Woodsmoke from Mushroom Picker Camp No. 1 hung low over last year's burn. It drifted among the blue tarps and makeshift wall tents packed in among the trees. Steam billowed from family-sized noodle pots, rising into the gray morning. Weary pickers stamped off the morning cold as they laid out their buckets and baskets and drying trays. Quiet groups slurped noodles or polished off breakfast tacos.
Every two minutes, another rig crept out to Warm Lake Road, the passengers' eyes straight ahead, hoping no one was watching where they headed.
It was well into the second week of the biggest mushroom season the Boise National Forest has seen in a long time. Toyota trucks from Portland, Ore., beater minivans from the Tri-Cities and small sedans with California plates spread out each morning along the forest road system seeking the elusive morel carpet.
"You're supposed to be able to strike it rich out here," said Jose Gutierrez, a young welder from Seattle who traveled with his father and five Mexican pickers from Centralia, Wash. Gutierrez hoped to take home a wad of cash for new motorcycle parts. "Mushrooms are gold," he said.
The only problem was that every mushroom picker from Missoula to Tacoma to Redding was en route to Cascade, Idaho. Several hundred of them—Cambodians and Laotians who have been picking mushrooms in the Northwest for two generations, and growing numbers of Guatemalan and Mexican migrant workers—had beat the Centralia crew.
Last summer's mega-fires around Cascade registered quickly on mushroom Web sites. Buyers called up hunters and told them Idaho was the place to be in June. Mushroom buyers across the Pacific Northwest, including Canadian outfits, follow the pickers from cache to cache each summer buying up morels, chanterelle, porcini and matsutake, a fungus that fetches an unbelievable price in Japan.
Gutierrez told me his Washington coast group had a tip on Seeley Lake, Mont., near Missoula. They spent a few days there, but found slim pickings. A mushroom buyer at Seeley Lake told them to head to Cascade or McCall.
When I drove up to Cascade last weekend, an odd assortment of tents and trucks lined Main Street. Mushroom buyers sit in large tents along the road with their scales and wads of cash and wait for the pickers to come into town every evening. They sell the fresh 'shrooms before they begin to dry out and lose weight.
Fred John works for a Canadian mushroom exporter. He cooks little sausages and hands out bottles of water as mushroom pickers line up outside his tent.
"The way you treat somebody, that's the way you get it back," John said.
John was paying $6.50 for a pound of morels early in the evening but said the price could go up to $8. He had a semi-truck to fill by Sunday—one to five tons of morels every two days—and they were coming in slower. These mushrooms were bound for British Columbia, where about half of them would be dried, but John was hesitant to talk about the business any more than that.
Competition is high among buyers to get the most mushrooms for the lowest price. The pickers think the buyers are getting rich and some told me that the mushroom buyers conspire to set prices, which have been in decline in recent years.
Song Thep, a Cambodian picker, is loyal to John's company; he and his friend split $125 for a half-day of picking, and John promised to top them off a bit if his price rose later that evening.
Cascade is mushroom crazy this month. Last year, the Boise National Forest sold no commercial mushroom harvest permits. The last big year was 1990, but a forest spokesman said that there is 10 times the activity this year.
Idahoans have been mushroom hunting for ages and are still sneaking in and out of their favorite spots, finding larger than normal harvest this year. One woman I met had her kids picking morels to pay for summer camp. Another guy picked enough to dry for himself, picked 50 pounds extra to pay for gas and then went soaking in the hot springs.
But every weekend, droves of newbie hunters head up from the Boise area and from random European countries to search for the little phallic forest meats.
"Have you seen any mushroom pickers?" a tall blond man asked me in a German-sounding accent, as I munched a PB&J near my car. "Where are they?" His blond family sprinted across the road and then doubled back when they saw him talking to me.
I told the man he had to look in the burns. And then he worried me.
"Can you show me what the mushrooms look like?" he asked before speeding off in his van.
Francisco Hernandez, one of the Centralia pickers, showed me how to find mushrooms. Hernandez, who is originally from central Mexico, has hunted mushrooms every summer for five years. It's better money than picking plums and he gets to hang out in the forest.
