It has been a long time since I took a vacation; years. Even If I do take one, being in the restaurant industry and previously not being on salary meant that I don’t get vacation time, meaning not only will I spend money, I will doubly lose since I won’t be able to work.
This can get a bit frustrating, if you have a girlfriend, family, or…a life in general? Recently, the restaurant was closed for an entire week for the Fourth of July. I knew that my friend and colleague: Chef Eddy Hayes, was running a resort kitchen up near Crane Lake in Northern Minnesota. He invited me and another chef friend of mine to travel up and visit if we wanted. With an entire week off, my colleague and mushroom hunting pal Brandon made some arrangements to make it happen.
I was exited to visit a friend and see what he was doing, I was also curious to see what the forest held for us, especially one part in particular: the section of the BWCA that had been horribly burned during the Pagami Creek Fire of 2011. Now for those in the know, natural disasters can be quite a boon if you are fond of picking mushrooms, and not just any mushrooms: black morels. In Europe, laws had to be put in place to curb the burning of forests with the intent of harvesting black morels from them the next year. The reason is that heavily burned areas in particular are famous for fruiting insane, unfathomable amounts of morels- the stuff dreams are made of.
Now morel season has been over for a few weeks now, but the week prior to our trip, my good friend Mike Rasmussen (A skilled comedian and fellow mushroom hunter in his own right) was up in the same area camping. The first or second day of his trip, Mike sent me a curious video: he had found a patch of young, fresh, grey and blonde morels!
Having rock solid evidence that morels were still fruiting in the northern forests sent me into a tizzy. Last year, my one desire had been to get up to the pagami burn and bring back a zillion pounds of rare, black morels, which I have cooked in mass quantities, but never picked myself. The night before the hike, we began to plot a course to get into the burn.
Getting up at around 345 am, we saddled up in the car with our typical mushroom hunting provisions:
- Dry snacks, like granola, fruit, etc
- Fresh fruit, bananas, apples, and grapes-their freshness is key for cutting through the acidity of the crappy gas station coffee we would be drinking, which after a time gives you something we call a** mouth
- Crappy gas station coffee
Now when you are close to civilization, hunting in metropolitan settings, you can feel free to just go on your treasure hunt without packing a bunch of provisions. A place like the boundary waters is wild and intimidating though. In Europe, people die every year from getting lost in the woods hunting mushrooms. Its easy to see how this could happen: like children, wandering after the pied piper, folks riding the high of discovering mushrooms follow the fruiting patterns of the patch they have found into the middle of absolute nowhere. Anyone who has hunted mushrooms for sport will tell you that the adrenaline brought on by the discovery of wild treasures is strong, and intoxicating. You will wander, eyes locked to the ground, as if in a trance, eyes bulging and tearing from concentration; looking for just one more. Herein lies the danger of getting lost, and it is very real. I have experienced the horrible feeling, burning in the pit of your stomach of not having any freakin idea where you are.
Back to the burn site, we arrived at around 6 am, after a long, scenic drive down the beautiful echo trail that connects Ely Minnesota to Crane Lake. As we had driven through the woods, it had gradually turned from lush green, to black and charred. I immediately noticed something was wrong though: the underbrush was much to high for morels to be fruiting. I knew that coming was a gamble, but since we had free room and board awaiting us, I wanted to take the chance. I had to.
We did a hail Mary, packed up our gear, and set off on the trail we knew would take us to the powow trail, which was heavily damaged by the fire. Almost immediately we saw a mushroom, but it was not a black morel: it was an orange cap scaber stalk! We had taken a quick jaunt through the campground of the resort the night before and discovered a few of them growing, which I found to be very strange considering the super late spring we had in Minnesota and that I typically only see scabers in the late summer when lobster mushrooms are around. It was growing in the burned area under a bunch of pine. It was very young, but so dry that the cap was cracking due to the dryness of the area around it. We threw it in the pack for later inspection and continued on to the powow trail. This was where things got interesting.
Unfortunately the map that we were looking at did not include that there was about 1000 feet of water between us and the powow trail. I felt embarrassed, naive, and ill prepared. Determined to not let waste the 2+hours we had just spent in the car curving through deep woods, we decided to inspect the heavily burned nearby area that we were already in. This was a mistake. There was no trail so we decided to blaze our own, attempting to get to a small peninsula of land that we hoped would show us an easy crossing point down the trail. This easy crossing point was a fabrication of our morel-hungry, deluded minds. Looking harder at the scale of the trail maps should have helped us glean more of the reality.
With the tree canopy nonexistent for the past two years, the opportunistic undergrowth was in full effect, as was the flotilla of mosquitos that followed us everywhere. The thick wild grape vines and creeping charlie slowed our movement and made each step arduous. After we hit the small peninsula and discovered that our hope of crossing was not possible, we turned around and began heading back.
about 1/3 of the way through the vines, we hit something terrible: a pine bog. Before we knew it, we were falling through the soil left and right. There was no way to tell if your footing would be sure, or if the slightest pressure would sent your whole leg into the murky god-knows-what. It was the most difficult hiking I have ever done. In fact, it was so awful, that instead of hiking in the pagami burn, we now refer to it as our trip through Mordor
After hiking through Mordor, we decided it best to hedge our bet and utilize our time to hunt something that we knew for sure was edible, good, and fruiting: Scabers. We cruised slowly back up the winding echo trail and hit every park, water access, portage, state park, and national forest trail we could find. The biggest score was about 5 minutes out of the burn. Weary and exhausted, my friend Brandon was driving. I saw two mushrumps coming up through pine and moss on the side of the road.
