Ever since wildland fires ravaged various parts of Alaska last summer, foragers who are in the know have been patiently waiting to reap the fungal spoils. As any dedicated mushroom hunter is aware, the sites of one year’s forest fires often end up as promising spots for finding morel mushrooms the following year.
This was the subject of “Morels: Making Money, Meals, Memories,” an online seminar held on Wednesday evening by Igor Pasternak and Sveta-Yamin Pasternak, both of whom teach classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Igor and Sveta-Yamin Pasternak came to the U.S. over 20 years ago as refugee asylum seekers from Ukraine and Belarus respectively and are now a married couple.
“A lot of those years, we actually spent together picking mushrooms,” Igor said. “For the last 20 years we’ve picked morels here, and even in Canada, regularly — as long as conditions have allowed us to do this.”
When Igor says conditions, he means a wildland fire. The Pasternaks have been successful in finding morels after various wildfires in the past, including the year following the 2004 wildland fires near Tok. Over six million acres burned that year across Alaska and 2004 is known for being one of the state’s worst wildland fire seasons on record. Igor said this ultimately attracted a lot of commercial mushroom pickers from the Lower 48.
“That directed a lot of buyers, commercial buyers, wholesale buyers, as well,” Igor said. “So in Tok, it was some sort of morel rush.”
Likewise in 2010, the Pasternaks took a trip to an area near Circle, where roughly 18,000 acres had burned the previous year. “We could barely fit all of those mushrooms in our little car,” Igor said.
Over 50 people tuned in to the free public lecture, which was held using Zoom on Wednesday. Over the course of over two and half hours, the Pasternak’s went over the basics of how and where and when to forage for morels.
“The only thing I’m not going to share with you folks: my patches,” Igor said. “I’ll tell you, like where they are, but I’m not going to share with you where to go exactly.”
While Igor was more than happy to point out general areas that may be productive for morels, mushroom hunters don’t reveal their personal spots.
Beyond the basics — dress for the weather and prepare to be traveling through potentially a lot of brush and/or mud — one of the key pieces of advice that the Pasternaks imparted was to ensure you have the right container
“Rule number one is do not use plastic bags,” Igor said. “Plastic bags will destroy your mushrooms. It’s not breathable. It’s a really bad idea to have them in plastic bags for more than like two hours or so.”
If you’re carrying mushrooms around in a container with little or no airflow, moisture will collect and mold can start to develop. Igor suggested using a woven basket and mentioned a few options priced from $18.99 to $39.99.
“Those probably look familiar, because I’ve even seen them in Fred Meyer,” Igor said. “They’re pretty durable, they’re breathable, there’s plenty of air-flow through all of those woven parts.”
Alternatively, you can take a bucket and drill some holes in the sides.
You’ll also need a small knife to harvest the morels. Knives made specifically for mushroom hunting often come with a brush attached to one side, so you can brush dirt from the mushroom immediately after harvesting it. Igor said that a cheap DIY option is to simply duct tape a fine paint brush to a small, sharp knife.
Depending on how far you’re going or the type of trip you have planned, it might be a good idea to take a GPS device or a satellite phone. The Pastneraks also advise taking cloth or handkerchief with you, and to dampen it in a stream, to wipe off any soot or mushroom residue from your hands and face. And don’t forget to take bug-repellent!
Where to find the prize
The best way to find good morel areas is to look at where wildland fires burned last year. And the easiest place to find those is the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Wildland Fire Information website, which you can find at bit.ly/2So4z9q.
The website features an interactive map, which will show you where and for how long wildland fires have burned. If you play around with the layers and filters, you can load a map that just shows the fires from last year.
According to Pasternak, there are two primary criteria by which you can judge the likelihood of finding morels: the size of area burned and the time-range during which the fire burned.
The first of those is simple; the larger the area, the greater your chances of finding mushrooms. The second is a little more complicated. Fires that burned earlier in the year tend to produce fewer morels. Igor said that the reasons for this are still not entirely understood and will be the subject of some field research that he plans to conduct this year.
