Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mad Mushroomer of Yukon River

The mad mushroomer takes a drink of water while airing out his hobbit feet

Destroyed rims after the pothole.  Luckily we had spares.
This story takes a while to build up, and a little while to wind down, but that’s how the story is.  It’s the story of a bit of an adventure I had this summer, but on another level, a level much more important to me, it’s the story of why I love the time I spend hunting mushrooms and in the company of the community of people who also pick.  This telling of the story begins three weeks into our mushroom picking summer, after Skyla’s broken leg, after the pothole that destroyed two tires and two rims, after we heard that Dwight was dead, and shortly after Tanya had headed home to Alberta.  There’s more to it, but this is a good place to start.

Heading North

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for mushrooms”

We’d been picking for about three weeks in the area around wheeler lake and the morels were getting pretty thin on the ground, so Skyla and I decided to leave Shirley, Bitchy Butch and the boys and head on north to the Yukon River.  We weren’t the only ones heading out – our next door neighbours were pulling up camp and heading back to Alberta, and the Frenchies across the way were booking it down to the Okanagan for Cherry harvest, where, as they explained it, they could make two to four hundred a day, and even more importantly, as Tomas explained, “there’s girls down there.”

We went out for one last pick, Skyla and me, got about seven pounds, and discovered that the burn was so dry that smolder from the previous year had re-ignited and blown up into a slowly creeping ground fire, with the odd tree in flames here and there.  We wandered through the burning forest picking morels right amongst the glowing coals.

it's so dry that the fire from last year has started burning again,
right where we're picking.  Also shown - the central character
of this story, morchella esculenta, the morel mushroom.
The other French camp laughed a bit as we walked by, they yelled “Highballers!” as no one else in the burn was really picking at all.  Skyla was really limping – even three weeks after breaking her leg she was still having problems with it swelling, so once camp was cleaned up, we drove to the junction and called mom to pick her up as I headed on north, searching for morel dorado.

I’d met Eric Allen the previous week when we’d been in Whitehorse – he’s a maybe-ex hippy rock-climber, and him and his wife Ying keep bees, fish, sell jelly, and most importantly of all, at least for Eric and his kids, they picked morels.  When I showed up at their door their kids Ethan and Sierra were out scouting the burn on the Yukon River with their friends Brent and Charlee, and Eric was at home wishing he was with them.  “They’ve got to just be making a killing out there,” he'd say.

“You’re getting all worked up, they might not be finding anything,” Ying would try to calm him down, but mostly without any actual success.  He’d stayed behind to put a roof on the log house that had been delivered and erected that afternoon.  I’d told him I’d help him put his roof on in exchange for getting north down the river, so we started working, pushing each other harder than either of us probably would have been able to do on our own, getting the tongue-and-groove ceiling and the vapour barrier on by the end of the first day of work.

After getting supplies the next day we picked up the picking team from Carmax and just as we’d hoped, they’d had good picking, bringing in three hundred pounds of mushrooms from their two overloaded boats.  They were excited, exhausted, and full of plans to head back the next week, at least those who didn’t have to be back at work, and just seeing the racks and racks of mushrooms sitting there on the river bank was pretty exciting.  Eric’s eyes got even brighter than normal, if possible, shining through his bushy eyebrow and goatee, and on Sunday, all of us, including the kids, were working even harder if possible, clambering up and down, pulling rafters up, and putting on the stripping, finally getting the roof to a state where Eric figured it would be okay left on its own if we left it for a week or so to go picking.  We were delayed Tuesday, but Wednesday morning found Eric, Sierra, Charley and myself on the marge of lake Laberge, looking out at the wind, and this is really where my story begins.

Across the Lake

The two boats that were supposed to take us were a 15 foot aluminum boat and a leaky zodiac.  The previous trip it’d taken almost 12 hours to get to the burn, as the motor for the zod was underpowered – Sierra had been the only person riding the boat, and she could only get it up and on plane by going to the front of the boat – whenever she wanted to turn she had to go back to the motor, and the boat would blog back down in the water.  To fix this problem the family had pooled some cash and bought a larger motor, but when we got it in the water, it was pretty obvious that something wasn’t right.  For starters, the motor had been stored on the wrong side, and the cylinder was completely full of oil.  We didn’t have a wrench that would work for the sparkplug, so had to use pliers and some creative engineering to eventually get it loose and out so I could finally pull the starter cord, and of course that sprayed motor oil all over Charley.  When we did get it started and in the water, it was shooting up a lot of water – not so much a rooster tail as a peacock tail, all fanned out – the water would go up, and a good bit of it landed in the boat.  To give an idea of how it was, we’d cut the top off a two-litre pop jug from the trash to give us a bailing bucket, and when it accidentally got dropped out the back, it floated up the peacock trail, got half filled with water, and dropped back in the boat.

“Maybe we could just bail a lot” suggested Eric hopefully, looking at the water in the back of the boat, but that idea didn’t wash, even though there was plenty of water.  It became pretty clear that the transom was about five inches too short, and although we had a chainsaw with us and wood, we didn’t have bolts or a drill to build it up properly, so after a bit we decided to set out in two groups, with Eric and myself staying back to build up the transom.  Putting the aluminum boat in the water we noticed that the wheel bearing for the trailer wasn’t there anymore and the tire was sort of just sitting, but since we were already at the lake, who needed a trailer anymore anyways?

Just as Charley and Sierra made to pull off and head out, Ying suggested that Sierra and I trade, so that whatever happened with the Zod at least I would be able to pick, since I’d put so much work into going, so at the last moment, it was me and Charley in a slightly overloaded aluminum boat heading out across Lake Laberge, and the wind was picking up.  Ying saw us off with a final comment – “be careful!” she said, “two French brothers were out on the lake yesterday, and one stayed with the boat and the other died.”  With those cheerful words ringing in my ears we were off.

We’d been worried about the wind since the night before, which was why we were trying to leave so early.  The forecast was for stronger winds later in the day, but it didn’t look too bad to me.  Then I realized that what I’d thought was the far side of the lake was actually just an island.  “We’ve got to cross the lake then head thirty k down the lake” he said in his incredibly infectious mild drawl. Well we rounded the island and there was about a mile of open water ahead of use, with a south-north wind blowing hard, and at least thirty kilometres of open water for it to work on.  Out in the lake we could see the odd white-cap here and there, but it didn’t look to bad so we headed out.

