Monthly Archives: May 2015

On the Hunt for Morels

The combination of hot dry summers and tinder dry trees — destroyed by an epidemic of pine beetle — create perfect conditions for forest fires to ignite. These fires can ravage hectares of trees and destroy homes, but they are also an opportunity for the forests to regenerate. A forest following a fire is a surreal place. The earth is covered in a layer of ash, and the trees are charred and blackened, but even so, there is hope. The following spring after a forest fire, patches of bright green growth are visible and blackened bark peels away to reveal the gold and red hue of wood beneath. And mysteriously, as if stirred from a long sleep, morels begin to appear, their conical peaks breaking through the layer of ash.

Eldorado PatchCan you see them?

Searching for morels begins a year in advance. The BC Wildfire Management Branch posts wildfires on their site and notes their locations and size. We search for fires that are sufficiently large enough and within a reasonable driving distance from Vancouver. It’s important to note, that many of these fires may be on private or protected land and/or in areas that are dangerous and inaccessible. We use backcountry road maps, but as in this last trip, found that they can quickly become out of date, as forest service roads are constantly changing and old roads not necessarily maintained.

NavigatingTrying to find the right road — in the end, we chose the wrong one
[Photo courtesy of Victor Chorobik]

As the last of the snow was still melting from the peaks, and the ground still moist from the infrequent spring rains, we ventured out up past the Coquihalla Summit to the Maka-Murray burn site. After a few wrong turns and a grueling drive up a ragged logging road, we reached Murray Lake. The lake is quite lovely and to our surprise a number of cabins lined the shore. On either end of the lake are Forest Service Rec sites, which are relatively private. That said, at the peak of summer, I imagine they could be over-run with overzealous ATVers, breaking the pristine silence with a constant buzz that has more sting that even the most persistent mosquito. Judging by the garbage left behind, litterers like to shoot off 22s and shot guns while drinking Bud, Corona Extra and, of course, Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Oh, I almost forgot the wine-tipped cigars.

We drove onwards towards Debbie Lake, closing in on the burn site. Arriving at a spot that looked sufficiently burned, we parked at the side of the road. With great trepidation and hope, we scanned the earth for any signs of morels. Francesca was the first to call out “found one!” and the game was on. It certainly wasn’t a bonanza. Mostly scattered few and far between, occasionally an El Dorado patch or ‘vein’ as we liked to call it would reveal itself.

First MorelsMorel growing in the ditch near where our cars were parked

The strength of the fire varied immensely, some areas completely black and void of life, others looking totally unscathed, as if the fire had leapt beyond it, leaving an island of refuge behind. In the past, we had found — much like the 3 bears — that morels preferred areas, not too burnt, not too alive, just somewhere in between. Half-dead. Here, it seemed, they appeared in unlikely places, but eventually a pattern did begin to emerge. It was dry now, but one could imagine where water had once flowed down gullies and pooled in depressions to provide the most fertile ground. Underfoot, you could feel how the ground would give slightly. Was there a dry crust? A thick layer of ash? Where did the sun fall? Was it north facing? In the shade and sheltered from the hot sun? The formula was definitely not perfect, and you would think, yes, this is the perfect place for a morel to grow, yet see nothing.

Morel growing among needlesMorel growing out of the pine needles

In the end, we got a decent haul. There were a couple of spots, an “Eldorado Patch” where we found quite a few. You couldn’t pick fast enough, as if worried it was a mirage, that might disappear without a moments notice.

After the pickReturning from a successful foraging adventure

Picking morels is thirsty work, and deserving of a post-pick cold beer. We found a lovely meadow at the side of a lake to lay down our picnic blankets. Our crew came well prepared, with fresh baked Italian bread, homemade fermented pickles, delicious cheeses, cured meats, craft beers and of course, the piéce de resistance. Freshly picked morels, sautéed in garlic and olive oil and slathered on thick slices of bread. Yum. So good! James set out to catch us a trout for lunch, and he came pretty close too, but in the end, it was just another couple of trout that got away — or, as James called it, catch and release.

