Friday, June 11, 2010

Lake Wenatchee: Morels and Spring Kings

So this post is going up late. Late late. Three weeks late. Can't really explain why, just haven't been motivated to write. Which is a bit of a shame, because Spring King season is so short. By the time this gets up these spots will have been completely picked over and spent. Nonetheless it was still a grand day out.

Three weeks ago Meredith, our friend Andy, and I, headed over Stevens Pass to the Lake Wenatchee area. The target: Morels. We'd gone out two weeks earlier and been completely skunked. Hours of walking around forests, up and down hills. We found some nice wildflowers, lots of bear scat, and what used to be an Elk, but no mushrooms. I think most mushroom hunters would agree that Morels can be aggravating and difficult to find. Unless you are on, in which case they are everywhere you look.

They fruit in the Spring, usually in May and June, generally starting at lower elevations and moving higher as the seasons turn and the world warms up. They can be found on our side of the mountains, even in Seattle if you know where and when to look. They sometimes can be found growing on wood chips. But your best bet is the other side of the Cascades. It's drier and warmer, and the conifer forests tend to be more open-floored. They grow around rivers as well, Cle Elum is noted for that. They also like areas that have had recent wildfires, and really big burns will be blanketed with mushroomers when the time is right. Basically, to paraphrase David Arora, they grow where they damn well feel like it.

It should be mentioned that we are still very new to Morel hunting. Last year we were graduating, moving, working on theses, and so on, during May and June and we missed the season. So this was only our second morel trip, and Andy's first mushroom trip ever. We'd waited eagerly for months as Winter slowly plugged along. Watching the weather, waiting expectantly for Spring to give us a flush of fun before Summer bakes the mushrooms off until Fall. We had high hopes, little experience, and only a vague idea of where to go.

The weather was cold and crappy on this side of the mountains. We had freezing rain in the pass. But on the other side the sun broke through and the day turned warm (for May anyway), dry and breezy. But clouds on the horizon warned of thunderstorms to come.

We got lost several times. I'd never been to Lake Wenatchee before, and my GPS is not overly fond of forest roads. We accidentally took a scenic tour of Leavenworth, the quaintest Bavarian village outside a Leni Riefenstahl movie. Eventually we found the lake, then got lost again. As usual we started with a plan, but ended up just pulling over whenever anything looked promising.

The first stop was a trail to an old fire lookout on the North side of the lake. In all honesty we stopped there because we got lost and decided to stretch our legs and just dive right into the woods. Soon we were off trail, heading up a steep slope, keeping an eye out for tiny brown lumps on a brown forest floor.

Nothing. Not a thing. Despite the views and pretty flowers we were a bit dispirited and it was clear that we had to move on. So down the hill we went. Back in the car, a quick look on the GPS, and we headed over to the Eastern side of the lake, where we'd originally intended on starting anyway.

Picking a spot to stop is mostly about luck. We just pulled over on the side of the road at an open and pleasant looking forest. A couple hundred yards of valley floor gave way to a hill which went up another 600' or so. Elevation looked promising for early in the season, starting around 2000' and going up to 2600'. Doug Fir and Ponderosa Pine nicely spaced apart. Signs that it had been logged, then burned to clear the brush and allow the surviving cones to sprout. Criss-crossed by random logging roads too. Promising.

Parked the car and began to walk toward the hill. Within five minutes Meredith spotted the first mushroom. And it wasn't a morel. It was much, much more exciting.

A Spring King.

Meet Boletus rex-veris: the Spring Porcini. Until a couple years ago it was thought to be sub-species of the supremely awesome King Bolete, Boletus edulis, but it has been established as a species in its own right. We began to look around the area and started finding them left and right. Usually you could spot them breaking through the pine duff, and of course the biggest ones were the easiest to spot.

Unfortunately, Spring Kings share the common traits of all boletes. They are putrescent, meaning once picked you have to keep them cold or they turn to goo, and they are prone to larval infestation from various mushroom flies. The bigger they are, the more at risk of nastiness they are. So you have to do some immediate field dressing of any promising looking mushrooms. Cut them in half or in quarters. Look for bugs. Grimace. Trim nasty bits or toss the mushroom if it's too far gone. Better it stays there shedding spores on the forest floor than shedding worms on your counter, I say. We probably lost as many or more boletes than we kept. C'est la vie.