“That’s really important. Early fires, from May to the beginning of June, are not productive,” Igor said. “That’s actually why we’re going to work in the field this year — trying to research all of those details and figure it out.”
Fortunately for Fairbanks residents, there were a number of wildland fires that burned during the latter part of last year and that are within a drivable distance from town. Shovel Creek Fire, for example, burned across 22,500 acres in the Murphy Dome area from late July through September. The burn area has direct road access and with regard to the fire coverage, Igor said, “It’s pretty decent and will definitely produce a few mushrooms.”
“This is the closest fire to town,” he said. “So it’s really easy to reach. The area’s not too populated, so for those who want to try (foraging for the first time), for example, definitely go and try that.”
Two other sites that are close to town are the Nugget Creek Fire, which burned across 17,000 acres through August and September, and Beaver Creek Fire, which burned across 13,000 acres throughout September. With regard to the Nugget Creek site, Igor said, “There is one little problem. You have to cross (Chena) River.”
Igor would typically suggest donning hip boots or waders and maybe even bringing a little inflatable raft to bring your gear across the water. Fairbanks is currently experiencing a dynamic break up season, which has left some rivers running quite high, so check conditions before you plan your trip.
North of Fairbanks, and slightly further away but still on the road system, you can find the sites of the Grouse Creek and Hess Creek fires.
Grouse Creek Fire, near Rampart, burned across 46,000 acres from late August through mid-October. Hess Creek Fire, in the Livengood area, burned across 183,000 acres over a similar time period. While the trails among the Hess Creek Fire site are accessible by road, the site of the Grouse Creek Fire appears to only have boat access.
“If you think to put in your boat by the bridge and go down stream like for a couple hours,” Igor said, “you’re going to have your own woods, guys. This is going to be so not competitive.”
Igor Pasternak went on to mention a number of other wildfire sites south of the Alaska Range and closer to Anchorage. If you’re down in that area, Igor said, “I would probably start scouting a week from now if not earlier, because natural morels are already fruiting in Anchorage.”
Tips for terrain to look out for
Hillsides tend to be productive spots for morels. According to Igor, morels tend to prefer the southwest facing sides of hills.
“Mostly it’s because of the trees,” Igor said, “and what kind of soils they require.”
Black spruce and plentiful moss may present a fine environment for some kinds of fungi, but these are signs of a bad spot for morels.
“The best place to find your mushrooms would be mixed forest, with big white spruce trees, maybe aspens and birches as well, and sometimes even alders and willows, but the most important thing is to look at the soil,” Igor said. “You don’t want any mosses growing around, you really want your soil to be exposed.”
There are a number of common types of false morel, some of which are toxic. During the presentation, Igor showed some photographs of cross-sections of both true and false morels to illustrate some of the key differences.
“For true morels, you can see that’s one solid hollow space inside of them. So you don’t have a separation of cap and stem,” he said.
He showed pictures of Verpa Bohemia, a cross section of which shows that the cap grows in a separately from the stem, and Gyromitra, the body of which is a mish-mash of tubes making up the stem. Both bear a passing resemblance to true morels on the outside, but should be avoided.
Given that there are myriad species of morels, it’s worth doing some research on how to identify the different types.
When does the season start?
According to Igor Pasternak, once the snow is gone and a warm week is forecast, it’s time to start scouting. Typically, the season is in full swing by June.
Sveta-yamin, however, noted that the seasons are “moving targets”
“We live in a time when our seasonal cycles are a moving target and things are shifting,” “To say, ‘when does the season start?’ That’s actually a perpetual research question.”
She said the season can last through mid-July, but it varies year-to-year with a number of fluctuating factors.
“Maybe the season will start earlier this year?” she said.
The seminar is still available in full online and can be found on the Alaska Morel Harvest 2020 Facebook page at bit.ly/3aOOkIN.
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.