Looks can be deceiving, and about ten minutes out from shore I was starting to wish that we were a lot closer to solid ground. I was starting to clench a crease in the chair I was sitting on as the boat went up and down and sideways – basically I was getting a little worried.  Just then I heard Charley speak up over the wind.  “You don’t by any chance, ah, have any experience driving a boat in waves like this?”

“Not unless by big you mean five or six inches,” I said.  Just what I wanted to hear.

“Okay.  I think I can manage,” he replied.

I asked him if there was any chance of turning back, and he said no, if we tried to turn around we’d go down, so we were pretty much committed to making the far shore.

From there on in it took us about two weeks to go across that mile of water.  The swells were five and six feet, and so close together that you couldn’t even think of either going with them (you’d run the nose in, and get the back swamped at the same time), or going directly across them (you’d be rolled).  The only pseudo-solution was to quarter in to the waves, trying to stay on top as much as possible, but even that hardly worked at all.  We’d be on top of a wave, and then it would end, and we’d be dropped into a trough.  Being dropped would bog us right down and we’d gun the motor, inching ahead of the wall of water running up our backs as we tried to clamber up the back of the wave in front.  All around us the waves were capping and rolling, and it was pretty clear that if either the wave we were on, or the wave coming up behind us, decided to roll, it would swamp the boat instantly and we’d be down. I looked back at Charley and he looked fairly preoccupied, his eyes darting left and right, his left hand on the tiller, and his right hand doing some nice wrought-iron work out of the railing on the gunnel. The drying racks were piled a couple feet above the railings, so I could only see over the front of the boat when we were nosing down into a trough in the chop, and as all I could see was more waves, I had no appreciation of the view.  After about a month we reached the far shore and didn’t even bother pretending that we were going to go on.  There was a gravelly shore sheltered slightly by some large rocks just along the surface, and we ran the boat right into it, and then made it fast as the waves worked battering the boat into the shore.

We started a fire and sat down and I pulled out my recorder and started playing some of the melodies that were running around in my head.  The top contenders were “home from the sea” and “The wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald”, and “wayfaring stranger” (“I’m a going over Jordan”).  It was pretty clear we were going to be there for a while, so we built a fire, made some stew and bannock and fried some burgers, then since we were bored we salvaged enough lumber from old shipwrecks to throw a shelter together, had a nap, shared our life stories, and explored the shore.  Finally after eight hours of waiting the swells dropped to three or four feet, so we headed out again, 30km down the lake along rocky shores, finally reaching the river around ten at night. We’d seen no sign of the other boat, and held out hope that they’d been bright enough to stay on shore, or perhaps try coming up river to the camp instead of down, but as Charley said – “Eric’ll try anything once,” and as soon as he said it I knew it was true.

a view from up above the Yukon river, courtesy of Wikipedia
It was smooth! For all you hear about dead man’s canyon or Five Fingers Gorge, compared to Laberge the river was a cakewalk (though a very cold cakewalk).  Not only were there no real waves, but it was going in our direction.  I pulled out my recorder again and started harmonizing with the engine’s drone, putting The Cremation of Sam McGee to a melody from David Francey.  I got to the line “He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;” and decided possibly I should be focusing on something a little more positive.

At one point we saw a zodiac behind us, but as it didn’t catch up, we decided that it couldn’t be Eric and Sierra.  In what seemed like no time at all (about two hours) we arrived at the campsite, seventy kilometres downstream from Lake Laberge, cracked out of the ice in the boat, built a fire and set up the tent.  Using most of the branches from the top of a bug-killed spruce we had a little inferno going in no time, and leaned in close enough to sizzle most of the hair off our chests, but by that point our attitude was “who needs hair on their chest anyways.”

We were already half asleep when we finally heard another boat pull in, and it was indeed Eric and Sierra.  “What took you guys so long?” we asked, and they replied that they had headed out on the lake only a couple hours after we did, and weren’t having any problems until the plywood floor of the zodiac popped out, leaving them looking more like a mattress going over the waves than a boat.  They’d headed for shore, got stuck in quicksand and almost killed themselves trying to pull the new beast of a motor out of the mud.

“That thing weighed at least twice as much as it does off the ground, and even that’s too much,” said Eric, who suspected he’d ripped a hernia a bit.  It actually had been them we’d seen behind us, but with all their swimming and wading, they were about frozen to death, and had stopped four times between the lake and camp to build fires to warm up around.  All in all it was well past one when we finally got to sleep, but hey, we were there, and ready to start picking golden morel plunder up off the ground in the morning.


The next morning we started out fairly optimistically.  Sierra wandered off before breakfast and came back with a grin and her jacket stuffed with morels. The burn stretched along perhaps fifteen kilometres of river bank, up six or seven long bends of the Yukon, past maybe five serious creeks. We got a bit of a late start but were out picking the next peninsula up river by about ten.  Everywhere we looked we could see evidence of the times when the Yukon had been the main artery of transportation through the region.  There were the foundations of long gone cabins, and piles of cans and bottles wherever camps had been set up for long periods of time.  All the peninsulas had likely been logged for cordwood during the steamboat era and there were well build skid trails going back up into the plateaus above the river basin.  While Eric and Charley decided to explore the peninsula, Sierra and I opted to do a circular hike back towards camp.

Sierra’s custom is to always pick twice as many mushrooms as the next best person, so she zipped off ahead, and I started working my way up the banks of a creek and checking the flat, knife in hand.  I wasn’t finding anything like a lot, so I decided to go straight up the side of the creek cut a couple hundred feet to the higher flat.  That felt like it took about an hour, and when I got to the top my legs felt shot, but I kept going, working my way higher and higher, finally coming out onto an old skid trail that led back higher into the rolling terrain of the river bench.  I told myself that even though I wasn’t finding anything, at least I was picking in virgin territory, right? Just as the ground started to look good – larger trees, good tree-wells, lots of little ridges and dips, I looked up and there was Sierra’s backpack perched on the top of the hill.  She popped up from around the hill, carrying a bucket almost full of mushrooms and informed me she’d just picked a bunch of morels just over the hill.  “There was a bit of a patch just down there, a few up that way.  Cool trail, eh?” 

