By the time you’re reading this, thousands of people will have packed up their things and headed into the bush to try their luck. Some could return with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, maybe more, and others might just get eaten alive by the bugs and have little to show for their time. Or the whole thing might not go boom at all.
Obst predicts pickers could make up to $800 a day; Gordon says they might make $500 a day if they’re skilled and lucky.
If Mother Nature stays on our side, the NWT will experience an unprecedented morel mushroom bonanza from late May through until the end of June (in some places, possibly into July and August) thanks to the 385 wildfires that ravaged the territory last year, burning a total of 3.4 million hectares of land, an area larger than the whole of Vancouver Island. It’s in the ashes of those burn areas that bumper crops of morel mushrooms are expected to grow.
Locals want to cash in, knowing morel mushrooms are a rare and prized delicacy in restaurants and kitchens worldwide. (Prices aren’t so hot right now though. Dylan Gordon, a University of Toronto PhD candidate who specializes in wild foods such as morels says the market price is $5 a pound on average. Obst predicts pickers could make up to $800 a day; Gordon says they might make $500 a day if they’re skilled and lucky.) The territorial government is riding the wave, issuing pamphlets and hosting workshops in relevant communities. Their man on the ground is Obst, a biologist whose presentations throughout the territory this past spring drew more than 1,150 residents (for a population of 45,000, that’s a big deal). Along with contractor Walter Brown (they’ve coauthored a book on morel harvesting in the Northwest Territories), they briefed the crowds on the basics of harvesting, drying and selling morel mushrooms.
“But it’s such an interesting lifestyle and such an interesting character of people, I find."
The number one takeaway: this isn't a guarantee. While Obst truly believes mushroom harvesting could turn into a sustainable seasonable income for some residents for years to come, “thinking in dollar figures is dangerous because you really never know how Mother Nature’s going to go,” he says.
“But it’s such an interesting lifestyle and such an interesting character of people, I find. When I saw them last year (in the Deh Cho, where there was a mini-morel boom) I thought, ‘Holy cow, what a wonderful life. If I had it all to do over again, that might be the life for me.” As he talks, perched in a window-side booth at a Yellowknife coffee shop in early April, locals interrupt to ask him about mushrooms. To prospective pickers, he’s their most tangible connection to the promised morel riches this summer. He is the epicentre of the great mushroom hype.
How does it feel to be so popular?
I didn’t hear anything about that, but I’ve been in hiding. I didn’t turn on the news, no nothing. I probably should cover myself up now and put my sunglasses on, maybe.
Like a rock star?
A rocking star, maybe.
What’s so special about morels?
The taste. The flavour is just incredible and they are also easy to handle because they’re so easy to dry. You also have 12 months to sell them once they are dried so you can sit on them and wait for the best world market prices. It’s a big thing in France and Italy, not so much in Great Britain. In Germany, yeah, but not as big as in France. Switzerland is big on it.
What is your background with fungi?
It goes back to when I was a child [in Germany]. Most people used to harvest wild mushrooms everywhere in Europe. And then the warning came through that you shouldn’t harvest wild mushrooms anymore because they’re contaminated with airborne heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury and so on. This was kind of a shock because I had just come home with a nice basket of those white button mushrooms, Agaricus mushrooms, and it was on the radio just when I had come home to deliver those mushrooms to my mom. And it said especially don’t eat Agaricus mushrooms. This was the end of my mushroom experience in Europe.
Then, when I came here, I noticed that lots of people were harvesting mushrooms right close to Giant Mine, right beside the road in that gravelly area beside the main entrance, only a few hundred metres away from the smoke stack, and that got me concerned right away. So, then I started with my own study about contaminants in mushrooms here around Yellowknife all the way to Fort Providence and Tibbitt Lake, and you really shouldn’t eat any mushroom within 50 kilometres of Giant Mine. Especially here around town, you shouldn’t be eating any mushrooms at all.
But you’re promoting a fungi industry in the NWT. How much are contaminants a concern then?