Picnic by the lakeEating and relaxing after a job well done

Morels on baguetteMorels on slices of baguette

Our friends parted ways, heading back to Vancouver while we settled in to spend the night camping. We took an evening stroll and followed the shallow brook that trickled out from the lake. We found little black tadpoles, frogs and spawning Rainbow trout. The water was so shallow, with plenty of obstacles, which sadly included quite a bit of garbage, an ATV track that ran across the creek and even a chicken wire fish trap which we questioned the legality of. That, in addition to predatory birds such as the bald eagle that was perched in an overhead tree, made it hard to imagine how they managed to get as far upstream as they did.

James drinking wineEnjoying a mug of wine by the fire

Campsite Our campsite

Rainbow TroutSpawning Rainbow trout

Trout SpawningRainbow trout roe

In addition to all of the dandelions, there were plenty of wildflowers in bloom such as chocolate lilies, larkspur, indian paintbrush, calypso orchids and yellow and purple violets. Amidst the flowers were a network of burrows and we could hear the telltale chirp of a ground squirrel before he popped up his head from the grass.

Chocolate LilyChocolate lily

Indian PaintbrushIndian paintbrush

Ground squirrelGround squirrel

The next day, we decided to try picking for a few hours more before returning home. We headed up a different spur, this time following a road that rose above Debbie Lake towards Jono Lake. This area was quite exposed to the sun and both steep and rocky. We ended up finding a few sparsely scattered morels in a gully at the edge of the burn, but decided to continue our search from where we had left off the day before. As we turned back, we found a well-marked trailhead to Debbie Lake, which had escaped us the previous day. The trail was well used by ATVs and led down to quite a pretty lake. There was a little old log cabin tucked in the woods, its roof caved in by a fallen tree.

Cabin in the woodsCabin at Debbie LakeDebbie LakeDebbie Lake

Our decision to return to other site, paid off, and it wasn’t long before we were satisfied that we’d had ‘enough’. We felt a little guilty as other pickers had hidden many morels under strips of bark, hoping to return to find them fully grown at some later date. This was the first time we’d ever seen this technique and it’s desperation spoke to the relatively meagre yield and small size of this particular burn.

Lots of morelsThe fruits of our forage

Narvaez Bay Gulf Islands National Park on Saturna Island

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2014 campsite      

 

In the warmer months, Vancouver still has a few good options for spontaneous overnight camping excursions. When most provincial campsites are fully booked and forest rec sites are overflowing and unruly, Saturna Island offers a quiet escape with exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities.

Saturna has purposefully kept development at bay to retain its wild character. The island’s residents have historically opposed allowing camping, seeking to avoid rowdy camping culture and to reduce the risk of forest fires. The high ferry costs and end-of-the-milk-run nature of getting there also keep the crowds away.

Campers were finally able to get a foothold on the Island with the addition of the Narvaez Bay back country campsite, established to expand overnight opportunities in the young Gulf Islands Natural Park Reserve. The campsite makes circumnavigating Saturna in a kayak more feasible and also provides an excellent option for those wishing to hike, cycle or walk-in from the parking lot.

We’ve always taken bikes, but some hardy souls hike the 8km from the ferry terminal. If you decide to leave your car behind, overnight parking at the ferry terminal cost us $32. There are probably parking options in Tsawassan though, if you want to the bike the rest of the way to the ferry.

The ferrIMG_6633y trip takes about 3.5 hours, stopping at Galiano and Mayne, (where you must change ferries) and then continuing on to Pender and then, finally Saturna. After departing from Mayne, Ria excitedly asked, “Did you see that?” She had seen a splash, a dorsal fin off the bow or was it just a rogue wave? The wind was up and the water choppy, but several moments later, the undeniable fin of a large female orca whale broke the surface, once again. After years of paying exorbitant prices to be ferried around BC’s coastal waters, this was the first time we had ever spotted an orca from the ferry. We were gleeful. At first it appeared that this was a lone, transient orca, but further along the coast, a few more orcas appeared. We were turning in to Otter Bay on Pender Island, to drop off and pick up some passengers and then were on our way to Saturna Island. It appeared that the orcas would be accompanying us for part of the journey. You can find and report whale sightings in the area at the Orca Network website.

