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We Alaskans

Confessions of a morel hunter

  • Author: Bill Sherwonit
  • Updated: August 7, 2017
  • Published August 7, 2017

A handful of morel mushrooms. (Bill Sherwonit)

There was a time in late May when I would close my eyes and visions of mushrooms suddenly appeared before me. Remarkably vivid images, they showed brown, conical fungal fruits with surfaces that vaguely resemble a honeycomb, standing upon white stems.

This was during the height of my newfound passion for morels, an intense infatuation that took me by surprise. Call it an obsession.

The experience wasn't entirely new or strange. I've had similar visions during intense romantic infatuations, when images of the newly adored one made their way into my mind's eye, unbidden. But a closer approximation would be the peak of tundra blueberry-picking season, when after hours of being deeply focused on those small and scrumptious purplish-blue fruits, pictures of the berries later dance through my consciousness.

My recent springtime visions usually occurred after a morel-hunting expedition, and what they most suggested to me was the intensity of the pursuit. It's not that I spent long hours searching for morels, one of the few Alaska mushrooms to appear in spring and the primary one people seek for food. In fact, I never hunted them more than three hours at a time, but in my experience morels normally demand great concentration if they're going to be found. It also helps to imagine their form when combing the forest floor.

There are exceptions to those rules, notably in forest burn areas a year or two following a fire, and I'll explore such circumstances later. For now I'll simply say what serious morel hunters know: In undisturbed woodlands, this family of mushrooms (known to mycologists as Morchellaceae) has perfected the art of camouflage.

For those unfamiliar with morels, it helps to know that they are considered among the tastiest of wild mushrooms, though that's not what has inspired my own obsession. They're in great enough demand, in marketplaces and upscale restaurants, that each spring and summer, commercial harvesters in the United States and other parts of the world converge on certain locales to pick the distinctive fungal fruits. Occasionally they even travel to Alaska, as they most notably did after huge fires scorched much of the Interior in 2004.

Prized picking locations

Years ago I decided to learn about local fungal forms, specifically mushrooms. Alas, a workshop I attended proved overwhelming, prompting a retreat from that strange and intimidating kingdom. Still, I remained curious about mushrooms and the people who study and hunt them, and figured some day I'd be lured back into their midst.

That happened a few years ago, when a person I'll call Juki entered my life. Like me, Juki is passionate about nature's many forms. And it turned out, she'd taken a keen interest in morels. When spring arrived, she took me morel hunting. Eventually she led me to her "secret" spot.

This became one of my earliest morel lessons: In undisturbed forests, members of the Morchellaceae family tend to be distributed in haphazard fashion, or so it seems. When dedicated morel hunters discover fruitful places that are reliably productive year to year, they prefer to keep such knowledge to themselves, much as berry pickers do. Or anglers who prize their secret fishing holes.

We would be hunting "true" morels, which include several species belonging to the genus Morchella. Some other mushroom types resemble true morels, but such "false morels" must be left alone, because they can be dangerously poisonous to humans.

Juki's caution stirred a memory. One key message had stayed with me from that long-ago mushroom workshop: Never eat — or even nibble — a wild mushroom whose identity you don't know. The risk of getting seriously ill or even dying is just too great. And you never eat any raw wild mushroom; even edible ones can make a person sick when not properly cooked.

Those intimidating facts were among the reasons I'd steered clear of mushroom hunting. But now I had a personal guide.

Having never found a true morel, I was impressed when, after only a few minutes of searching, Juki found one right beside the trail. Moments later she noticed another, one I had nearly stepped on. It was then that she emphasized a confounding aspect of morel hunting: "Morels look different than anything else, yet they're really hard to spot." That's because they blend so well with other earth-toned detritus on springtime forest floors, especially the many crinkled, curled and brownish leaves.

It was still early in the season and we found only a few more morels that first day. Two evenings later, we harvested 21 morels in two hours. I was quickly discovering morels' ability to "hide in plain sight" and increasingly impressed by my companion's talent to see them in their camouflage. That time she outpicked me 16 to 5. Though humbled, I felt encouraged. I gradually seemed to be getting an "eye" for morels.

Later that month, Juki showed me her secret place, along a wooded, south-facing slope of mixed cottonwoods, birches, spruce and aspen. We spent several hours moving slowly through the forest, faces turned toward the ground. Juki struck it rich, ending the hunt with more than 30 true morels and a few "false" ones to show me the difference. I got off to an awful start, finding only one during the first couple of hours. Envious of Juki's success (and skills), I was miserable about my own shortcomings. My initial sense of failure washed away when I found a "hot spot" that yielded 10 morels. I ended the day with 14, a respectable haul. Together we collected nearly 50.