Since I now realized that she was ahead of me, I cut lower, and started finding a few of my own, working my way gradually down to camp, which was a lot further away than I had thought.

When I got to camp Eric and Charley were both there already, busy working building a drier for our mushrooms.  Neither of them had found much, and both were a little disappointed.  “I’m really sorry we’re not finding as many as I was hoping Dale” Eric apologized. “I guess we’re just too late.”

About an hour later Sierra showed up with two buckets full of morels.  That meant she’d neatly gotten almost twice as many as all three of us put together.We had a bite to eat, and then decided to give another go for the evening, walking down to the end of the peninsula we were camped on.  It was already eight o’clock, but there was plenty of light left.  Not even ten minutes out it seemed that our luck was finally changing.  We hit a patch of half-burn and morels started appearing everywhere, even as our excitement started building.  Time slowed as we picked, walking, picking, searching, picking. 

Just as we reached the end of the peninsula our reverie was broken by a voice coming in on the wind from across the river.  “Hello!” it cried.  It seemed our neighbours were fairly talkative.  We couldn’t hear much of what was said, but the gist of it was that they’d been stuck there for a few weeks, and could we help them.  We decided to stop in and see them the next morning, and kept on picking.  The mushrooms were big, and in large clusters, and even hearing bears talking off through the blackened trees, or catching a glimpse of a timber wolf running away through the spruce couldn’t take away any of our excitement.

We met up at camp again around eleven thirty and us boys had all doubled our take, and I’d gotten a full bucket, just a hair more than Sierra.  Everyone looked at the mushrooms, and then Charley goes “boy Sierra, you did pretty poorly.”

“Yeah,” she agrees, and everyone agrees.

“You’re looking at this wrong!” I tried to tell them, “you’re supposed to say ‘good picking Dale, you got as much as Sierra,’ not “too bad Sierra, you only got as many as Dale” but my arguments didn’t hold much water with them.

The next morning we had a good breakfast and hopped in the zod to head up-river and make our fortune, but first we decided to stop in and see the other pickers who’d been yelling to us the night before.  We pulled in to the camp, and it looked pretty sad.  There was a sort of net hanging over the fire, a little tent and a tiny little box of food.  We pulled up to shore, I hopped out of the boat and said “Hey Monty, hey Dave – you’ve been here for a while, eh?” Not only had I seen them before, but we’d actually visited a bit back at Wheeler Lake.

While Monty helped us dock, Dave (known as ‘Crazy Dave’ on account of his sunk in eyes, probably a result of some serious liver wear and tear) sort of paced a little bit in the background.  Almost as if he couldn’t wait to say something he looked at us and blurted out “I haven’t had a drink in fifteen days!”

“So you’re past the shakes, eh?” I jumped out of the boat.

“I’m bettin that’s gonna change soon,” said Charlie.

“You’re damn right it is,” said Dave.

It turned out the two of them, Monty and Dave, had been there for three and two weeks respectively, and for at least the last week and a bit they hadn’t been finding much of anything.  They didn’t have a good way to dry the mushrooms, so they’d had to throw away a bunch of morels that had gone skunky. Having spent two weeks together they were bickering back and forth like an old married couple, one that probably should never have gotten married in the first place.  They had a raft with a hole in it and no air, and even though they had a patch, by this time they were too despondent to even try fixing anything.  They’d been dropped off by Luke, a buyer who’d been operating out of 37 and had convinced them to come pick for him.  He’d dropped them off, promising to be back regularly, and then had pretty much just sort of just not... at all.
“He showed up three days ago while we were up on the top of the hill back there,” explained Monty, “and we yelled and shouted, and when we got back he’d just left.  He’d dropped off a little food, a jug of water, and a note stuck to a tree that said ‘Dave, call your wife.’”

“It’s a hundred k to the nearest phone!” said Crazy Dave, “when that guy gets back he’s gonna feel my hands around his neck.”

Dave was already ten days late getting back to work, but he seemed a lot more worried about his old lady than his boss.  “I can always get another job,” he explained.

We patched and aired up the boat, and promised we’d get a message out for them, and by the time we left they were in a significantly better mood, though Crazy Dave was still very much in need of a drink.

Eight hours later we were heading back to camp again.  Charley and I had picked about 6km of river bank along one shore, and found maybe a dozen morels apiece.  Eric had picked the other shore for a while, then spent the rest of the day sleeping in the boat while waiting for Sierra to get back from wherever she had hiked to.  He had six mushrooms total.  True to form Sierra had almost two pails – roughly four times the take of the rest of us put together.  As we went back down river we saw a boat pulled up at Monty and Dave’s, and when we pulled in we saw Luke on shore, looking somewhat cowed, and a very enthusiastic Monty and Dave packing up camp.  Luke’s neck didn’t have any obvious strangle marks on it, and he’d apparently even convinced Dave to stay a bit longer.  “My old lady’s given me three more days, so we’re going to pick on the other bank,” he explained.  We suspected that Luke might have brought him a drink as well.

We got back to the camp, put together a delicious supper of coal roasted vegetables and a range of wild mushrooms and seasonings, and then started thinking about what to do next.
Sierra had wandered up a mountain or so and pointed to a distant peak, suggesting we might find a lot of morels around a green patch we could see towards the top.  Since it was the last evening we planned on being there I asked Eric if he was up for going.

“You’re sure?” he asked hopefully.

“Absolutely,” I replied, sounding probably a bit more sure than I actually was. But since it was my last shot, I figured I had to try something.

Sierra wasn’t going to climb the mountain with us, she said we were crazy to take her advice, but she still wanted to come along even though she was going to be looking for something lower.  Charley decided to relax at camp, so some time after eight o’clock at night we headed out again for what we thought might be our last pick of the trip.

Monty and Crazy Dave had moved right to where we wanted to head up the mountain from, but they were more than happy for us to stop by.  I think they’d been a little starved for company.  Sierra headed off up the river and Eric and I started moving.