It is a concern on my end always. But, in general, we still have basically the largest area that is probably cleaner than the rest of the globe in many respects. That’s why I’ve been spreading the message that we have a few base areas for pollutants and those are the areas we should really avoid.
If everything goes well and there is a boom, where would you go to pick morels this summer?
I would go to Kakisa, [NWT], of course. That’s where the action will be starting. The growing season will start two weeks before anywhere else. The community has got 54 inhabitants and 24 showed up for our presentation and they are interested and they want to make money out of it for services, but also for harvesting on their own.
I’ve heard 1,000 harvesters could show up in Kakisa. Is that realistic?
Oh yeah, it could even be 2,000.
Are they ready for that?
We told them two thousand people [could] show up, you know, overnight. Yeah, Kakisa will certainly be in the spotlight.
What would the boom look like?
Well, let’s say in Kakisa, if the spring is similar to last year, then it could be starting as early as May 23 with the harvest. As soon as the harvest starts, you won’t see any people all day long. They’re in the woods harvesting.
Then, in the evening is usually when [people] show up at the buying stations and they’re selling their mushrooms. Usually towards six or seven o’clock in the evening is when most people are coming out of the woods and selling their mushrooms. That’s the most interesting time to actually meet people and see how they are doing.
The camping ground [in Kakisa] will be overfilled, so it will be interesting and that could go on, I would say, for about three weeks, and by that time people will be moving north, or maybe towards Fort Smith. We’re trying to discourage people from the Pine Point mine area. There’s a lot of potential lead and zinc contamination there.
Is it the same buyers who come up every year?
Oh yeah, there’s one family that’s been coming here to the NWT for 15 years. And a few others have been around for a few years, they were here in 2009 for the Behchoko fires and there was another one before that, I forget, 2006 or something like that. They still call it the Yukon.
At a public meeting, you mentioned “rough” people who had come up for the Tibbitt Lake harvest in 1999. Is safety a big concern?
I mean, those people are still around and there’s a very good chance they may be coming up this year. What has happened a few times in the past, especially in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and in southern British Columbia, it’s mostly over pine mushrooms and not so much over morel mushrooms. With pine mushrooms, even just a few can be worth lots of money, so there have been shootings going on in the Pacific Northwest and also in British Columbia over the past 30 years or so. However, in the Pacific Northwest, they introduced [licensing] early on, already 15-20 years ago, and ever since it’s been peaceful. In B.C., they already considered legislation a long time ago, and they decided not to. We never had the same problems that they had in the Pacific Northwest.
That would certainly be one of my concerns if I were a buyer myself, walking around in the woods with a money belt around my belly, carrying all that cash.
So, are the mushroom pickers and buyers just a weird, lawless, pocket society?
(Laughs) I don’t think I’m going to touch that one.
Just walking around in the woods you get in physical shape. So why not get some fresh air and make some money on the side?
Is picking mushrooms going to be an easy way to make a buck this summer?
Well, if it happens it’s an opportunity for a few weeks, if you’re lucky maybe a couple of months, to make a good seasonable income and also to spend some time out on the land. Just walking around in the woods you get in physical shape. So why not get some fresh air and make some money on the side?
I actually think everybody will have a chance to harvest some, at least in the beginning. Then it might dry out, but you usually get at least three weeks before it’s totally over. And if we get some rain, it could be easily six weeks or two months. If you go out on Great Slave Lake, gee, the season will start much later because it’s colder because of the ice and you have more humidity. There could be a huge crop growing in the East Arm area and on some of the islands later on in the year. If you’re lucky, you might find them there in July and in some years even in the beginning of August.
So, for local people it’s a great opportunity. And I know lots of local people and that’s when they take their holidays anyways to go out boating and fishing. They may as well bring their whole family out there, camp on a nice burned island or shore and harvest some morel mushrooms.
Camping in a burned area doesn’t exactly sound like the most comfortable experience.
No, it’s beautiful. The forest is totally different and it is beautiful in its own way. You see all of the new life starting to grow there and flourish. It’s almost magical. So, it is nice, and you can always find a nice, clean spot on the rock.