Back at her house, Juki sautéed the morels, garlic and broccoli in olive oil, then added that mixture plus sliced fresh tomatoes and shredded Parmesan cheese to boiled pasta. Our springtime feast and the harvest that preceded it proved to be the pinnacle of my first season hunting morels.

Sadly, Juki and I later had a falling out and since that memorable season we've never hunted morels together. The following two years, my enthusiasm diminished. I sought them only briefly and casually. Predictably, I found few.

Then last summer, a forest fire burned across south-facing hillsides overlooking Turnagain Arm. As it spread across the lower flanks of McHugh and Rainbow peaks, the fire approached and in places crossed a section of the Turnagain Arm Trail between McHugh Creek and the community of Rainbow.

It happens that this is one of my favorite trails.

It also happens to be a woodland area where morels grow.

Part of me hesitates to share this fact, but I don't think I'm giving away any deeply kept secrets. Local mushroom hunters already know this area, and the morels' locations are largely unpredictable to those who haven't picked here. But clusters can be found with diligent searching or dumb luck.

None of that matters much anyway, because of the fire.

It didn't occur to me when the fire was moving across the landscape. But months later, as winter waned, it struck me that the burned area might produce substantial numbers of morels this year.

A group of four morels hiding in plain sight (Bill Sherwonit)

Forest fire connection

The morel-fire connection lurked somewhere in the recesses of my memory, a vague recollection that morel fruiting sometimes booms after a forest fire.

Research I conducted during the height of my obsession confirmed those hazy memories. The University of Alaska Fairbanks' Cooperative Extension Service proved especially valuable during my online hunt, both for the information I gleaned from its "Morel Mushroom Resource Page" and its links to several morel-themed articles. One of those reports, "Harvesting Morels After Wildlife in Alaska," explains that morels appear in two distinct circumstances: undisturbed landscapes and disturbed areas, including forest burns.

First some basic mushroom facts: To begin, morels — and mushrooms generally — are the "fruits" of much larger fungal organisms that generally remain hidden while forming networks underground. And the process that produces mushrooms is called "fruiting." Exactly where the fruits appear, and why, remains a mystery, like much of what happens in the fungal kingdom.

Of special interest here are the two distinct types of morel fruiting. In undisturbed woodlands like the one Juki and I explored, the number of morels is generally small and (to the human eye) sporadically distributed. But once you discover a patch, they're likely to recur there year after year. Thus the need for secrecy should you find such a patch.

Morels associated with large-scale "disturbance events" — timber harvest and insect infestations as well as fires — are, you might say, an entirely different kind of fruit. Mycologists have found evidence that suggests different species of morels appear in burns than in undisturbed habitats.

For reasons not fully understood, forest fires tend to produce huge quantities of morels the year after a fire.

Whatever the cause, large burns may yield tons of morels, which is why they lure commercial pickers. Not only are the mushrooms present in much greater numbers, they're also easier to see in the ashy soil. Picking becomes less of a hunt and more of a straightforward harvest.

Another factor that makes burn picking easier: The distribution of morels is more predictable than those in undisturbed habitat. Mycologists have learned that they grow most abundantly near trees, in areas where the fire was moderate to severe.

Unfortunately for pickers, the bounty in burns is short lived. Large-scale fruiting normally occurs only the first and sometimes second season following a fire. Again, why that's so remains a mystery.

Turnagain Arm Trail

My own entry into burn-morel harvesting began as something of a lark. Accompanied by my mixed collie, Denali, I drove to the McHugh Creek picnic area in early May and headed up the Turnagain Arm Trail.

Because the 2016 fire had jumped around while blazing through the mixed birch-spruce-cottonwood-aspen forest that covers these hillsides, the burn area has a patchy nature. Parts of the landscape adjoining the trail are now blackened and bare, with deep ash covering the ground. Other spots were untouched and "greening up" as usual.

I vaguely recalled from earlier hunts that morels in these woodlands seem to be associated with cottonwoods on south-facing slopes. Plenty of the forested terrain along the trail's McHugh-Rainbow section fits that description, so I looked for cottonwoods or their charred skeletons within burn areas or along their edges, unsure how — if at all — the fire might have changed that relationship.