It wasn’t too warm so the first hour went by quickly. An hour and a half later we were on the open face of the mountain where it was too steep for trees or much vegetation, and at the end of two hours we were on the summit – mushroom net total zero.  We looked down at where we’d come from, the river far down below, snaking up and down the valley in great winding loops.  I knew that there was some interesting formula for calculating the length of a river looped up over the crow-flying distance in an area where erosion was even, but I couldn’t seem to bring it to mind.  Across the river we were already high enough to look down on all the flats up above the river, and from our vantage point it really looked like there was some nice ground, just not for us.

Eric wasn’t looking across the river, he’d turned around to look behind us, at the next mountain higher.
“That next mountain over there looks like it has some nice terrain up near the top,” he said, pointing. “Since we’ve come this far, how about climbing that mountain as well?”

I thought about it for a second… “Sure, it’s barely ten thirty, let’s give it a try.”

Another half hour we’d descended the far side of the mountain and started up the next one through swarms of flies.  I’d just finished re-applying my DEET when I heard Eric go “Heey!” his voice full of excitement. “This is more like it!”  Adrenalin hit and I sprinted up to where he stood, and there on the hillside above us were mushrooms.  “Train rack!” yelled Eric (or possibly train wreck? I never figured out which it was), whipped out his knife and we both started picking.  The morels were massive, and there were easily a pound or more around each tree.  As we slowly picked our way up the hillside, slicing our knives through mushroom after mushroom, our excitement kept growing more and more.

“Cooey!” I’d yell over the wind, or perhaps just over the beating of my heart, and Eric would answer from just out of sight, “eh! More here!”  It was so thick that we stopped yelling out when we found new patches, we just kept on slicing, confident that the other person had as many mushrooms as they could handle.  We picked up, up, up, then stopped for a moment to watch the sun go down, then kept on picking, down, to the north, to the south, criss-crossing where we’d already been, but always finding new ground.  We picked blonds, greys, conicals, blacks, and even a green, heavy in my hand, and it got darker, and darker, yet still we picked.

“We’ve got to stop picking and get out of here!” Eric stated, trying to convince himself as much as me, then bent over to pick a couple more morels.

“Okay, let’s!” I yelled, taking our pack off so I could pick around a couple trees easier.  Eventually it got dark enough that we were leaving more mushrooms than we were finding, so after an hour and a half of picking we started heading back towards the boat, packing about fifty pounds of mushrooms, retail value of around seven hundred and fifty bucks, but even fresh, worth four hundred.  For that brief period we had been making well over a hundred dollars an hour each.

At midnight we crossed the creek and started hiking back up the first mountain.  Even as we hiked back we started finding huge patches of mushrooms circling through the tree wells, what Eric called either train racks or train wrecks – unfortunately I never clarified which one. My five-fingered shoes were starting to wear on my heels, but I didn’t care – I felt like I could walk for hours and hours, feeling exhilarated and sleepy at the same time.  At almost one in the morning we saw the fire of Monty and Dave’s camp down below us on the valley floor, and shortly after we floated into camp, where everyone oohed and awed over the mushrooms like a shiny gold nugget or a new baby.  Sierra had already been there a couple hours laughing with Monty and Dave, as well as at how different the two of them were from each other.

We motored downstream to camp still floating, alerted Charley that he didn’t have to start a search party, sorted out our mushrooms into the drier, stoked the fire, and fell into a deep sleep.  “I think I’m going to stick around for a while longer guys,” I told the others as we crawled into our sleeping bags.  “I’ve got food, you guys head on out, and I’ll just stay here for a while.”

“I’d like to stay too,” said Eric sort of wistfully, “if you keep finding ground like that, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be hauling in a thousand a day.”  With that ringing in my ears I slept.

On My Own

Everyone headed out in the morning.  Sierra said she’d be back out to either pick or pick me up likely on Monday sometime after they finished putting the insulation and tin back on the roof. They knew I had enough food for another month, and I joked that I could always just build a raft if I had to, and we all chuckled a bit. Their final act before leaving was dropping me off fifteen kilometres up-river to save me a few hours of walking.  I waved goodbye, adjusted my pack, and headed up the creek, truly alone for the foreseeable future.

I pulled out my cup and grabbed a drink from the crystal clear stream at my feet.  I was fairly certain that this was the same creek that Sierra had been picking along the night before, so I started working my way higher and higher.  As I hiked I broke open a bag of dried apples my grandpa had made several years before.  He’d been my picking partner from when I was fifteen till his death a few years ago, and I’d never had the heart to open up the last of the food he’d made, but this seemed like a trip he’d have been happy to be on.
Going up the creek I was surprised to find almost ten pounds of mushrooms along the banks, especially considering that there was a tent set up right where I’d been dropped off.  Things were looking good.  Five hours later however I wasn’t feeling quite so optimistic.  After hiking to the very top of the back mountain, then going down and exploring, I realized that in our mad running back and forth and seemingly non-systematic meanderings of the night before we’d somehow managed to pick almost the entirety of the good patch.  I found another ten pounds around the edges of where we’d picked and by re-picking ground we’d covered after dark, but early afternoon found me standing on the edge of a massive forest of small burnt black spruce, stretching down far below to a creek, and then back up the side of the next mountain.  It was going to be hard going, I told myself, but at least once I got back up to the same altitude on the other mountain I’d be in good area again.

I made it home that night some time around one in the morning, having learnt that spruce swamps rank high on my list of least favourite terrain to walk through on a slope, and secondly, that just because there is good terrain and mushrooms at one elevation on one mountain, doesn’t mean that there will be anything at that level on the next mountain.  Or the next. Or the next or the next.  When I plotted out the path I’d taken on the topo map it looked like I’d covered something close to 25km, and while I was thankful for the twenty pounds of mushrooms I had found, I wished I’d found them at the end of the day instead first thing so I was forced to pack them the entire trip.  I forced myself to stay awake long enough to buck some firewood, cook some supper, deal with the mushrooms and build a good fire in the drier before I went to sleep.  “It’s Sabbath and I can rest,” I told myself as I drifted off.