I met Hernandez on a Saturday morning. His group was gambling on a scouting day, in the hopes of finding an undiscovered bumper crop of mushrooms. I followed their blue van off the burn map into uncharted territory. They ran out of pavement, bounced onto the dirt roads, stopped to watch a wolf amble across Johnson Creek and came to a dead end where the road was completely washed out. They took off on foot, scouting the valley below.
Hernandez moves through the woods with the instinct of a veteran hunter.
As we walked along he suddenly dropped off the road, slid down a steep burnt slope, bounded confidently across a wet log, and angled across two draws through the burnt trees to the sunny slopes where the morels grow. His fellow pickers disappeared to scout other sections of the burn. Forest Service officials said that the pickers spread out through the woods, causing less damage.
The woods are covered in fungus. As your eyes start to focus on the delicate soils beneath burned lodgepole stands, more and more groups of mushrooms appear. Once you know what a morel looks like, it's not hard to identify them. But there are plenty of other kinds out there that are not good—or safe—to eat.
Hernandez passed by a bunch of morels before he let on that we were surrounded by them. These mushrooms were too small to pick. It's better to let them gain a few pounds, though there is a risk that another group of pickers will get to them first or that some casual pickers will grab the small ones and take them back to Eagle for a spinach salad with morels and Gorgonzola.
Hernandez likes mushrooms—"hongo" in Spanish—with chili peppers, onion and tomato. He grew up eating a mushroom that grows on corn fields in Guanajuato. But to the commercial pickers, the morels are just another hongo, a fungus that in a good year brings a decent price.
After an hour of scouting, Hernandez let out hoarse grito, softly yelling to his buddies, and the pair of pickers we had split from at the road whistled back. They shouted and whistled their way back to the road and found the van.
Later that afternoon, I thought I'd try to find some morels. I took a gamble myself: I figured most people would drive right by the significant burn areas near the road assuming they had been picked over. So I pulled off and walked in flip flops into a flat glade. Within 20 minutes, two friends and I had picked about a pound of morels. We went back to camp, soaked them in salt water, split them and sauteed them for five minutes on a camp stove, boiling the mushroom juices down a bit.
The morel pieces had the heft of a good T-bone. Wafts of pine forest in the rain and toasted nuts filled our nostrils. Like the pickers jockeying for position along logging roads, our forks jabbed at the plate until all of the warm, juicy bits were gone and no one knew what to say.
Back at Mushroom Picker Camp No. 1 that evening, a soccer game was getting started. In one of the large wall tents, a morel hunter named Ty crooned into the karaoke machine in Cambodian. He went through a lineup of what must have been Cambodian love songs as I ate a bowl of mediocre pho and drank an Ice House beer. The tent houses a small cafeteria complete with a 2,000-watt sound system and big screen television. It's all run off a generator buried in the woods to muffle the sound. After Ty finished up, the proprietor, who declined an interview, put on Finding Nemo with Spanish subtitles for a Laotian family from Redding, Calif.
Nit Phoumychack came to Idaho to pick morels this year with his entire extended family. He grew up following his parents around the woods looking for mushrooms. His parents worked hard, but on Saturday, Phoumychack went swimming and fishing.
"If you want to make money, you have to work hard," he said.
While mushrooming is big business, many of the mushroom hunters have day jobs. They come out to make a couple thousand dollars and have a vacation in the woods. It had snowed a few days earlier and hundreds of pickers took the day off to fish for pike on Lake Cascade or trout on the scores of rivers that run out of the mountains.
Jose Gutierrez's uncle went to McCall for the day, looking for mushrooms.
While Hernandez and his buddies are in it for the money, Gutierrez came on a lark. He thought he might make $10,000 in a few weeks of picking, but it wasn't working out and he was thinking of heading back to Seattle on a bus.
I mentioned my afternoon success, emphasizing that there were not really that many mushrooms around and that we probably just got lucky. Gutierrez listened and then told me they had not found any more promising areas but had some ideas for the next day.
I shook his hand and said goodbye and he hesitated for a moment, perhaps thinking of a new engine for his bike.
"Where did you say that spot you found was?" he asked.
I gave some pretty vague directions.