After passing several burned areas close to the parking lot, I headed off trail into what appeared to be a moderately scorched area with several dead cottonwoods.

The afternoon had turned rainy, so I didn't look for long, only an hour or so, and came up empty. But on returning to a section of trail the fire hadn't reached, I chanced upon a clump of three morels, beside the path. The mushrooms seemed to jump out at me, as if bringing themselves to my attention. Nearby stood some tall, living cottonwoods. Minutes later, I found two more. Again cottonwoods grew close by, strengthening my sense of their connection. Though it seemed strange, I'd only found morels in unburned forest — along the trail, no less. I took it as a hopeful sign.

I'd be coming back.

Morels growing from beneath a rock (Bill Sherwonit)

A week later, returning to where I'd found my five morels, I noticed a young man walking slowly through the burn and asked if he was hunting morels.

"Yes, I am," he answered, but nothing more.

"So how's it going?"

"So-so. I've found only a few, and most of them have been small." He suspected the recent dry weather had slowed the fruiting, which made sense. I've always associated mushroom productivity with moist conditions.

Later research would confirm that. In their 2005 scientific article "Harvesting Morels After Wildfire in Alaska," the authors note that sometimes "rainfall will provoke several flushes of morels during a single growing season," while in dry years, "there is sometimes very limited fruiting or no fruiting at all." They add that ideal conditions for morel fruiting in Alaska's Interior (their study area) "would seem to be moist soils coupled with overcast days of moderate temperature." While rainfall may spur additional fruiting, too much "can also damage standing mushrooms and speed their decay."

I took the picker at his word. Minutes later, a man and woman approached, the guy carrying a large, grocery-sized paper bag. They had to be mushroom hunters.

"So, have you folks been picking morels?" I wondered.

"Yes."

"How'd you do?"

"We found a few."

"Do you mind if I look?" I asked, pointing to their bag.

"Sure, go ahead," the man replied, opening the sack.

Looking inside, I was surprised. And impressed. The "few" they'd found turned out to be 20 or 30 morels.

"Wow, that's pretty darn good," I commented, then asked a few more questions, though I didn't want to seem too nosy.

They too had been working the burn. After agreeing that the picking seemed "pretty good," the guy added that several mushrooms were "pretty dry" and past their prime.

Though the couple seemed friendly enough, their answers — like the earlier picker's — were brief. They were willing to be polite, but wouldn't volunteer more information than necessary.

I thanked the couple, wishing I'd asked more questions. Though I didn't expect the couple to reveal their picking area, it would help to know whether morels were concentrated along the edges or deeper inside the burn. Did they occur in more intensely or lightly scorched areas? And were burn morels associated with any particular kinds of trees?

Besides feeling some "morel envy," I was more determined than ever to seriously search for mushrooms within the burn. A while later, I noticed two morels along the trail, a few inches apart, again in a place the fire hadn't reached. Encouraged and excited, I decided to investigate the next burn area I came to. It turned out to be the spot I'd checked a week earlier.

My face turned toward the ground, I angled uphill on gray, ashy dirt, while passing among a stand of young, dead aspen. A few burned cottonwoods and many boulders were scattered among the aspen. It didn't look promising. Yet only 10 minutes after starting my hunt, I noticed a dark-brown morel right beside my boot.

A bolt of excitement jolted my body as I kneeled toward the ground and snapped the dark fruit from its pale stem. Instinctively glancing around, I quickly spotted another morel, this one lighter, more caramel colored. And then two more, rising side by side from the soil. Though confident they were "true" morels based on their form, color and honeycombed "ridges-and-pits" texture, I also confirmed that their caps and stalks were "fused" together.

Over the next few minutes, I discovered eight morels of various sizes — their earth-toned caps measuring up to 2½ inches long — within a 10-foot radius of my initial find.

Adrenaline pumping, I shook my head in stunned delight. Wow! I kept whispering to myself. This is amazing. I could imagine the "fever" prospectors are said to experience upon finding traces of gold. Though humble by commercial-picking standards, this small cluster felt like a morel mother lode.

I roamed that burn site for another hour or so. For much of that time I found only a few morels, scattered widely, but eventually discovered another patch. More excitement, more amazement.

On returning home I emptied my bag and counted 32 morels, by far the most I had ever collected — and in only an hour of searching that one locale. I felt I had a better idea of where morels might be found within the burn — and confirmed that they were concentrated in clusters.

