Jay Southard waits just south of mile marker 1313 on the Alaska Highway. It's early June, and the temperature at 8 p.m. is in the 40s, with a raw wind running off the Alaska Range, which rises, iron-colored and veined with snow, in the near distance. Southard is not looking at the mountains, but at the highway running through the center of the town of Tok, keeping an eye out for a red Ford van carrying eight Mexican mushroom pickers. Just because they've been selling him their hauls of morels--450 pounds one day, a little more than 500 the next--doesn't mean they'll sell to him today. If the Weasel got to the Mexicans, Southard might as well pack up and go back home. With several tons of mushroom-drying equipment and $20,000 of setup here in Tok, this is something he really, really does not want to do.
A former Oregon State fullback who raises and trains horses when he's not working the mushroom circuit, Southard appears to have a grip on his anxiety, but just barely. He and the other mushroom wranglers who've come to Tok are betting that the 2005 morel harvest will be the big score, the mother lode, that the elements that cause mushrooms to grow--wildfire, rain, sunlight--will continue to collude. But tonight, it's the human element that threatens to bring the enterprise crashing down. Has the Weasel upped his price per pound? Have the Mexicans turned fickle?
"Maybe they're going on their beer run before they sell," says Southard, as he watches the red van roll by.
Alaska's 2005 morel season actually started in the summer of 2004, when the state experienced its largest recorded wildfires, which burned more than 6.7 million acres, much of it around Fairbanks and Tok. Fairbanks locals wore dust masks for weeks, and a resident of Chicken, 60 miles from Tok and on the fire line, expressed the opinion that "there are two seasons in Alaska, winter and smoke."
What was a trial for humans and wildlife was a treat for mycelia, the underground fungal webs that produce mushrooms. In a process known as mycorrhiza, mycelia form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees and other plants, the fungi receiving sugars and amino acids they need to grow, the roots receiving water and minerals. But morels are clever, as one theory has it, and instead of dying when trees do--in a fire or by insect infestation or other major disturbance--they tap a rush of nutrients from the decomposing roots, and thrive.
Tracking wildfires in order to locate next year's crops is Wild Mushrooming 101. And most species that grow on the West Coast are reliable: Every spring there will be morels from Northern California to British Columbia; chanterelles flourish in the Pacific Northwest's coastal regions in late summer; and come fall in central Oregon there's the matsutake, a mushroom so highly prized by the Japanese that in years past it has sold for $1,200 a pound.
Of course, dependent as it is upon acts of god or accidents of nature, the mushroom trade is extraordinarily risky. Colloquially known as "cash in the woods," it can be quite profitable. In 2004, Alpine Foragers' Exchange, the company Jay Southard buys for, purchased more than 200,000 pounds of chanterelles for as little as $1.50 a pound and sold them for as much as $6.50 a pound. But it can just as easily be ruinous: This year's morel harvest in Oregon was one of the worst on record.
Alaska is the great unknown on the mushroom circuit, having produced them on a commercial scale only once, after fires in 1990 resulted in what are often recalled as "carpets of morels" near Fairbanks and Tok. If this ever happened before, no one had paid much attention, but by the spring of 1991 wild mushrooms had become a culinary essential, and a few prescient buyers made their way to the state. They were amply rewarded. That year, the 98,000-acre Tok River Fire yielded a morel harvest of 300,000 pounds. By comparison, this year's burn is nearly 70 times larger.
"This is huge, this is vast," says Casey Jonquil as he spreads a USDA Forest Service map showing the extent of the fires over the counter of his gourmet kitchen in Portland, Ore. "The wilderness and the distance and the inaccessibility is very daunting, but the good news is, there are roads going right through it." His fingers trace byways near Fairbanks and Tok. "The ground is proven--Tok especially. Tok had a fire 15 years ago, and 14 years ago they kicked ass....This is the same damn ground."