Morel mushrooms became all the rage during the 2014/2015 winter because of the previous years forest fires. The Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) provided information on picking morel mushrooms and suggested the 2015 harvest would be a good year.
This hasn’t been entirely true. The price of morels are not as high as suggested and with the dry conditions the mushrooms didn’t grow as fast as predicted.
I would not quit my job to go picking morel mushrooms but heading to the burn areas makes for an excellent day trip for any Yellowknifer.
What follows in this article is how a couple friends and I prepared for our day out morel mushroom picking. What we discover once out there, what we learned and what we did with the morels.
Preparing for the picking
I should preface this with none of my friends, nor I had ever picked morel mushrooms before.
To prepare, I made sure that I fuelled the Jeep and I had all the necessary tools in the case of an emergency. Most of the burn areas are in places without cell service. I wanted to be as prepared as possible.
One friend, who is also writing about the adventure, got the buckets and pairing knives. We would use these to cut and collected the mushrooms. This is all you need to collect the mushrooms. Bucket to carry the mushrooms and knives to make a clean cut so the mushroom will grow back.
We also brought lots of food and a flat of water. I suggest bringing a cooler to keep that water cold.
Where to travel to
Many people have been driving right to Fort Providence and heading out from there. I didn’t want to drive 3 hours and then back-track so we stopped at one of the first burn areas along Highway 3.
The first pickable burn area outside of Yellowknife is 138km from the city. This is about 20 minutes from Behchoko. This is where we stopped.
Once you come across a burn area – and no one else is around – you can go into it. Be cautious about who is around you though, do not intrude into someone’s area. Out of courtesy, if nothing else.
How to properly enter the forest
This is where we went wrong. We went into the forest on a 45º angle. This wasn’t a big deal going into the forest but coming out was a challenge. We would come out 100 yards down from the vehicle. We could have avoided this, but it wasn’t a big deal.
My advice would be to enter the forest at a 90º angle from the highway. Use a compass to record the direction your heading so you can then follow the opposite out again.
One logical tactic, that we saw seasoned pickers doing, was using flagging tape and marking a trail into the picking area.
We quickly found out that all the good mushrooms, that others had not picked, were about a 30-minute hike into the forest, off the highway. Marking a trail is smart and reduces the energy and time you have to spend finding your direction.
What to look for when picking
Kids in a candy shop are the best way to describe our delight upon finding out first mushroom. We all gazed at it, took a photo and relished the moment. Little did we know there would be hundreds more to come.
The mushrooms are hard to see until you see your first one, then you start seeing them all.
If you come across any areas that other have already picked – you’ll see little white stumps of the remaining mushroom root – keep moving. You don’t want to pick where others have already picked. There won’t be much there.
Once you do find fresh mushrooms be sure to look around the same area. We found they often grow together in little plots of land.
We all found that while standing and walking was a good enough tactic, when we knelt down to pick a mushroom we would see a lot more. The key here is to get closers to the forest floor.
As you become more familiar with picking you will start to understand how and where the mushrooms grow. I started to note that many mushrooms would grow under fallen trees or in amongst the roots of standing trees. I presumably this is where there is more moisture.
How to properly care for yourself
Caring for yourself while you are out there is important and I learned a couple important lessons that you should be aware of:
Stay hydrated! One aspect that I underestimated was the distance we’d be from the highway. When we initial went into the forest we didn’t take any water with us. This was a bad idea. In the hot sun, after hiking for 30 minutes and picking for an hour, I became dehydrated. I had to stop picking and go back to the vehicle to get hydrated. Always carry water with you.
You will get extremely dirty! I knew this going in but while out there didn’t realise how dirty I was getting. When you are walking in nothing but ash the dirt creeps through your clothing and sticks to your skin. Getting dirty is something you should prepare for.
Keep off the bugs! Nothing is worse than picking while you are getting eaten alive. However, don’t use bug spray if you plan on selling your mushrooms. Some online material told us some buyers, somewhere, test for deet and would reject those mushrooms.
Instead, to keep the bugs away, wear a bug jacket. Or if you are as lucky as we were, the wind will be enough to keep the skeeters away. Or just don’t shower for a few days leading up to picking…
How to preserve Morel Mushrooms
You will see many of the seasoned pickers using buckets and baskets with plenty of holes in them to let air into the mushrooms. We did not do this. Not because we didn’t want to, but because we bothered. Our mushrooms survived though.
When we got back to town I separated out a few mushrooms that we would keep fresh and placed them in a brown paper bag. This allowed them to keep cool and breath at the same time.
For drying the mushrooms, the first thing I did was setup a drying station outside. I used a shelving unit and various items, such as cookie cooling racks and a window screen, to make the station. It could hold the mushrooms but still allow air flow for drying. The concept is to allow air to access all parts of the mushrooms during the process.
Before I placed the mushrooms on my newly constructed drying rack, I rinsed them with cool water. My hope was to get some of the dirt and ash off of them as possible. Once rinsed I spread the mushrooms out on the racks evenly and left them for 5 days.
After 5 days, or when I felt they were dry enough, I packed the dried mushrooms into airtight bags, which can now sit for up to 6 months.
Cooking with Morel Mushrooms
None of us has done too much cooking with the mushrooms yet, but we have learned one thing. The mushrooms need a good rinsing to get all the grit and ash off them.
One of my friends used some of the mushrooms in a creamy pasta dish while I sautéed some, and in both cases we still encountered some dirt. They are delicious but need a good cleaning before use.
We didn’t go out morel mushroom picking to get rich, heck we haven’t even sold any. We went out to have some fun and learn something new and I would honestly do it again.
If you are looking for a fun, different and adventurous day trip out of Yellowknife, I’d recommend going morel picking. It doesn’t take a lot of equipment, it is only about an hour and half drive and at the end of the day you’ll have something to show for it.
Have you tried morel picking?