I washed the morels in cold water and cut off the ends of several that had dark dirt and ash clinging to the stems. Then I placed the mushrooms on a towel to dry and later transferred them a clean paper bag, placed in the refrigerator for temporary storage.

I would return to the Turnagain Arm burn several more times over the next month. Though I explored different parts of it, time after time the most fruitful picking occurred where I'd found that first startling patch of morels, a place I began to consider "my" spot. I never met another morel hunter there and showed the site to only one other person, my girlfriend Jan.

So, yes, I'll confess: Once it proved rich in morels, that small bit of burned forest became my secret spot even though many hikers passed by while I roamed its slopes above the trail.

I didn't exactly try to hide, but I sometimes stopped my search and stood or sat quietly when people walked below. And I timed my hunts to coincide with quieter periods along the trail. Partly, that's because I relish solitude; but I also didn't wish to directly compete with other hunters. When asked, I admitted to finding "some" morels but didn't hint of their abundance. Or my excitement.

The more I hunted — and found — morels, the more my connection to them, well, mushroomed. I suppose that's natural. Yet that link has gone far deeper than I would have imagined possible before venturing out on this year's hunt. And, as with blueberries, the bond extends far beyond any simple desire to harvest local foods.

In some curious, inexplicable way, it seems as though I've been pulled to better know — and appreciate — morels and, importantly, the larger organisms that produce those delicious fruiting bodies.

Morels of many shapes and sizes rinsed and drying on a towel (Bill Sherwonit)

Leaning on experts

The desire to learn more about the world of morels — and those who hunt them — led me to a couple of local fungal authorities, Chris Maack and Diane Pleninger.

From Diane I got an enthusiastic primer on the nature of morels and especially the hidden, mysterious "filamentous fungi" network that produces them. She's more fascinated by what goes on beneath the ground, where "the thinking, feeding, acting parts of the fungus" operate.

Meanwhile, the morel mushrooms that people crave, she notes in something of a dismissive tone, "don't do anything except grow out of the soil," the fruit of complex, unseen workings. Yet the morels do have a critical role: They hold and then spread the legions of spores that begin the growth of new fungal beings.

Fleshy morel caps, you'll recall, have a "ridges and pits" kind of texture. Spores are concentrated within the pits, or hollows, where they inhabit tube sock-like structures that scientists call asci. Once a morel has pushed through the soil, it will sporulate — that is, toss its spores into the larger world — when disturbed in any number of ways: by a sudden gust of wind, a raindrop, the touch of a hand.

Spores are the fungal equivalents of the plant kingdom's seeds. In Diane's words, they're "ready to grow" when conditions are right. The key difference is that seeds have built-in food reserves — spores don't.

A spore that lands in a fertile place may germinate, producing a single-celled filament called a hypha. Diane pictures it as an exceedingly tiny cucumber, about 1 micron long (or one-thousandth of a millimeter).

To survive, hyphae must begin to "feed" on whatever nutrients are available. They do this by extruding digestive enzymes through their tips, which they "suck back in" along with the food that will keep the hyphae alive. Those that survive begin to reproduce. Once in gear, hyphae clone themselves exponentially, in branching patterns. When they've grown enough, they produce white, stringy filaments that "grope, twist and braid around each other." These tiny (but now visible to humans) "twisted ropes" are the mycelia that spread beneath the ground in sometimes vast, three-dimensional fan-shaped networks, creating the "brains and digestive system" that so intrigue Diane.

It's also here that sexual reproduction occurs, eventually leading to the morels that people desire.

The way Diane explains it, as an individual mycelium grows and spreads, it keeps watch (in its own fungal way) for another mycelium of the appropriate mating type, a potential partner you might say. Apparently there can be dozens of different mycelial types spreading underground, so the search can get complicated. Imagine a person going to a crowded, noisy party of strangers and trying to find "the right one."

When a mycelium does eventually find the right type, the two will combine nuclei and exchange DNA. And if all goes well, their mating will produce a "little knot." Inside that knot is what scientists call a primordium. In essence, Diane explains, it's a "teeny, tiny, baby mushroom" with all the cells it will ever have. To get a full-grown morel, all you have to do is add water to "pump up the cells." That, Diane says, is "one reason you'll often see an abundance of mushrooms two or three days after a heavy rain." She adds that it seems "a remarkably clever way" to grow a mature fruit. Or mature anything.

