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Cover story

The Great Alaskan Morel Rush of '05

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.

But with a buyer in place, Rutherford and several others set up a buy-and-dry: a shack and some plastic sheeting on which to sun-dry the crop. They paid pickers $2 a pound, and bought 200,000 pounds over the next two months.

"Everybody in the community picked," says Rutherford. "Some of them [quit their jobs] because it was so lucrative out there. I know a family that, between a mother and a father and kids, made as much as $15,000."

Rutherford thinks this season will be just as successful. "But it worries me that there are so many buyers, and what that'll do to the pricing," he says. "If they don't make money up here because they get into a pricing war, maybe they don't come back again."

Vuth Ouk says he doesn't know what the building he's renting used to be, but judging from the engine blocks, motorcycles and boat motors tossed to one side of the warehouse, a machine shop is a good guess. Ouk, who lives in Oregon, has been in Tok since mid-May, buying for a distributor in Canada.

"Everybody sell to me, I buy it, but I tell you, this business, you have to kiss [up] to people and plug the ears," he says. "It's not easy to make money. It's the first time I am on this ground; I give it 60% to 70% chance to grow. I cannot give my word to my pickers. I might make money, but maybe I don't."

Ouk's picking crew, Cambodian like himself, has set up camp next to the junkyard. Two women squat over a camp stove, making sticky rice and roasting a chicken.

"The pickers, they don't make much money, but they can't find a job better than this," says Ouk. "They don't go to high school or college, so the most they can make is $7 an hour, and after taxes, you can't make it, you can't support three kids. You know what rent is like in Oregon. This, they can make $80, $100 a day, they can bring over their families. They can make it."

Ouk says he's already put six grand into the Tok operation--and made only $70. "And I have to pay toilet $6 a day, I pay for garbage," he says, indicating the Portosan and a city dumpster. "I just sit here and lose money right now. I need 1,000 pounds. I drive 200 miles today, looking for burn. I don't see any. I talk to locals before, they say May 25. We've passed that, I see no action."

Vongdeuan Vongmany, from California's Central Valley, says he saw some action two days ago.

"I picked two baskets, I heard some noise--kup kup--I look to the back and saw a 500-pound bear--black bear!" he says. He crouches and waves as he explains how not one but five bears surrounded him. "I took a stick, and I say, 'Come on!' And the big guy follows me--and stopped. Then I ran uphill. I stay there one hour. I go back, and I saw they turned my bucket upside-down. He jumped on my mushrooms."

As for the price war heating up in Tok, Ouk says he's paying $5 now, and will consider working with Jonquil to keep a lid on things.

"I work with Casey Jonquil before, but last year, he say he buy 1,000 pounds from me and we pick and then, he don't buy," he shouts. "I tell him, now what I do with 1,000 pounds? I not a buyer! I can't eat this many! So I work with him but not as much, because I can't trust him."

For his part, Jonquil says he likes and trusts Ouk, but there have been "communication problems in the past."

There's a new sign posted on the Taylor Highway, a big one warning mushroom pickers about the bear bait sites, a state-sponsored program to capture and thus thin out Alaska's bear population. Picking mushrooms when there are not merely bears known to be in the area but food stations set up specifically to attract them adds a certain something to the experience, something that goes like: Scan ground for morels, scan perimeter for bears. Scan ground, scan perimeter. Scan perimeter.

There are more morels today: golds poking out of the tundra; grays on one nearly treeless patch where the fire burned hot; conicas everywhere else. And yet the buy barely nudges up. Besides the Mexicans, who bring in 550 pounds, Southard has only two other sellers.

At 7 p.m. an old man in a crusty flannel shirt stops by and asks for any special instructions. Southard tells him, same as he told him last time: Don't crush them. Not too much dirt.

"Do I have to stand them upright?" asks the man.

"No, you can just use a 5-gallon bucket," Southard says.

"And what can't I put on them?"

Southard audibly exhales. "Well, you don't want to put sand on them or salt the load or anything."

"And I won't pee on them," says the man, smiling. "That's what we used to do when we picked cotton--we'd pee in the bag before they weighed it, so it weighed more."

A few minutes later, two Laotian pickers pull in. Even before their pickup stops, the woman is hanging out the window. "How much you pay?"

"Four-fifty," says Southard. He knows Ouk has come down, and is paying $4.50 today.

"Five dollars," the woman counters.

Southard inspects what they've got, weighs it and, as he hands her $147, asks, "Do you have a permit?"

The woman just laughs.

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