I woke up feeling like I’d been beaten by a stick.  My feet were sore, my back was sore, my fingers were sore, even my face felt sore.  I decided that what I needed was a nice soak in a tub, but I didn’t have a tub, so decided to build one.  I pulled out the chainsaw they’d left me, falled a couple trees and bucked out logs the right length for a good-size hot-tub and arranged them in the camp, but they looked more like the beginning of a cabin than a hot-tub.  I looked at it a bit, and decided building a cabin would be a nice relaxing thing to do for the day. 

I didn't have a camera at the time, but a friend of a friend
was travelling through and took a picture! it's almost all there still.

Sometime after midnight I closed the door on my new house and crawled into my sleeping bag on my new bed while thinking about my grandpa.  My 7x7 cabin was only about five feet high, but it was incredibly comfortable.  Forty logs, thirty five-gallon pails of moss and a few sheets of plastic for the windows, and I had a comfortable cabin, chinked inside and out, with a nicely insulated ceiling made from a thick layer of moss on spruce poles, weighted down with more logs and gear.  The roof was built on top of the insulated ceiling, made out of a few more logs and a plastic sheet to shed the rain. 

Grandpa had grown up on the trapline and had explained in some detail how to build line cabins, but it was only now that I’d built one that I truly understood much of what he’d told me.  To be honest it was only thinking of him that had kept me pushing myself to finish it so hard.  I’d told myself “stop complaining over forty logs, you know grandpa used to fall three hundred trees a day, then limb them all, walking down the trunk swinging a double-bitted axe back and forth as he went.”

My attempts and building a stove had failed, so I’d moved the circle of rocks close to the door and put my fire in a square tin can just outside the door.  When I stuffed it with moss it functioned as a smudge just outside my door, and once again I fell asleep feeling pleasantly tired.

I awoke to hear a motorboat coming up the river.  It got louder and louder until I judged it was directly across from me, then the engine cut and I heard a voice yell over the water, “hey look! Some guy built himself a cabin!”  the boat started up again, came closer then headed up the river.  An hour or so later another boat came upstream, cut the engine, voice yelled “look, somebody’s built a cabin!” then headed on up the river. I chuckled to myself, then chuckled more imagining how my grandpa would have laughed.
Sunday I woke late and decided to re-pick the area we’d covered Wednesday night.  Eight hours later I’d found acres and acres of chives, seen a massive moose making its way through the swamp, it’s legs going up and down like a sewing machine or someone riding a bicycle, and managed to scrape up about two pounds of mushrooms.  By the time I got back it was too late to hike to the other end of the burn, so I spent the rest of the day cutting firewood and carving a new axe handle to replace the one I’d broken.  Monday I awoke to pouring rain, but decided that I wanted to hike all the same, so I donned my rain gear and packed my pockets with everything I’d need in case of an accident or getting stuck and headed out.


There’s something about being alone for an extended period of time that is good for a person – the introspection, being forced to talk to yourself without the usual avenues of mental escape such as music, books, or even simply other people.  For me picking mushrooms has always been a time to refocus, and a way of combatting internet induced adult onset ADD.  I come back from picking with the ability to focus on a problem to the exclusion of everything else for hours or even days rather than minutes or only seconds.  While heading out for a single long hike can do wonders, this was day four on my own, and being alone is something that gets truer as time goes by, or at least is far from a static state.

I’m hiking up a slick, clayey hillside a couple hours from camp.  It’s raining hard again, and I’ve packed my morels into my backpack.  The rain is pounding on the hood of my rain jacket; however the inside is so damp from the hard work that I’m thinking I should just take it off. I haven’t seen any mushrooms and a while and as it goes my mushroom eyes are slowly turning off as I focus more and more on my internal dialogue and on fleshing on my personal theme-song that is playing in the back of my head.  At the moment it’s the song start wearing purple by Gogol Bordello – “all your sanity, and wits they will all leave you, I promise – it’s just a matter of time”.  I wonder why that particular song is on repeat, or, to be honest, just the chorus, and eventually realize that it’s at least in part because the song is perfectly matched to my heart-rate.  I make a mental note to take a break if my background song ever switches to something by The Offspring. I realize that my feet are on a different rhythm and almost trip as they try to sync themselves.  I’m listening to the rain, I have a song in the background, a portion of my brain on autopilot, scanning for morels, another portion directing my hands as I feed dried apples into my mouth, and another portion is carefully memorizing the terrain, the patterns of ridges, or even the individual trees, rocks, moose-prints, and moisture content.

Because of how much time I’ve spent picking morels or pine mushrooms I’ve played countless little games to keep me occupied, many of them akin to not stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk, but others far more complex.  I walk as silently as I can, I consciously step on the ground that I judge least likely to leave a permanent footprint, and avoid stepping in locations where I think morels might consider growing.  I think how I may have to revise that game as I’ve seen mushrooms growing out of deep footprints, benefiting from either the shade or the moisture.  I go over a ridge and on the far side there’s willows crisscrossed everywhere.  I push one over my head, then as I step across the intersection of three others my mind tells me “don’t let them know that you’ve been here before.” It makes perfect sense to me, until I realize that I have no idea what my mind was talking about.  I haven’t been here before, so why should I have to pretend I have, just so I can pretend I haven’t?  How many layers deep is this deception? And who am I supposed to be fooling? The trees? The morels? Or someone else?  And why in the world would my mind say something like that in the first place?  After half an hour of agonizing over it I conclude that it’s the remnant of some game that I must have played in a previous year, but is long gone from my memory by now.  Even still I give a shot at playing mind games with the trees, but it seems a little pointless.

Although I’m silent outwardly, the storm of activity in my mind is almost deafening, and in many ways the outside world beyond the range of my focus has faded almost out of existence, right up until the moment when I hear a crash, and the sound of what my mind tells me is galloping.  In the blink of an eye the music stops.  Everything stops, and my mind is instantly cleaner than could be achieved by any amount of meditation.  I turn my head crosswise to the wind and strained for anything else that might tell me what I’ve just heard.  The forest goes from silent to filled with noise – birds, wind, twisting trees and spruce beetles, the sound of my feet settling into the ground, but nothing that can shed light on what I’ve just heard.  After a minute I give up on what could have been anything from a startled moose to a distant landslide and go back to hiking, my mind slowly refocuses on the tasks at hand, though not quite to the same extent as before.