Like so much about fungal forms, no one knows how deeply beneath the ground primordiums form, nor is it understood when, or why, or at exactly what size morels begin their push toward open air, where the mushroom will send out spores to begin the cycle anew. Once above ground, the fruiting body will continue to grow, as long as conditions are right. Of course those too are something of a mystery.

False “brain” morel (Bill Sherwonit)

Another imponderable: where to find morels. Though she's not a dedicated hunter, Diane shared what she calls "the Alaska mantra: Look for morels in mixed forests of birch, spruce and cottonwoods, where there's dappled sunlight."

Why fires produce so many morels is also uncertain. It may have something to do with the soil's changing chemistry. Or perhaps the subsurface mycelial "brain" somehow senses a threat to its existence and sends up lots of mushrooms to spread humongous amounts of spores across the burned landscape.

The scale of fungal organisms in forest (and other) ecosystems is impressive. "Fungal matter is everywhere," Diane emphasizes.

My conversations with Chris Maack were more far ranging. We touched on a variety of topics, first while morel hunting near McHugh Creek and later in a restaurant. Both times we were joined by John Zarnetzke, a self-described mushroom enthusiast.

Chris has been studying — and occasionally harvesting — mushrooms since the early 1970s, when she became a student of the late Phyllis Kempton, a renowned Alaska mycologist. She doesn't do much morel hunting, because "I don't have much of an eye for them." But she did find 20 during our search, "a very good haul" for her.

Chris, like many who've hunted morels in undisturbed habitat, considers them "mysterious" mushrooms full of surprises. Just when a morel hunter thinks she knows where they're likely to occur, they'll pop up in the most unlikely places. She's impressed by their ability to hide in plain sight. And how when a person finally finds a morel and bends down to harvest it, others seem to "magically appear" nearby.

This seems to be one key to success: getting close to the ground and letting one's eyes adjust to the morels' appearance. Simply seeing one can tune a hunter into others.

What makes ideal morel habitat in undisturbed forests? Chris and John agreed that warmth, moisture, nutrients and the terrain's aspect all play a role.

"Phyllis found that morels are often associated with members of the poplar family (aspens, poplar, cottonwood) on south-facing slopes," Chris noted, affirming my own observations.

"It's really not a science, it's an art," John interjected.

"But it's trying to be a science," Chris added, smiling. "It's just that some of this stuff is so complex."

Asked about the relationship of morels to burns, Chris speculated that morels' appearance might be connected to the release of nutrients during a fire, or the alkalinity of ash, which helps morel growth. Or, as Diane also suggested, it might be what Chris called the "shock factor": Morels might fruit abundantly the year after a fire as a survival response. Diminished competition for moisture may also benefit them.

Because I'd recently read about "sustainable mushroom harvesting" and worried I hadn't properly followed the guidelines, the three of us discussed proper behavior when picking morels. While a Cooperative Extension Service article on "Collecting, Preserving & Using Morel Mushrooms" advised against "clear cutting" — taking all the morels from an area — Chris and John agreed it's fine to take all that you find, unless you wish to leave some for others. To them, it's less about sustainable picking methods and more about harvesting etiquette. As long as the underground mycelia isn't harmed, the fungal body should continue to fruit.

It's also acceptable to pick small morels, though if you wait a couple of days, you may find they've grown substantially. That's assuming no one else grabs the mushrooms before you return.

As for the question of whether it's better to cut or pull mushrooms — hotly debated in some quarters — Chris and John each break the morel's stem when harvesting it, without worrying whether that will harm future fruiting.

I had one other concern: trampling of the soil and the mycelia below it. Moving about the burn, I sometimes dislodged clods of dirt and gouged boot prints into the ground where the soil was covered by soft ash. And I noticed that some of the more accessible parts of the burn had been severely pounded by morel hunters, deep tracks crisscrossing the soft ground.

"It's all a matter of scale," Diane assured me. "Almost certainly, a single person isn't going to do any harm when searching an area for morels. On the other hand, a spot repeatedly visited by many people could be severely damaged."

30 morels in 12-foot radius

Though a naturalist's curiosity is what drew me to morel hunting, what initially seemed likely to be a casual pursuit has deepened into something of a passion.

Is it possible that morels have cast a spell on me? Over the course of several weeks, I've learned from both personal experience and what others have shared that these mushrooms — and the larger fungal organisms of which they're a part — are mysterious life forms. And, I would offer, magical. Or at least they've worked some magic on me.