We wandered around for an hour or so, finding many more Kings and unfortunately discarding just as many. I am happy to say that the biggest and best was found by yours truly. But the majority were found by my companions... My Mushroom Blindness kicks in. Anyhow, the majority of the Kings were on the valley floor at around 2000 feet. Once we began to climb the hill they were gone by 2100 feet. We had still not found any morels, so we decided that we'd summit the hill and see what was up on top.

For several hundred vertical feet we found bupkis. Suddenly as Andy and I were climbing the hill, talking about the apparent lack of mushrooms, he said "Hey, isn't that a morel?"

And what a morel. The largest we found the whole day. If it was a snake it would have jumped out and bit us. In retrospect, it was good that it wasn't a snake. There are rattlesnakes on that side of the mountains.

We began to look around. Much, much more carefully this time. Soon we began to find them. Ones and twos, growing in little clusters right out in the open. Hinting that their more bashful friends were in the area, hiding just out of sight. Making you work for them.

I can't remember whether it was Andy or I that dubbed them "Stupid Mushrooms", but soon we were calling them that. Stupid, because that is how you feel when you find one, don't see any others, and then a friend finds one right smack in the middle of the spot you spent two whole minutes staring it. We went around shouting "Durrrrrrr" every time we spent a while looking at the ground, only to finally see one right there in front of us.

But the feeling, the excitement of being on a good flush is really superb. It was a nice day, we were finding mushrooms left and right, life is good.

There certainly is an art to spotting them. Here's an example of one next to it's best friend (and the mushroomer's natural enemy), the pine cone.

We wandered around the crest of the hill, finding Morels scattered throughout. Elevation was probably around 2500'. Here's a photo of the forest floor:

Not the prettiest forest, I'll admit. But it was full of tasty mushrooms, encouraged by the open floor and fairly recent burn. And this style of logging is vastly more sustainable and aesthetically pleasing than clear cutting. So it's ok in my book.

As we crested the hill it began to grow colder, and the wind picked up. Seeing the incoming clouds we decided to call it a day rather than act as lightening rods. Down we went to tally the haul.

Not bad for a day out. All told we brought in over six pounds of Spring Kings and seventy-six Morels, about a pound and a quarter. Once home we got to down to rough cleaning and trimming. Cleaned off the worst parts, and then stuck the mushrooms in the fridge.

Kings don't last very long while fresh. So we ended up drying about four pounds of the Kings with a friend's borrowed dehydrator, which came out to about four ounces of dried porcinis. Yeah, mushrooms are mostly water.

We cooked a variety of things with the mushrooms. Frankly the Kings don't need much other than some oil or butter and a hot pan, but I'll cover all that in future posts. My laptop's running out of juice.

Finally, I'm not a professional mycologist, but I am a lawyer so here's the Disclaimer. Get yourself a good guidebook, or talk to some friends who know what they're doing, before you ever eat a mushroom you have found. I recommend that you join a local mycology society. Don't eat unidentified mushrooms. Don't eat questionably identified mushrooms. When in doubt, toss it out. There are several things that look like Boletes and Morels that can make you sick, so learn to identify them. There are bold mushroom hunters and there are old mushroom hunters, but there are no old bold mushroom hunters.


Jack said...

Nice! I've been over to the same neighborhood (Lake Wenatchee area) three Fridays in a row (5/21, 5/28, and 6/4 - we had out of town guests last Friday so I couldn't make the trip) and found a bunch of boletes on the 28th and 4th and a few morels on the 21st and the 4th. Better luck than you with the boletes and less luck with the morels.

I'm also new to this and decided that I'm going to leave those big gnarly boletes in the future and only pick the freshly sprouted baseball-size ones.

Always nice to see what your up to when I start my work day - keep up the excellent blogging!

- Jack

Russell Hews Everett said...

Ah lucky, haven't been out since then. Well, a mine hike, but didn't see anything edible. Or the mine for that matter. May get one more trip in at high elevation before the Summer lull.

Yeah, it's a good idea to give the caps a good poke before picking them. If it's like soggy meringue then move along. Thanks for the comment, happy hunting!

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