Again, I’m suddenly shaken out of my internal thoughts by the sight of a morel in my peripheral vision.  I turn, see nothing, search, and then see a tiny piece of morel showing from under a root about fifteen feet away. How in the world was I ever able to see that? I wonder, then I see another one in the distance, a massive one, and just beyond it, another four or five.  As I’m walking towards them, I see others off to my right, and then to my left as well.  My excitement rises, but my heart rate doesn’t increase, I’ve already been hiking hard for hours.  I look away from the large morel I saw in the distance and carefully pick every other mushroom I can find, being very careful never to look in the direction of the first mushroom I saw, though trying to keep in mind exactly where it is.  After several minutes of working my way up and down the hill picking another couple dozen mushrooms and taking mental notes on the terrain, and the extent of similar terrain, I decide it’s time to pick the first morel and make a beeline for where I believe it is.  It’s there! Success, I win the game.

The wind starts to gust and the rain picks up.  I start hiking facing into it as much as possible and take my hood off both to improve my field of vision and to be sure my ears are unobstructed.  Walking through a forest with all the trees at least a year dead (or even two or three years for bug-kill), with a lot of obvious widowmakers (standing dead snags) a strong wind is by far the most dangerous thing to meet, bringing danger of falling branches or trees – in fact in some areas almost all of the trees have already blown over – and getting a little wet is a small price to pay for safety.  I could of course cut across the hill to the much shorter black spruce swamp/forest, but that’s not where the morels are, so I keep working through the area I’m already in.  I hear a crack of thunder and think about heading down to the camp before I get soaked.  Just then I see an empty diet pepsi can in front of me – pretty clear sign that someone has been here ahead of me.  It looks at least a little aged, so maybe it’s been a month since someone dropped it here, but what really strikes me is the pointlessness of using a diet drink while hiking.  “oh, I need some energy, I’d better give my body a shot of aspartame! Yay.”  I chuckle to myself. 

Another part of my mind asks me “how do you know when a Frenchman’s been in the patch ahead of you?”

“You find a pepsi can,” I answer.  Quebec is one of the few places in the world where Pepsi is overwhelmingly winning in the Cola wars.  Ten seconds later I start laughing again when I notice an old cigarette but lying perhaps six feet away.  “You find a pepsi can and a cigarette butt lying on the ground,” I correct myself, then wonder why I use the term Frenchman.  It doesn’t seem entirely politically correct, and normally I’d say Quebecois, or “French guy” or something like that, but when I’m in the mushroom camps, I  call them Frenchies, or a Frenchman.  But then there’s a lot of things I say differently when I’m picking.  Why?  I think about this question for the next hour.

(When I went through Wheeler Lake on my way home, I retold my joke to Butch.  Shirley answered first, saying, “You find trash everywhere.”  I then noticed that she was drinking a pepsi while smoking a cigarette, and had to decide whether it was worse to finish the joke, or just agree with her and pretend it wasn’t a joke in the first place, just a rather awkward out-of-context question. )

The last hour back I tell myself I’m only ten minutes away every ten minutes.  Deep down I know I’m an hour away, but I choose to believe I’m closer as it somehow makes me go faster.  I then start wondering if the very fact that I can sort of fool myself is a good or a bad thing, and by the time I give up on deciding on a concrete answer I’m at the top of the bluff overlooking camp.  I suddenly have to take a leak.  There’s something about standing on the lips of hills or cliffs with nice views that has that impact on me, though I’m not sure if it’s something of a “master of all I survey” response, or the result of habits formed hiking down to the river as a kid. 

When I hit camp the sun is still a good half hour from going down and I feel like I’ve done a short day, in fact I even feel a little guilt, as if I’m betraying my work ethic.  Say all you want about a protestant work ethic, but the work ethic of a logging community where status is based on who is the most hard-core workaholic puts it to shame.  Still, by the time everything’s ready for the night and I’ve cooked my food for the next day the sun has gone down and I feel better about quitting so early.

Going Home

Going back to the past tense here. Tuesday was another twenty kilometre hike, with a net benefit of four pounds of morels and a pocket-full each of cloudberries and soapberries.  I came back with a realization that I’m a sucker for a good looking hill. Hiking up the creek valley I knew well before I reached the burn that I wasn’t going to find any mushrooms, but always just a few hundred yards ahead along a ridge I’d see the next row of mixed brown and green white spruce and think that just maybe there might be morels there.  There wouldn’t be, but from the top of the ridge I’d see another ridge, that in the distance looked nicer than this ridge, and to stop so close would just be a crime, so I’d keep going, and going, and going. 

Wednesday morning I decided to hike an hour and a half up to Monty and Dave’s camp and see how they were doing, then head off and pick the second and third creek valleys past them.  Since I thought it would be more of a hike than I could do in a single day I packed a plastic sheet and my sleeping bag, as well as a bit of extra food and headed out.  By now I’d found enough skid trails to be able to avoid having to head straight up or down off the flats, and as the weather was beautiful it was a very relaxing couple of hours.  When I got their camp, however, they weren’t there – in fact as far as I could tell they’d been gone at least two days.  As I sat hunkered on the edge of the river contemplating what their absence meant a canoe came round the bend.  “Are there any camps in the burn?” I called out to them.  They looked back at me, a crouched figure on the edge of the river, skin blackened and a raincoat hanging poncho-like off his neck.  They probably think I’m crazy, I thought to myself.

“No, no camps!” one of them called back.  No camps, I thought.  I guess that means I’m the only guy left in the burn. The news struck me.  The camps I’d seen the previous week had been directly below the areas I was hoping to hike to today, and if they’d left because the area was all picked out, that meant I was about to spend two full days hiking for potentially nothing.  I’d expected Sierra back Monday or Tuesday, and it was already Wednesday, and they knew that I had food, and had joked that I could just build a raft.  On top of that I could almost hear Ying’s voice saying “He’s a single guy and you’re going to go camp with him for the week? I don’t think so.”  I figured that if they came this week at all it’d be Friday, whereas if I did build a raft I could be out in a day, allowing me to get everything ready to head home before Sabbath…
I had the option of hiking on at least a day, basically just to make some money, or heading back and creating a raft, and in light of how rewarding the creation of the cabin had been the decision was easy.  I headed back to start a new construction.

