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.
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 We use backcountry road maps, but as in this last trip, found that they can quickly become out of date, as forest service roads are constantly changing and old roads not necessarily maintained.
Trying 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The fruits of our forage