4Bags (As In: 4 Bags of F&%KING Morel Mushrooms)

I once addressed the issue of GPS waypoint nomenclature in this blog. Naming landmark mushroom patches is critical. If you own a GPS unit and have the presence of mind to name your waypoints, you will find the tool handy as all get out and retain awesome boasting rights that others will lovingly hate you for. Point: if you don’t label your waypoints, you might think a chanterelle patch is where you parked the car and spend some time wandering around the woods wondering where on earth the vehicle could be. Counterpoint: sometimes, it just makes plain sense to name a spot 4Bags (as in, 4 bags of morel mushrooms).

morel mushrooms
A bag of morel mushrooms, Morchella conica

There are two mushroom hunters I know who drive giant white Dodge Ram vans into the gnarliest spots on earth. They chose the Rams for a simple reason: when you’re blazing through some nasty territory, be it a decrepit logging road covered in clay or up above near the snow line in the Rockies on washboard gravel tracks, it’s critical to be able to have the vehicular equivalent of fight or flight. To wit: these vans can either dodge or ram anything in their way. Of course, Norm and Dave will tell you that there are plenty of northern Cali mushroomers who drive huge unmarked white vans, but I conducted a informal poll of others who haunt the woods with a similar degree of frequency as these two gents. Each of my respondents told me that finding those two vans parked on a forest service road is a sure sign that Norm, Dave, and a metric assload of mushrooms are close by.

Besides being diehard mushroom hunters, Norm and Dave also seem to thrive on sharing their passion and thrill of the hunt. For years, they’ve run forays for all sorts of mycophiles. Their outfit, Wild About Mushrooms, goes whole hog when it comes to the best parts about mushroom hunting— WAM camps are all about awesome food, abundant wine, huge fires, and lots of lore sharing and storytelling. And of course, since they’re both crack fungal scouts, going out with WAM means coming home happy, sometimes ecstatic.

Dave is more the adventuring type; he frequently goes out alone, camping for days at a time in ruined forests and controlled burn zones, with no one around for miles except for drunken gun nuts and deer. He skips town as soon as the Idaho flash floods trigger the giant western porcini, and makes a trip to Italy each year to make sure he gets a crack at the finest fungi in the EU.

 

morel mushroom camp
Norm in his natural habitat: morel mushroom camp.

Norm is also adventurous, no question, but he also is more the curmudgeonly engineer of this duo, waiting for his intrepid partner in crime to phone him up from the patch and summon him forth for the hunt. Despite his day job at Tesla Motors, Norm tag teams mushrooms with Dave fiercely. Norm’s eye for the quarry is uncanny— he routinely enjoys walking behind others who are hunting, just so he can point out all the prime specimens that were left behind. He also delights in other prankery— stealing baskets and maps, supergluing wine keys to tables, hiding garlic cloves inside tea kettles, using an air horn as a safety whistle…none of these antics are off limits to the ironically named Norm.

Obviously, I am fond of both of these chaps. They both seem to have figured out what’s important, given the fundamental parts of their respective personalities. For David: freedom, spontaneity and a deep commitment to giving the Forest Service a what-for when they really need it, and sharing the joy of his discoveries with others. For Norm: excellence, precision, preparedness, and a sense of the absurd embedded like a gem in a sharp mind. And somehow for both of them, white Dodge Ram vans are also critically important. And large tarps.

Morel mushroom season is one of those things that makes people strange in the head. In the fall, when many different prized species are abundant, mushroomers are a chummy bunch, and its a pretty rosy, bucolic experience to hunt fall fungi. Many of the autumn mushrooms live on the coast, in valleys and lush woodlands that are a delight to visit. Morel mushrooms, on the other hand, are one of the few mushrooms worth eating that come up during the spring.

Morel mushrooms are still being studied and keyed out by evolutionary biologists, and the Latin

names for different species of morel mushroom are likely to change in the future as more becomes known about them. Numerous species of morel grow worldwide, and as with most things mycological, DNA testing and analysis is changing the landscape of our understanding of these fickle little mushrooms. However, below is quick and dirty description of one of the most common morel mushrooms in North America.

The most abundant morel mushrooms are called disturbance morels, or Morchella conica. They grow in burn zones, slash piles, wood mulch, roadside debris and other disturbed habitats. Finding them is very rewarding: they’re disguised to look like pine cones, leaves, and a variety of other things, so learning to spot them is rather tough, and very satisfying once you get the hang of it. Once you find one morel (usually spotted out of the corner of your eye), it’s likely you’re actually surrounded by others that you failed to notice, so I typically hit the deck the second I see one of these little honeycombed beauties. Since they grow in recently disturbed areas, morels rove across the countryside in a way that’s less than predictable. For this reason amongst others, morel mushroom hunters are a secretive lot— finding them is such a challenge that having someone zoom your patch is a distinct and painful possibility.

One time, I brought a small batch of fresh morel mushrooms to a friend, and he passed it around to his companions to smell. A youngish woman with dreds and a big grin noted, “Wow, they smell like blood.” I guess that’s true to some extent: to me the aroma of morchella is earthy and carnal, and their flavor is indescribably wild. The main thing that made this comment stick in my mind, however, is that being a good morel hunter is like being a fungal bloodhound. You have to know what to look for in the environment, rather than just knowing whereto look.