I've described the first blush of amazement when I stumbled upon a rich patch of morels, a startling revelation. A few days later I returned with Jan to show her "my" spot and see what more we could find. In my notes recounting that follow-up search, I wrote that I entered "morel heaven." That may seem like an exaggeration, particularly to those who've collected bucketfuls, but it's what I felt upon discovering what is still the most amazing Morchella patch in my short time as a morel hunter.

Within a 12-foot radius, I found close to 30 morels, maybe more.

My entry into paradise began when I spotted three morels, tightly bunched together. When I knelt to pick them, I saw another, then another and still more. Excitement building (yet again), I slowly widened my circle of attention. Crawling slowly across the ground, I found others nearby.

In recalling my slow, meticulous search, I'm reminded of what others have told me: Upon finding a morel, if you get low to the ground, imprint its form on your awareness, and carefully study your surroundings, you will often find others, especially in undisturbed forest, where they hide so well.

For someone who in the past felt lucky to find a few morels — and more than once had been skunked — this seemed nothing short of miraculous. Partly that's because this rich patch occurred where the fire only lightly touched the forest. The morels had fruited near the bases of trees, where the ground was covered not only by ash, but also by piles of dead, earth-toned leaves, browned spruce needles, and scattered spruce cones, which can be great imitators of morels.

It wasn't a place where the morels stood out.

Magical. Revelation. Such terms may seem over the top in a discussion of mushrooms. Yet when I've been fully engaged in the hunt, there have been times when it seemed the morels revealed themselves to me.

During such times, I've been reminded of the beliefs and practices that have traditionally guided Alaska's Native peoples in their subsistence harvesting. Among the ideas that especially resonate with me: that respect, humility and gratitude are key attributes of a successful hunter. And that whatever is harvested is a gift, not simply the outcome of a hunter's prowess.

Though I'm far removed from my own ancestral, indigenous roots, such a perspective rings true. And if true for moose, caribou, bear and salmon, why not for mushrooms?

I increasingly bring such sensibilities to my own modest and, yes, recreational hunts for food. When a patch of morels — or blueberries — presents and gives itself to me, the least I can give in return is gratitude. Appreciation. And I don't need to empty a place of its fruits. By the end of two hours' picking, I felt satisfied to leave morels for another time. Or another hunter.

Early season pickings dry after a rinse. (Bill Sherwonit)

Peak season starts in May

Most research into Alaska's morels has focused on the state's Interior region, because that's where enormous woodland fires may yield prodigious quantities of these mushrooms. The most intensely studied event was the 2004 fire that scorched nearly 7 million acres and, a year later, lured a small army of commercial harvesters to the Tok region. According to the article "Bloomin' Shrooms 2005," a mix of Alaskans and outsiders picked an estimated 175,000 pounds of Morchella fruits.

That article and other reports indicate that the primary fruiting season for Alaska's morels occurs in June and July. But that's Interior Alaska. Here in Southcentral, my limited experience and the observations of more knowledgeable mushroom enthusiasts suggests an earlier season, with a peak between mid-May and mid-June.

Because the Turnagain Arm fire was relatively small and patchy, this year's morel harvest was similarly small and spotty, at least by Interior standards. I've heard reports of morel hunters carrying 5-gallon buckets, though whether anyone filled a pail, I can't say. But I can offer this: Between early May and mid-June, I visited the burn at least 10 times. And never did I meet anyone who'd collected more than a small fraction of a bucket. Because I was focused on my own search, rather than observing the larger hunt, and my presence, like the fire, was spotty, I may have missed some big hauls.

My own harvest proved personally startling. Based on journal entries recounting our hunts, I figure Jan and I collected around 400 morels this year. More than 300 of those came from "our" spot, including 112 on our heavenly day.

I froze a few dozen after sautéing them in olive oil, but as I write this in early July, even those are now gone, much of our harvest shared with friends or visiting relatives. We've added the sautéed morels to salmon, salads and vegetable dishes, but I most enjoy them as a side dish or snack food, simply cooked in olive oil, sometimes until crispy. In my experience they have a deliciously "earthy" — or smoky — flavor that also reminds me of a prime cut of steak.

I'll be curious, next spring, to learn whether my spot in the Turnagain Arm burn yields a similar morel bonanza. For now, I'm content to savor the rich memories of an unexpected passion and the welcome visions of ridged and pitted mushroom forms that still occasionally float through my consciousness, unbidden.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey."

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