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The Great Alaskan Morel Rush of '05

Cover story

Being the true story of intrepid pickers, cutthroat buyers, anxious distributors, curious scientists, conflicted locals and other denizens of the mushroom circuit, all of whom headed north in search of the mother lode

July 10, 2005|Nancy Rommelmann | Nancy Rommelmann last wrote for the magazine on home funerals and green burials.

At 8:25, the red van pulls up. The eight Mexican pickers, in dirty sweatshirts and baseball caps, get out of the van and open its back doors. Inside are baskets full of morels. Linda Garcia and her husband, Jose, the lead pickers, approach the buying table. A guy down the road, they say, is offering $5.50. Rankin says he's paying only $4, and can understand that they have to make their money.

"Fifty cents, I don't care," says Jose, meaning he'll take $5.

Rankin is silent. "I'll do five," he says, deciding it's in Jonquil's best interest to stay in the game.

The pickers begin pulling out baskets, lining them up on the ground, more than 40 of them, each filled with 10 pounds of morels. The air takes on the smell of wet dirt and something funkier, vaguely post-coital. Southard weighs morels and works a calculator; Dave transports the baskets to the dryers. Linda watches Rankin give the first picker his cash, more than $400 in hundreds and twenties.

"A lot of walking today," she says.

"More than 10 hours," says Jose. "We walk three or four or five miles in."

"A lot of babies out there?" Rankin asks.

"Oh, yeah," says Jose. "Lot of grays, too," he adds, meaning gray morels, which can fetch a higher retail price.

Linda says she and Jose have been on the mushroom circuit since 1995; their youngest son picks with them now, too. They work 10 months a year, and have no home base. "We do all right," she says.

Southard weighs the last picker's haul, 114 pounds. Rankin hands him $570. Altogether, the Mexicans have brought in 508 pounds. They pile into the van, and then, apparently as an afterthought, Jose walks back and hands Southard a piece of yellow paper. It's a note from another buyer, stating that he'll give Jose a $1,500 bonus tomorrow if he'll sell to him.

"But this guy, another time, he said he give us $15 [a pound] and give us $7," Jose says.

Rankin and Southard agree: The guy can't be trusted. Jose mentions something about more pickers, relatives, flying into Fairbanks. Southard says he'll be happy to pick them up.

"You guys are doing a really good job," he says.

The red van takes off and a station wagon pulls in. It's after 9 p.m., and the driver says he's thinking about going out mushrooming.

"I got a bunch of kids here," he says, pointing at five boys who look to be between 7 and 12, eating corn chips and playing with the radio. "I was here in 1991. We laid them out on blue tarps and hauled them in."

Southard says there aren't that many right by the side of the road, and that it might be a little late to take the kids that far into the woods.

There are no limits on how many morels one can pick--and there are. Anticipating an avalanche of pickers and buyers this year, the state of Alaska and the Bureau of Land Management laid down some rules: Picking morels on public lands is allowed, up to 10 gallons per person per day for personal use. Permits are required for any overages, with a minimum permit of $50. Pickers are expected to abide by the honor system and pay more if they exceed their limit. A state of Alaska business license is required for anyone engaged in commercial activity, though different rules may apply to state park, tribal and native corporation land.

"I think people just assumed it was gonna be like it was in '91, and they were really shocked when they found the state was taking the lead in trying to make mushroom picking a state economic situation," says Will Rutherford. "Why should the state make anything? Is the state going to provide any compliance for these rules and regulations?"

Rutherford and Alex Sinyon share one side of a booth at a Tok diner, drinking coffee and smoking. They make up the bulk of Tetlin Native Corp. ("We have two board members," says Rutherford, "but we don't know where they're at most of the time"), which controls 100,000 acres of privately held tribal land, some of which was immolated during last summer's fires and is accessible from the Taylor Highway. Sinyon, a full-blood Athabascan, is not so sure he wants morel pickers on that land.

"What if they get mauled by a bear?" he asks, adding that this afternoon he and Rutherford will be posting No Trespassing signs. "We don't have liability insurance."

"We're in the interior of Alaska, where the best policy is no policy," says Rutherford. "People hate government up here. They hate restrictions."

Back in 1991, Rutherford wound up at the center of the morel boom. He'd just started working with the Tetlin Native Corp. when he received a call from a mushroom buyer out of Oregon, who told Rutherford to phone him the minute he saw the first morel come up.

"Nobody up here knew anything about mushrooms, or morels, or what the potential of morels was for a cash crop," he says. "I was doubtful whether I even knew what I was looking for."

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