EDGE is taking some holiday time, from December 20 to January 4. While we’re off we’ll be re-running some of our favourite stories from the year. Here’s a first-person story from last summer’s morel mania to kick things off:
Inhaling ash and sweating out yesterday’s piss-warm beer, I scan the burn for morel mushrooms. My arms ache from the two overflowing five-gallon buckets I’ve been carrying for the past three-quarters of an hour, and sweat drips dark and dirty from my face.
I’m also slightly naked.I’ve tied my shirt sleeves together to create a third makeshift bucket and I’m felling clusters of gold and grey morels, my stark white torso contrasting against the black landscape around me like stripes on a zebra. In the mushroom patch there are no real rules, no norms, no code to live by; except, perhaps, a willingness to do whatever we have to.The now familiar odour of sweaty barbecue wafts from my body as my 26th day of picking ends and I go to let down my hair after hiking through more than 15 km of burn and slaying just over 40 pounds of morels. Gone is my cascading mane of luscious curls. Now, the mouse-nest beginnings of dreads stay grossly in place, even without a hair tie. Black smears across my face as the millionth bug escapes squashing, my arms run with blood from the black fly bites and I grimace as I pull off my boots, releasing the toonie-sized blisters from their wool prison.Highway three, south of Yellowknife, between Fort Providence and Behchoko, is littered with hundreds of people in the same condition as me, who heard the call of the mushroom – a giant ka-ching! – and came flocking. They’re from everywhere: Quebec, Northwest Territories, B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Manitoba, Austria and beyond.We meet the Austrians on our first day when my three friends and I sidle up to the buyer’s table with our shroomage. While they only picked 10 pounds between the five of them, they still snicker at us because our haul fits into the bowl Jess makes by pulling her shirt out from her belly.“Do you want the dollar or you just gonna take your mushrooms back?” Andrew, the NWT buyer, laughs – not unpleasantly – right in our faces. One pound would have netted us $7, a rate that changed not once all season.“F*** that. We need the money.”
We all laugh because it was only days ago when we still believed the GNWT hype of $5,000-$10,000 days. The rest of the first-timers have similar stories of coming for what they thought would be big money while unemployed. Unfortunately, for most of them that ka-ching! sounded more like the splash of a penny thrown desperately into a wishing well. Most arrived too early in May, spent weeks waiting for the boom in the promised land and left before it ever happened. Which it did. Eventually.
“I’ve got a spot. You’ll all be carrying out a hundred pounds. Each!” shouts Crazy Dave. He’s thin, weathered and looks over 50. He lives in the camp next to us that we’ve dubbed The Ghetto because of the fights that break out constantly between him and the group of twenty-somethings he’s conned into joining him. It’s only days into June, and a great many screaming matches later, they tire of him taking their mushrooms without splitting the profit and abandon him to try and go it alone.
Despite this, my friends still decide to give him a chance and after spending an unprofitable morning trudging through unburned forest where fire morels don’t really grow, they return incredulous and mushroomless.“He said he followed a grizzly in to where the mushrooms were,” one of them tells me.It’s just the beginning. Over the next few days, he tells us of walking into a random dive bar and Bob Dylan is on stage playing for just 17 people. Coincidentally, the exact same thing happens with Kurt Cobain. Morels also glow in the dark, Nickleback’s manager went to prison with him, and he’s apparently going to bear-bait the buyers for not taking his soggy mushrooms. We learn quickly the only rule that might exist in the mushroom patch: never trust a mushroom hunter.There are more rumours than in a high school hallway and more exaggeration than in a fishing trip story. Some people picked more than 20 pounds in half an hour, others are menacingly flashing guns and telling pickers they aren’t welcome, one guy is walking to Whati, there’s a naked man wandering about offering blow jobs, mushrooms are as big as your head and every day we hear of some buyer changing the price.Never trust a mushroom hunter.To say the least, I meet many odd and unusual people in the bush. Halfway through June a ragtag group pulls into the gravel pit we all call home and set up beside us before slithering over to say they’ve got sugar if we need it. Before long there’s a steady stream of shitty cars, vans, and trucks heading to the grocery store beside us. They slow when they come to our camp and we wave and point them next door.Across the pit is the mushroom guru, Walt, who no one can really figure out. Most people are here for the money, some of us are here for the adventure, but Walt… I just don’t know. He loves his fungi, attends mushroom festivals, and most nights he heads to other camps with a fry pan full of morels, using people for their fires, because he doesn’t like harming nature.In my own camp, I have an outdoorsman who wanted to spend the summer in the beautiful Yukon wild, but jumped in the car headed for the burnt remains of the NWT; I have an old university friend who’s between jobs and between homes; and, I have a party girl who’s truly terrified of bugs and bush, but is broke enough to be here anyway.Every camp has a name: The Ghetto, The Austrians, The Albertans, The Hippies, The Frenchies, The Researchers, The Drug Dealers, and many more, including us – The Girls. We live in gravel pits and ditches, we eat soup right from the can and drink our beer warm, we bathe in swamps and sometimes not at all, we see mushrooms when we blink and money when we dream – we are mushroom hunters doing what we want, when we want and how we want.June is more gone than there when my crew, plus a couple of fellas we picked up along the way, move to a new gravel pit and a different burn. Leaving behind the barren land just north of Fort Providence that has been ravaged by hordes of baby killers, we arrive south of Behchoko to morels that have grown from sporadic clumps of thumb-sized newborns into great cults of big beautiful bastards.“Ow!” I flinch as Brit punches me in the shoulder.“Sorry. I’m just so excited I don’t know what to do.” Her eyes are blazing and her smile is so big it looks like her face is split in half, but I get it.The two of us just cracked our first 100-pound day. It’s 1 a.m. and we’re sitting in the car, black, bleeding and broken, with the only fitting song blasting out of my Impala’s speakers: We are the champions! We are the champions! No time for losers cause we are the champions…. of the world! I had come so far from the day I left Yellowknife with just a tent, a homemade PVC pipe backpack, and a couple of buckets.Though the season didn’t kick off until late June, after scads of pickers had already left, people were pulling out 50-100 pounds, and some even more. However, it still took 10 or more hours of hard work to do it, but there was money to be made. Some made less than a $1,000 out there, others made a few thousand and those that stuck it out to the last dwindling days made $5,000-$10,000 depending how hard they worked.As for me, I had the jangle of over a $100,000 in my pocket…‘cause I picked 40 pounds an hour all season… working 23 hours a day… drinking only beer… and eating bison meat from the one I took down with my own bare hands…Remember folks, never trust a mushroom hunter.