By Bill Sherwonit
A friend introduced me to the pleasures and frustrations of hunting morels in 2014. But it wasn’t until 2017, the year following the Turnagain Arm wildfire, that I got pulled deeply into the mystery of these remarkable mushrooms.
That spring, I and many other Anchorage-area residents combed the woodlands above Turnagain Arm for “burn morels,” the mushrooms that mysteriously appear the spring following a forest fire, sometimes in huge numbers. The Turnagain Arm fire had been a relatively small and spotty blaze. But its charred areas produced enough morels to yield a bountiful harvest for dedicated pickers.
For those of us who had previously searched for morels only in what’s considered mature, undisturbed forest—where the number of morels tends to be small and, to the human eye, sporadically distributed—the abundance of burn morels was, well, eye-popping.
Though only mildly curious at first, it didn’t take me long to become seriously entranced (my girlfriend Jan might say “obsessed”) by morels, which belong to a family of mushrooms known to mycologists as Morcellaceae, and to mushroom connoisseurs as fungal delicacies, among the tastiest of wild, edible mushrooms.
Though my 2017 quest began in heavily scorched areas, I eventually discovered lots of morels “hiding” along the edges of lightly burned terrain, where they were much less obvious than in ashy soil. While searching such edges, I also began to spot them in neighboring unburned woodlands. And this is where my initial curiosity took a turn toward fascination. Or entrancement.
As anyone who’s tried to find morels in undisturbed forest can attest, morels have perfected the art of camouflage. Put another way, members of the Morcellaceae family are famous for their ability to hide in plain sight. That’s particularly true in mature northern forests, where they appear in spring and early summer when their earth-toned caps easily blend with brown and brittle leaves and other forest debris.
Though some people might have a natural “eye” for these mushrooms, it seems to take dedicated practice for most mushroom hunters to easily notice the presence of morels, whose caps have a conical, earth-toned form and honey-combed, “ridges-and-pits” texture.
I’ll briefly add here that morels (like other mushrooms) are simply the fruits of much larger and mysterious “filamentus fungi” networks that may stretch considerable distances beneath the ground (thus the use of “fruiting” for their appearance above ground). That’s a story for another time.
Fast forward to 2020. I’m now among those who’ve become students of the Morcellaceae family. In other words, I’m now deeply enraptured by morels, particularly those that grow in undisturbed woodlands, where their distribution remains something of a mystery even to mycologists; and their discovery requires persistence, a good eye, and a willingness to learn their fungal ways.
The past three years has been a continuing education. Just when I think I’m beginning to understand the nature of morels, they surprise me.
Here I need to mention two other things about morels. First, the mushrooms I’m talking about are considered “true morels.” Other mushrooms vaguely resemble the “trues,” and appear at about the same time, in similar habitat; but these “false morels” shouldn’t be picked, because they are dangerously poisonous to humans. There are definitive ways to tell the two apart. When in doubt, pickers should leave them in the ground—or consult an expert, who can tell true from false.
Second, while morels in undisturbed forest tend to appear in the same areas year after year, burn morels normally fruit in large quantities only one or two summers following a wildfire. Another mystery.
Despite my passion for undisturbed-forest morels, this year I couldn’t resist seeking them in places heavily burned by wildfire, given last year’s major fires both north and south of Anchorage.
My interest grew upon learning that Kenai National Wildlife Refuge staff were teaming with Chugach National Forest ecologist and morel specialist Kate Mohatt to inform the public about burn-morel picking opportunities, following last year’s huge Swan Lake Fire, which covered nearly 170,000 acres, mostly within the refuge.
Eventually I would learn that Kate is also spearheading a citizen-science project, helped by the iNaturalist smart phone app, to map the presence of burn morel “blooms” and see how those relate to fire intensity and forest habitat.
Aided by a YouTube video that featured Mohatt and refuge ranger Leah Eskelin, Jan and I learned the basics of burn morel picking on refuge lands. Then I benefited from the success of two friends, both novice burn-morel hunters, who found a bonanza of the mushrooms on their first venture into the refuge burn.
Having already struck pay dirt, Ben and Deb Greene generously pointed us toward a likely fruitful area. That’s another thing about burn-morel hunting: because the fungal explosion only lasts a year or two, people aren’t necessarily as secretive about their picking spots, a fact that should also help Mohatt’s burn morel mapping project.
Jan and I headed into the burn the last week of May. We made our way across a scorched area near the highway, crossed a muddy marsh (made muckier by ash) and began hiking uphill. After 15 minutes or so, I found a cluster of morels in heavily charred forest, but they were small and somewhat crispy. Still, we picked a couple dozen or so, not being sure what else we’d find.
Much better picking began after we’d entered what I would call lightly burned forest, a mix of downed, charred trees with others only partly burned and some still live and green. Jan and I took slightly different paths up the south-facing hillside, now and then converging, and we each found plenty of morels, some singly or in pairs, others in groups of 20 to 40 morels concentrated within a 5- to 10-foot radius.
The mushrooms were easy to spot among the dried or burned leaves and spruce needles and other small debris. Some were grouped around dead, downed trees, others occurred in open spaces.
Within 2½ hours or slightly more, together we found and picked hundreds of morels. While comparing notes, Jan commented, “I think I have plenty. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all these morels.”
We agreed to pick for a few more minutes before returning to the car.
And then Jan found the mother lode: hundreds of morels within a 10- to 15-foot radius, several of them the largest mushrooms we’d found that day. We agreed to do some high-grading—taking only the biggest and best-looking morels—and in doing that we left dozens in the ground. Nearby were some burned spruce trees, but also living aspens with new, bright green leaves.
I’ll admit it was hard to stop (for me, not Jan). But I did and we sat down for a snack and some water, then began our descent back to the Sterling Highway. Along the way we found other rich patches of morels (how we’d missed them earlier, I can’t say, except we must have taken a slightly different route up the hill).
“WOW . . . WOW . . . WOW,” I kept repeating.
I’m not sure exactly what I’d expected, but the burn-morel riches exceeded any expectations I might have had. We brought back hundreds of morels and left hundreds more in the ground. As Jan had earlier commented we had plenty, even after sharing many with friends.
As I write this in late June, I suspect the Kenai’s burn-morel peak has passed (the local morel season usually peaks between mid-May and early June at), though I suppose it’s possible another flush may occur if there’s a substantial rainfall in the next week or two. Given the nature of burn morels and the fact they likely won’t be fruiting here in substantial numbers beyond this summer and maybe next, I don’t mind saying we found ours on a hillside north of the Sterling Highway, not far from Skilak Lake Road.
The hunting and gathering of true morels has become one of my primary springtime passions, and I especially love the time I spend in their company within undisturbed woodlands (of course I can’t say exactly where those spots are). Sometimes, when finding a morel or two in an unexpected place—their presence always something of a delightful surprise—I’ll pause and savor the mystery they represent. But I am happy I’ve now experienced the extravagance of a huge morel flush (much greater than occurred along Turnagain Arm). And I suspect I’ll return to the refuge next May, to see what sort of secondary bloom might happen there.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.