I did my best to stay paranoid as I falled the trees to build the raft.  I’d already let one tree go the wrong direction and get stuck in a tree, and though I’d bucked up as much of it as I could from the bottom up, there was still a good section of tree hanging up in the air, a reminder of just how little I actually knew. 
I’d never built a raft for serious use before, and wasn’t really sure how large I needed to make it.  I paced off a distance that seemed good and started bucking trees to match.  The butts were between twelve and fourteen inches, and while I was able to haul out the twelve inch logs by using my sash tied to a packboard and throwing myself forward so the end lifted off the ground, but the fourteen inch logs were hopeless.  The most I could do was roll them, and the terrain wasn’t really helpful so I ended up bucking them in half and hauling them out in seven foot chunks.  Then the starter cord broke.

While I had plenty of gas I had no tools, and by nightfall I’d probably spent an hour working on the saw, using a machete to undo the screws to re-wind the starter cord, and using an axe to carefully get the chain back on on two occasions, as the bar was too short for bending to be any use.  All I had for rope was a collection of short pieces of the cheapest yellow rope money could buy, and a forty foot coil of the exact same rope, but slightly older looking.  It was enough to do a single loop around each joint.  I used the chainsaw to cut good deep grooves for the rope around all the logs, and also to notch the base logs so the deck logs had to be pounded in in places.  It seemed solid when I finished around two in the morning, but I had no way of testing it without loading everything I owned onto it and pushing it out into the river, something I was pretty nervous to try.

Thursday morning I plunge cut holes through the large side logs and squared and hammered spruce logs down through them, creating posts that I lashed some fairly crude oars to, then I loaded everything I owned onto the raft and prepared to take the plunge, so to speak, though I definitely was hoping not to actually take a plunge.  One corner of the raft was filled with the airtight heater, the next corner with a stack of racks, and the back of the raft was piled high with food, buckets, chainsaw, gas and oil, clothes, the tent, $2000 dollars’ worth of mushrooms, and everything else we had in camp. Between the raft and supplies I weighed slightly over a tonne.  Pretty Skookum.
I'd tried adding myself to this drawing, but decided to draw it as it would look if I'd jumped off for a swim.
that's not something I would do, I promise, so please mom don't worry.
Early afternoon I grabbed a pole and inch by inch pried the raft off the bank and into the water.  The front of the raft went under as the back remained up on the shore, and I had a moment of fear, but by this point I was committed, even if it meant diving in the Yukon to recover my supplies. At the last moment I jumped from shore onto the raft, and we floated free.

After a few frantic moments rowing away from all the sweepers along the shore like a madman I began what was probably the most relaxing 24 hours of my life.  I pulled out my recorder and started playing the first song that came into my mind – “Barrett’s Privateers.”  With the song in mind I christened my raft The Antelope as she was the scummiest vessel I’d ever seen and one fat ball could dove her in.  Over the course of a lazy hour I slowly drifted out of the burn, discovering that I was indeed the only person left in the area.  I took off my lifejacket, shirt, laid back with my hat over my eyes and continued playing, pausing only occasionally to row out of the way of sweepers or the shore. 

I could hear the echo of the recorder off the mountainsides well back from the river, and worried that if there were any animals in the area I was disturbing.  It sounded so loud across the open water, at least when I was well away from any rapids, that I started to wonder about possible hearing damage.  What if someone was coming up behind me in a canoe and I was destroying their experience with nature?  I played through hundreds of Celtic and maritime tunes, then songs about rivers like “Wayfaring Stranger”.  I eventually started working through songs I remembered from my time in Tunisia, finally starting to get a feel for the North African styles of ornamentation.

Kingfishers swooped and dove around me, a couple beavers slapped and dived, and eventually I realized that the other splashes I was hearing were fish jumping all around the raft.  I dozed, I played, I trailed my feet in the water.  Around seven or eight o’clock I started passing the camps of the German tourists who’d paddled past me early in the morning.  They all came to the shore and started taking pictures. “How far to where I can put out?” I yelled.  I wanted to ask how far to Carmax, but couldn’t remember if it was Carmax or Carcross and didn’t want to ruin my first impression as a crazed rafter by getting the name of a town wrong.  A mistake like that would totally peg me as a cheechako.

“You mean like a town?”


“It is seventy five kilo-metres to Carmax,” they yellowed across to me.

I looked down for a second, my arms resting on my oars, then looked back up. “Okay!” then I started rowing on down the river.  Those on the shore laughed and took a few more pictures.  Just out of sight of them I pulled in to shore, built a fire and cooked myself a big pot of rice and dahl, making it extra spicy as I planned on going as late as possible.  I suspected that eating spicy food might keep my awake, so I added in extra dried peppers.  As the night went on I passed other camps, my Dutch oven filled with curry sitting on top the airtight heater. 

Eventually around three in the morning I couldn’t stay awake any longer, so I used my sash to tie up to a willow on the shore and slept fitfully for two or three hours, opening my eyes every half hour to make sure the river was still flowing by instead of the shore.  Five or six a.m. I untied and kept on drifting, one eye open a couple seconds every few minutes, still in my sleeping bag.  A few hours later I passed a canoe on the side of the river and recognized the paddlers standing on the shore as the canoeists that had informed me the burn was empty, two days before.  That meant that when I finally arrived in Carmax around four in the afternoon I was a day ahead of any potential message I could have sent out, this despite being on a drifting raft rather than zipping along in a canoe or kayak.  I told myself it was because I outclassed them – my two thousand pounds put me far ahead of their fifty to a hundred.

I beached the raft, moved all my cargo into a cache back in the trees and started walking up the road.  I came to a house, knocked on the door, and was waved in by a lady on oxygen.  “Can I use the phone?” I asked. “I’ve been rafting and need to call for pickup.”

She reached behind the door and pulled out a slip of paper. “Sure, do you need any phone numbers?” she passed me a piece of paper with two numbers on it.  They were the numbers of two morel and pine mushroom buyers, Jeremy and Austin.  How did she know I was a picker?  I told her I didn’t need them, I was going to be picked up by some friends from the Wild Things store down by little fox lake.