STOP THE CAR! I yelled at the top of my lungs. We pulled over to inspect them and found a nice cluster of scaber stalks, about three in total, then we checked the peripheries, which yielded only one more. These scabers I had not seen before, they had an orange cap, instead of the bright red variety that I was used to picking. They also grew very scattered, so much so, that my friend brandon started saying we were hunting for unicorns. This was not unlike the truth, the scaber stalks grew very, very scattered scattered, but they were there.
All in all, our days hunt gave us a nice couple pounds of scaber stalks, and some other boletes we were very exited to find. The other boletes were growing directly off of wood, which is quite strange as usually we think of boletes as being mycorhyzal, or symbiotic. I could see immediately that the stalks were reticulate, or having a sort of net or webbing, so I knew they were probably of the family boletus or tylopilus. I also noticed that they seemed to have a pink hue to the pores underneath. Strange. In the back of my mind I suspected what they were, but I was just happy to see a gregarious fruiting of boletes, so we took them for inspection, hoping maybe they were some edible boletus and not what my instincts told me they were: tylopilus felleus.
Tylopilus felleus is also known as the false porcini. It is a beautiful mushroom, it is also so incredibly bitter that it’s flavor will stay in your mouth long after you have eaten it, just a slice or two could ruin and entire dish to the point of being absolutely inedible. When you are out in the bush, the thrill of finding hidden treasures makes you want every find to be an epic one. Once I reached some phone service though, they were immediately identified as false porcini. We ate some just to make sure, since I know from experience dealing with lazy mushroom foragers that the bitterness is pronounced after cooking. YUCK!
Completely spent, we went back to the camp and regrouped. We put all the mushrooms on ice, took a late night boat ride, and met some of the locals. Being from the twin cities means that you are basically celebrities up in the boonies. Everyone was looking at us bug-eyed, especially the female employees 🙂
We made sure to visit their bunk and play a game of modified jenga. Years ago, some employee had written special instructions on each of the blocks, when you pull a block, you must follow the instructions; an employee heirloom of sorts. The instructions varied from things like: having to lock all the doors as fast as possible, to having a girl give you a mowhawk with hair gel, to having to speak in sing song form whenever you are spoken to, penalties for not following are of course, a drink.
The next day we got up a little later, tired and sore from our excursion. We decided to make a visit to Bear’s Head Lake state park, visiting my father and his family quickly along the way. When we got to the park, the trails we rough. They were not as much trails as they were large rocks protruding from cleared areas. With our eyes on the peripheries and woods surrounding the trails, we knew our toes would be bruised purple by the time we were done.
The first things we spotted were a few more orange scabers, too far gone, and a few more felleus; those blasted imposters. A single specimen was found of a different mushroom as well, one that has a shape similar to a favorite shroom of mine which we expect to fruit soon: the one and only chanterelle. The strange mushroom was one I had never witnessed but had memorized through my field guides: it was a gomphus floccocus, also known as a false chanterelle or woolly chanterelle, it is mildy poisonous.
We also saw some hikers with mosquito nets over their heads. The bugs were bad, but not unmanageable, that is, until we got onto the Blueberry Lake trail. Blueberry Lake is probably a very nice lake, with a great, scenic view. The only thing we saw however, was clouds of the thickest mosquitos I had ever witnessed. I had the 100% deet spray with, but they seemed to be immune. We stopped looking for mushrooms now, walking as fast as we could through the woods. My feet screamed for me to stop, the mosquitos screamed for blood. The worst of the mosquitos are what we began to call the “kamikazes”. We have defined the kamikaze mosquito as follows:
Kamikaze Mosquito: A voracious type of mosquito that desires only to intrude upon one’s orifices. These could, but are not limited to your: mouth, ears, eyes, and nose.
We got out of the blasted blueberry lake trail, and made our way into a forest of pure red pine. We were spent, beaten, and defeated, with nothing to show for our efforts but bruises, bug bites, and anticlimactic disappointment. We decided to set up shop for a moment and crack the two beers we had brought along. Typically these will be reserved for celebration when we find a honey hole. Today though, they were simply a way to ease the stress of the arduous endeavor we had just undertaken. We drank our luke warm beers, each inhaled a sandwich of bread and warm summer sausage, then continued to make our way down the trail back towards the car.
The path back to the car held unforeseen treasures though. I was pissed, grumbling after each step through the still bouldery trail. My friend Brandon on the other hand, still had the mushroom eye going. “What are these?!” He asked. I walked over to the base of the red pine he was standing by. Growing in a triplet clump at the base of the pine was two beautiful red cap scaber stalks. Now the orange cap scabers we had been finding were good eaters, but the red variety I find to be a bit better. These were little prizes too, 3 picturesque buttons, or “bouchons” as perfect baby boletes are called. Right near the small patch of scabers was the real treat though, Brandon was the one who spotted it: the first Minnesota chanterelle of 2013.
I noticed something in that moment though, while we geeked out over the scaber bouchons and the chanterelle, nothing else mattered. The bug bites didn’t hurt, my feet didn’t ache, and we definitely didn’t feel like we failed on our quest to hunt in the Boundary Waters. The happiness that finding treasures brings can make you forget sadness, pain, and anxiety, if just for a moment.
Nature seems to pat me on the back in ways like this, giving me a bit of reassurance when I feel like I just can’t take life or stress anymore, and need to get away. We didn’t find any morels on our trip, but we did find some hope for the coming of the chanterelles. For a day or two, my friend Brandon and I got to be like little kids on an Easter Egg hunt. Now though, its back to life, in the kitchen. Our week back is filled with private parties of over 100 every day, plus the regular restaurant, all with custom menus: wish us luck.