The fires that left much of Western Montana charred last summer have long since smoldered to ash beneath winter snow, and new life is sprouting up from the black remains. While much of what is returning to the burned areas are green shoots of grass and other plant life, some tasy black and brown fungi are drawing droves of people to fresh burn sites.
This has been a banner year for morel mushrooms, and it was a great time for a native Texan to try her hand at hunting the ‘shrooms.
After getting a $20 permit from the Spotted Bear Ranger Station about an hour outside of Hungry Horse, I set off alone in my car on a Monday up a road where another beginner friend had had a banner day the day before. The friendly ranger gave me a quick hint about how to tell non-edible morels from the edible ones and I was off on my way.
The friend had warned me that it might be difficult to spot them at first, but as I pulled off the road the a black charred spot, I found that after you spot the first one, it’s all simple from there.
Granted, it did take 15 minutes to find the first one, which of course was accompanied by a gigantic spider that I had to snip in half with a pair of scissors, but after that everything went smoothly. Two hours passed with ease and I emerged with 5 gallons. Soaked with soot, I headed home, cleaned up the mushrooms, strung them up to dry and took a few for dinner with quail.
They were absolutely delicious.
The next week I went with a group of friends to the same spot. We were all beginners and had an excellent time, though one friend took extra-long to get her mushroom glasses on.
“How do you keep spotting them?” She asked shrilly, though by the end of the day she had the heaviest bag full of the biggest mushrooms. She soon learned to check beneath the edges of fallen logs and in old burned out stumps. In one particular area by the creek, hundreds of smaller morels were poking up from falling straw that had somehow escaped being turned to ash and were now floating back to the ground. The fungi were so camoflauged that at one point I said, “You just stepped on one and there are five more right by your shoe.”
The day of sliding through the charred woods were much different than the blackberry picking that I had spent most of the Mays of my life doing in Texas, but it hit the same sweet spot inside my heart that comes from spending time exploring with those you love. It was a great first morel trip, but I certainly hope it won’t be my last.