“Wild things, I think I love you,” she hummed, over the rasp of her oxygen machine, and we both chuckled. After trying unsuccessfully to get through to either the Allens or mom and dad I went in and asked to wash my hands.  I saw myself in the mirror and started laughing.  I was black from head to foot.  I washed my hands, then went and borrowed a rag to wash the sink out.

Looking at her I thought she looked a little Métis so I asked what her last name was, and sure enough, she was Métis, from St. Boniface.  We went back in our families and figured out how we were related, then shared a few generations worth of family stories.

I was getting antsy being still so long, so since I still wasn’t having any luck getting a hold of anyone I decided to hitchhike the hundred k down to the Allen’s place. Three hours by the road later I still had no ride, so walked back to try calling again.  There was a pay phone in town, but I only had fifty cents and the hundred kilometre call cost three dollars.  The road was lined the whole way back with ripe, ripe wild strawberries, and after resisting a while I cut the top off my water bottle and filled it with berries.

Not being able to contact anyone for a couple hours was making me more antsy than twenty hours of sitting on the raft.  Not knowing what was happening was far more disconcerting than any amount of purpose-driven discomfort.  Finally around eight-thirty I tried calling Ethan, Eric’s son.  After several rings I heard Ying’s voice on the phone.  “How did you get to Carmax?” she asked me after I mentioned I was looking for a ride.

“Oh, I built a raft Wednesday and coasted down.”

Ying burst into laughter. “Oh that’s funny, how did you actually get down there?”

“Oh, I built a raft.”

Ying really started laughing. “We’re in Whitehorse to pick up Eric’s sister from the airport, so I don’t think anyone could get up there before almost midnight.  Can you hitchhike down?”

“Well I could, but I’d still need to get the Toyota to come pick up the gear.”

“The gear? How did you get it out?”

“Well, I built a raft…”

Ying started laughing again, and promised me that someone would be out to get me around midnight.  I headed in to town again to wait by one of the gas stations.  I borrowed a book from the gas station owners, Typee by Herman Melville, the story of his adventures while marooned for four months in the Marquesas.  It’s seemed like a fitting story, but even more, it felt like food after two weeks spent without reading so much as a single sentence, the longest I’ve spent without reading since I learnt how to read in grade one.
A group of well-partied kids walked by, and one walked over to me.  “Du hast,” he said.

Du hast, du hast, du hast mich, du hast mich gefragt” I sang the words to the Rammstein song.

He walked back to his friends. “Yeah, he’s German,” he said and they walked on.  I laughed, and decided I was overtired, at least a little bit.

Finally at midnight Eric and Sierra zipped up, looking just as excited as when we’d headed off picking two weeks before, but this time wanting to see my raft.   We were all hyper when we got to the raft, hopped on it and ran around, and determined we had no camera.  When we packed all the iktas into the back of the truck, and they filled it right to the roof.  I told them about the trip, they told me about their trials finishing the roof, and then I pulled out my recorder to play a song.  I could barely hear it.  Over the rumble of the road, the sound of the recorder could barely be heard.  What had been deafening on the open river was barely background noise in a vehicle.

I was back.  I washed my hair.  Six times.  It was only the fourth time that I was able to get the soap to lather.  It took twenty minutes for the water to stop running black down the shower drain, I was so imbued with charcoal.  I also discovered that my psoriasis was gone, and that for the first time since I was twelve or thirteen I had no dandruff.

The next morning we headed off to church driving Lucy, Sierra’s beloved Kia.  Her younger cousin was driving, taking directions somewhat nervously, and took a turn at the last moment at high speed, meaning we got to enjoy a head-on with a truck parked there.  The split second before we hit my mind went empty, emptier than any amount of meditation could achieve.  I started searching for something profound to fill the silence with, but there was nothing, and even the sound of my mental searching failed to even scratch the emptiness.  We hit, the airbags deployed, and once I got over the panicky feeling of being on fire (caused by the smell of the airbags) I got out and stepped back.  Both vehicles were totalled, but the first thing I thought wasn’t that was a close call, instead the first thought through my mind was I’d take that any day over going across Laberge again in bad weather.


checking out our take
the last day at Wheeler Lake
This is probably a good place to end the story as far as the pacing goes, but there’s more that should be said. It wasn’t until Sunday that I finally was back on the open road, heading home.  When I stopped in at Butch and Shirley’s, some six hundred kilometres to the south, they’d already heard about Monty and Crazy Dave’s experiences.  When I mentioned I’d been stuck in the burn they asked “Was it Luke?”  Apparently Bitchy Butch himself had been stranded on the Yukon in a previous year, by Luke.  According to the story they’d heard Crazy Dave actually had taken the frying pan to Luke on his arrival, and by ‘taken it to him’ I don’t mean carried it over, I mean hit him with it over the head.  Butch and co were still picking morels – they’d gotten a half pound between the three of them in four hours of picking, and were staying there until pine mushrooms started in a month.

My last stop of the trip was the Zoo, the pine mushroom camp at kilometre 65 on highway 37.  Stopping there was something that my Grandpa and I had done every time we were heading back from mushrooms, no matter how tired, and even though I hadn’t been picking pines it seemed like something I just had to do. No one was camped there yet, but some of the trailers and shacks were already in place. I felt very alone standing there without any of my picking buddies from the season or past seasons; Skyla, grandpa, Dwight, and all the others. Thirty klicks further and my one remaining original tire blew a sidewall, and I limped in to home on vapour, with three kinds of tires, one donut and another two tires completely bald.  I had twenty dollars cash left, a trunk full of dried mushrooms, a good story, and two community’s worth of new friends, and to tell the truth I couldn’t wait to get back there next year.

(PS: if you want to buy morels, I still have quite a few)


  1. Dale! Your mother is never going to sleep the next time you leave. Glad you are home safely, even if I think your a little crazy ;)

  2. I suspect everyone is a little crazy, they just don't think about it enough to realize it :P

  3. So enjoyed reading it again. "All who wonder are not lost" and sometimes they aren't even crazy. Always enjoy life as you do.