobiles. That allows pickers to go after the small, clean chanterelles of the Queen Charlotte Islands in the late summer, matsutake in British Columbia in the fall, the big, muddy chanterelles and black trumpets of California in the winter, and morels in the spring, starting with the morels in Oregon and working northward for months. No single picker would ever make the whole circuit, because mushroom flushes are brief and occur thousands of miles apart. Instead there are halting, unforeseeable flows influenced by events nobody can control.

The unpredictability leads to speculation.

"It is one of the craziest markets I've ever seen or heard of, and I'm an economist by training," said Peter Moroz.

I had been looking for Moroz for days, ever since I'd been told that he was running the biggest, fanciest mushroom dryer in the Yukon. For a while, I had wondered if someone was pulling my leg. Most morel drying is decidedly low-tech, with screens set out in the sun, simple electrical heaters and store-bought fans. Adding to my skepticism, I first heard about the amazing giant dryer during a long afternoon of gossip at a buying station in the woods.

The station was run by a man named Psycho Rick, and he was the type of compelling narrator who represents a clear and present danger to journalists. Psycho Rick displayed his enormous pack and described his method of removing it from his back after bringing out 120 pounds of morels. He pulled up the legs of his jeans to show the long scars on his knees. The ground in the burned woods can be extremely slick when wet, with a layer of ash over a muddy subsurface that pickers compare to the excrement of geese. The worst thing was to slip and fall. "I've hit the ground so hard I've had to go like this," Rick said as he mimed pulling pieces of dirt from out between his teeth. Then he corrected himself. The worst thing was not merely to slip and fall but to die. "We lost four in the last year," Rick claimed. "Two in a head-on with a logging truck, one guy gored himself, one was ate by a grizz."

"How did he gore himself?" I asked. Psycho Rick explained that sometimes the fire burns the logs to a sharpened point, and last year this picker took a tumble on a hill headfirst and got a charcoal spear embedded in his chest.

Two days later, the credibility of the chitchat at Psycho Rick's rose quite a bit when, after driving back and forth on the Klondike Highway many times, I found an obscurely marked turnoff, pulled around a bend in the rock pile and discovered a very large, remarkably pristine structure made of wood and plastic. At the entrance was a tall man with rosy cheeks and an intelligent face, across which flashed frequent signs of mental stress. This was Peter Moroz. He used to be a special adviser to the cabinet in the province of Saskatchewan. Anticipating a huge morel boom, he had invested in this drying operation to handle the overflow.

"But my little gamble hasn't paid off," said Moroz, "and I'm eating a whole lot of cheese."

Moroz showed off his dryer, with its automatic regulators, fans and heaters. He had the capacity to handle more than 4,000 pounds of mushrooms each day. "The Yukon morel is a perfect morel," he said. "Look at this one." He picked up a mushroom that was about as long as my thumb, with a black cap and a pale gray ring at the bottom where the stem had been cut. It was as symmetrical as an ace on a playing card. He urged me to tap it with my fingernail. The sound was clear and hollow. Unfortunately, Moroz didn't have many like it. Inside his dryer were row after row of empty racks. He was attempting to comfort himself with a historical view. "That's the Yukon for you," Moroz said. "A lot of guys left after the gold rush with only the pack on their back."

We were now into the last week of June. "We're all losing our shirts," confirmed Pierre Brulot, a Canadian from France who had come to the Yukon hoping to purchase many thousands of pounds. "There aren't enough pickers in the woods."

With the fruiting season reaching its climax and almost nobody to hunt the mushrooms, the price held steady, and then began to rise. Soon it was $6 per pound.

Before the end of the season it would hit $7. This was good news for Shawn Ryan. His haul last year was 6,000 pounds. This time he expected to do even better. To prove it, he took Arora and me on a scouting trip to a burned forest that caught his interest while he was prospecting this spring. The hike was dramatic. The landscape was fascinating. We did not find a single morel.

Other pickers had been coming in with full baskets, and Arora cheerfully taunted our guide. But Ryan was undaunted. "We're playing a game of statistical probability," he said. An empiricist, Ryan holds that not finding mushrooms is almost as informative as finding them, as each negative result narrowed the scope of his search.

This sounded to me like an excuse, and I searched his face for signs of embarrassment. I found none, and three days later we were up the river with his crew.

Ryan promised to bring us to a slope that would contain more morels than we had ever seen before. "Did you even go and check out this patch?" asked Cathy Wood. They had brought their children along, and everybody was planning to pick. "I don't need to do that, dear," Ryan said. "I walk with confidence now. It's a statistical thing."

Ryan is stocky, not very tall, with a large chest and forearms that swell slightly below the elbow from carrying heavy things. He led us along a swampy creekside and then up into the stumps and skeletons of fir. His pace through the woods was brutally fast. There was no path, of course, just blackened trees, which made thick lines across our hands and clothes as we pushed through.

Morels often have the same color as the ground they grow in. This makes them hard to spot, so pickers hunting in marginal areas will distrust what they see, making second and third visual sweeps, staring hard at a shadow, commanding stray shapes to resolve themselves into morels. The mushrooms grow secretly; and perhaps this is why, as soon as we got into the larger trees, the enormous clumps of morels seemed shockingly, almost illicitly bold. Nature had abandoned its modesty. There were morels everywhere.

"That's just to keep you salivating," said Ryan. He had a point to make, and he did not let us stop. "Keep walking. Come on," he said. This was torment to Arora, who had finally reached the bonanza he had been hearing about for weeks. The more Arora wanted to pick, the faster Ryan hurried him, until the scene was like something out of Aesop's fables, with Arora begging to stop and Ryan enticing him forward. "Ay, there's so much more," said Ryan, "this is just the beginning." He moved another 300 feet away.

Finally, as if paralyzed by the richness of the strike, we stood and talked among the mushrooms, not even picking. Across the valley, on the other side of the creek, we could see the cinnamon-colored tops of singed trees. "If there's mushrooms here, I eat my hat!" Ryan said, and gave his trumpeting laugh. He was quoting what a French buyer said to him 15 years ago, before commercial pickers had discovered the Yukon.

There in the forest, Ryan told us that he had been studying Ron Ower's patent. He had an idea about how to grow morels, not in the lab but here in the woods, in succeeding years after a burn. "The goal is to get a good chunk of coin with mining, then go into cultivation," he said.

I could not believe my ears. Here in this remarkable patch of mushrooms — perhaps too many for him to harvest quickly enough, even with his crew — Shawn Ryan, trapper and prospector, was talking about agriculture. But agriculture has nothing to do with this sort of unbidden glory. Agriculture involves steadfast attachment, a rhythm of reciprocal actions. Agriculture is work.

A few weeks later, when I gave him a call, Ryan was back to normal. I had left him in camp with his family and crew. They were getting huge quantities of morels, drying them in racks, going out twice a day and returning with six or seven baskets each time — crushing weight. Going to sleep under the blue sky at midnight, they were filthy and tired. When they weren't picking, they were felling trees, building dryers, shuttling supplies in and out. Ryan was running up bills with the local helicopter firm he uses for his exploration jobs, getting them to drop in more necessities for his crew: bacon, cigarettes, coffee.

In retrospect, this effort left no trace in his mind. "It's not like we had a job," he said. I found this hilarious, and laughed out loud. "We made money out of nothing, out of thin air!" All he remembered is that he discovered treasure, that one day he went for a walk in the woods and found a fortune there.


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