The bike ride from the terminal is pleasant with an elevation gain of about 130 m — reasonable for a gulf island. We only passed two cars on the way in and road was paved for most of it. The sides were lined with wild edibles such as stinging nettles and vanilla leaf, which, apparently, makes a good tea.

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There’s overnight parking at the park entrance and another 500 m to the campsite, most of which is downhill. The last couple of hundred metres passes beside an old homestead which still features some heirloom varieties of apple trees that ripen in August and September.

There’s no water at the campsite so we packed in about 10 litres although we ended up only using 6 in the mild weather. The fact that we didn’t need to cook with water probably helped keep our consumption to a minimum, as did the 3.5 litres of beer we brought. According to the park website, “moderate alcohol consumption” is allowed, whatever that means?!

When we finally arrived at the campsite, we were surprised to find 13 tents already set up and no spare tent pads to be had. Many of the campers had spilled over into the no camping area near the water. There’s also designated overflow camping in a clearing by the old homestead. However with the long grass and potential for ticks, we opted for an ocean-side site.

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At any rate, it doesn’t really matter where you set up your tent as the best place to hang out is a few hundred metres opposite the campsite at Echo Bay. A path leads to a rocky bay and then continues along to the tip of rocky peninsula with awe inspiring views of Mt. Baker, the San Juan islands and the snow capped mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. It also looked like a decent place for crabbing with drop offs and high cliffs to throw your traps from.

 

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Lion’s man jellyfish

 

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Aggregate green anemone

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Harbour seal in bull kelp

 

Echo Bay is also where the wildlife action is. While picnicking there, we’ve been visited by porpoises, river otters, seals and many varieties of birds such as terns, bald eagles, turkey vultures, hummingbirds and pigeon guillemots. The fast tidal currents of the gulf islands stir up the water off of the end of the island creating perfect conditions for sea life all the way up the food chain. The point at Echo Bay has the classic Gulf Island honey combed sandstone rock formations, filled with limpets and anemones below the high tide line.

If you go before mid may, there’s no charge for camping so you probably won’t get a visit from the park wardens that come by boat to collect camping fees. Fires aren’t permitted in the back country camp sites but we couldn’t resist the prospect of some Oyama smokies roasted over flame using the biolite with grill attachment accompanied by some brioche like Terra hot dog buns, Dijon mustard and sauerkraut.

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Mt Baker

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Calypso orchid – one of two varieties of orchid we found

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At dusk, we strolled back to Echo Bay, passing four small deer grazing in the old homestead clearing. They barely raised their heads as we passed by. A full moon sat above the bay, flanked by steep cliffs that framed the sky, ocean and Orcas Island — all different shades of lavender. We were cursing ourselves for leaving the camera back at camp. While we soaked in the view, the silence was broken by a loud blowing sound. Was it a seal? We waited. After a few minutes a humpback whale surfaced a couple of times in quick succession before diving back down. Racing to the end of the point for a better view, we arrived just in time to see the whale surface another few times — exhaling loudly before diving into the depths and out of sight.

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Monarch Head – a short hike up from the campsite

On Sunday, we meandered back to the ferry terminal. En route, we spotted a river otter loping along one of the side roads. It was the first time we’d seen one so far from the water.. Arriving at the terminal, we were tempted to hit the Wild Thyme Coffee House for lunch but opted for a third visit to the sunny, oceanside patio of the Lighthouse Pub.. We split a Cajun blackened halibut burger and a locally raised lamb burger served with Saltspring Island goat’s cheese. Both were delicious and were washed down with Lighthouse craft beers from Victoria.

We set up on the ferry-side dock to snack rest and wait for our departure The shore did have a few ochre starfish which we haven’t been seeing lately due to the wasting disease that is killing them off. There were a lot of feather duster worms though and a seal kept on surfacing close by to keep tabs on us.

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Feather duster worms

 

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The trip back was uneventful and, with one less stop, took less time. All in, it was $60 in ferry charges for two of us, there and back. Because we loaded the cost up on the Discover pass, we didn’t have to pay the few bucks for the bikes. All in all, it seemed a lot longer than an overnight trip and we’ll certainly be back.