By contrast Chanterelle mushrooms are almost painfully loyal: they grow perennially in partnership with various plants, and so you can return to the same spot each year to gather mushrooms. Since morel mushrooms (especially disturbance morels) live wherever the hell they please, knowing how to chase them requires an uncanny sensibility for where they thrive.

So now that I’ve presented the dramatis personae, it’s time to talk about 4bags. One day in mid-May, Norman Andresen and David Campbell went out after Morchella conica in the wilds between Lake Tahoe and the American River. Norm and Dave knew that it was going to be a good weekend out, and as the vans rolled northeast into the pine-fir vastness of the Sierra Nevada, there was much excited chatter on the walkie talkies to keep the drive from becoming monotonous. An exploratory mission the week before had rendered significant tonnage of morels, and it seemed only logical to expect even better results now, considering that the air had warmed into the mid-60s and there were scattered showers all week long. They had two other friends with them this time: Kevin and George, also van drivers (and therefore men of merit and fortitude in the face of bad roads and high gas prices).

They caravanned down a busted out forest service road, trying to leave plenty of distance between them so that gaping potholes, felled branches and other hazards would be visible long enough to respond appropriately (see: Dodge or Ram). Every so often, a pause to check the GPS and cross-reference it with the USFS map; oftentimes there is no signage out there, and if it exists it can be deceiving (I’ve several times bombed down a paved road that the Forest Service told me led out, only to discover a closed road block and a turnabout). Also, sometimes the map doesn’t match the GPS, and neither of them really seem to align with the architecture of the land.

After a couple stops to briefly snoop about in a few likely looking habitats, Norm and David announced they’d gotten to an area that was worth hiking around for a while. It’s a funny thing about mushroom hunting: sometimes you spend a few hours in a single spot, not more than 100 yards from your vehicle, picking to your heart’s content. When you get back to home or camp, you realize that your day in the woods did not supply you with any cardio. Other days, mushroom hunting means walking for miles and pretending you’re just enjoying the exercise. David Arora once interviewed a Southeast Asian mushroom hunter who flatly stated, “On the days that we don’t find enough mushrooms, we walk a REALLY long way.”

Most forays fall somewhere in between, really. So when David, Kevin, George and the irascible Norm alighted from the vans at the Best Prospect, they took a hike to find some prime morel mushroom patches. Up the snarled hill they went, wading through piles of logging slash and sprightly new poison oak, tipping over logs and poking their noses into recently sprouted holly (morels often grow underneath the detritus that stacks up in logged areas, and so kicking over bark bits and flipping over downed branches is a winning strategy, even though it’s sort of annoying to both mushroom hunters and the lizards that also favor such spots). They crested a ridge, where the logging slash gave way to a mix of replanted fir, incense cedar and ponderosa that was old enough to give them some shade and keep the thicket plants at bay.

Despite the newfound niceties of being in a grove that was harvested 30 or more years ago, Kevin and George were silently cranky about the facts so far: they hadn’t uncovered a single morel mushroom. In fact, they hadn’t even spotted two of the precursor species that indicate the burgeoning presence of Morchella conica: Gyromitra esculenta— the False Morel— and Gyromitra montana— the Snowbank False Morel (aka G. gigas in older books).

Gyromitra montana
Gyromitra montana, the Snowbank False Morel

After about 3 hours of meandering up and down the ridge line, all efforts to find morels completely busted, the sun started to sink into the west and it got to be time to beat feet back to the vans and unpack the camp chairs and make some chow. Kevin and George were thoroughly dejected by the de-morel-izing situation, and the downward tromp back to the wagon circle resounded with disappointment at each step. Norm and Dave brought up the rear, heads shaking in some bewilderment. There should have been a million morel mushrooms on that ridge, popping up along each erosion control mound, in each truck track, inside each pile of discarded cellulose that wasn’t good enough to make floors, chairs or custom cedar sweat lodges.

As the team trudged towards a tepid and troubling evening, Norm fished out his Garmin Rino GPS and stared at it for a moment, then pointed to his left.

“We need to go this way. We’ve got just enough light.” David smirked at Norm.

“4Bags?”

“Yup, I think it’s high time, don’t you?”

Black morel mushrooms
Black morel mushrooms

They struck out southwest, following a path blazed by countless trucks, dozers and other heavy machinery. Kevin and George wore knitted brows, thinking of camp luxuries (fire, food, wine, bed), but not for long. Norm tucked the Garmin into his overall breast pocket after about a half mile. Smile wide, he announced, “Welcome to 4Bags, gentlemen.”

The sun died on their tired backs, the crickets woke up to sing, the mosquitoes came and went, the moon rose, and still they continued to pick morels.

The next morning, Kevin was pleased, but there was an edge of peeve thrown in there. As he restarted the fire from the previous night’s embers, Norm came yawning and stretching out of his van, bleary but self-satisfied.

“Why didn’t we go to 4Bags to begin with? I mean, if you found a patch like that, why did we spend all day wandering around wondering what we were doing wrong?”

Norm gave him a sleepy, bemused grin. “We knew that 4Bags was there. We wanted to see if we could find another one.”


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