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by Terry Sacora   ©2003

AOJ Outdoors Activities

Bluebells Ring In Morel Hunting Season

It's that time of the year again. Everything is coming back to life after a long winter. The birds and waterfowl have returned, the trees have leafed out once again and the forest fires have started burning here in Interior Alaska. This to me also means it is time to head to the woods for morel mushrooms.

I grew up in Iowa where hunting morels or sponge mushrooms as they are commonly called was almost a religious experience with a large part of the population. I moved to Fairbanks Alaska in April of 1974 and one of the things I wanted to do was to find a few morels for the dinner table. I walked around through the woods in May and June and found none even though I could tell by the rest of the plant development that they should be growing. I really didn't know what type of conditions to look for because in Iowa the presence of dead American elm trees was an indicator of the spot to find the morels. Not having Elm trees in Alaska much less dead ones I was at a loss as to where to spend my efforts.

Over the years I would stumble onto a few morels by accident and would closely canvass the area for more but never finding more than 20 at a time. Finally I discovered that they grow profusely in areas that have been burned by a forest fire. From my observations it doesn't seem to matter if the forest that burned was a conifer forest or a hardwood forest of birch. I find a lot of them where the ground litter has burned completely away leaving bare ground exposed which came as a real surprise to me. I have also come to the conclusion that starting the year following the fire is the best time to find morels and they continue to grow there for about 3 years with the amount of mushrooms declining each year after the first.

Several years ago we had a forest fire on Fort Wainwright directly behind a subdivision of Fairbanks. I was going into that burn for 3 years in June picking morels but kept it very quiet as I was not wanting lots of other people to move in on a close by hotspot. Morel pickers can be pretty secretive about their favorite hotspots.

As a rule of thumb the time to find morels here in the Interior is when the bluebells are blooming. I have picked them from the first of June up until the third week of June and the higher elevations where the spring comes later I have picked them in mid July.

In the Midwest we felt there were two types of morels. The first ones growing for the year were what we called the small grays and the other were larger and were white or yellow. I have only found what I would consider the smaller grays here and they often tend to be almost black. It takes a sharp eye to see them under many conditions, as they are the perfect example of camouflage. The texture of the morel looks like a real sponge hence the name sponge mushroom. This also tends to break up the outline making it very hard to see, as all of you old time mushroom hunters know. I find myself looking twice at a lot of burned spruce cones, which look very similar in the woods. It never fails to amaze me how you can look an area over many times and all of a sudden see some growing inches away from where you were looking before. If you find one make a mental note of where it was found and spend lots of time right in that area as you may be on the edge of a large batch of them. Most times you will find numerous mushrooms growing where you find one or two at first so keep looking in that area in ever expanding circles.

When you go to the woods here looking for morels you need to be prepared. Wear good boots and old clothing as you will be walking in sooty areas and brushing up against charcoal logs and trees. Make sure you don't forget the all-important mosquito repellant and some drinking water for everyone. Take your whole family along, as this can be a glorified Easter egg hunt that adults can enjoy too.

When picking the morels break them off just above the ground making sure you don't put a root mass in your bag containing a ball of dirt, which will get in the other mushrooms as you fill the bag. Most people that pick morels like to use a cloth bag as the bag will breath unlike plastic and your mushrooms will stay in much better shape. This also allows the spores to escape allowing more mushrooms to grow in following years.

Insects also like morels so when you get them home you will need to slice them lengthwise and rinse them off to get rid of any insects that are living in them or making a meal of them.

Cooking Them Up: My favorite way to eat them is to dip them in an egg batter and dust them with flour and fry them in butter. Obviously this isn't a meal that you would want to eat every day of your life but it is a taste treat that shouldn't be missed by anyone who enjoys mushrooms. Another way that I enjoy them is to scramble eggs into a skillet of morels. Many people like to slice them and to dry them for future use throughout the year. They can be reconstituted by soaking them in water. I have had them where you lightly cook them and then freeze them individually on a cookie sheet before shrink-wrapping them for a later date.

One word of caution is that I have read that a few people have experienced a reaction to drinking alcohol when eating morels. If you enjoy a glass of wine with a meal you might want to be aware of a slight possibility of a reaction. I have never experienced anything like this nor has anyone that I know.

Find out where there has been a forest fire in the last year or two, gather up your best friends or family and head out for a unique Alaskan adventure that you all will enjoy.

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