In Quest of the King

Forest Cuisine to Die For

Story by Daniel Claar, Photos by Jamie Voss-Claar

I am halfway across the fallen spruce, inching along on my rear, my sandaled feet dangling over a raging torrent, when it occurs to me that our intended reward might not be worth this level of risk.

To move, I have to place both palms on the bouncing bridge between my thighs, putting the combined weight of my body and forty-pound backpack into my shoulders while lifting and pulling myself forward a couple inches at a time. Twice already my hands have slipped on the wet bark, causing a gut-wrenching moment of imbalance before I recover with a slow exhale.

Just downstream from my precarious perch, half-submerged in the bubbling froth, is a logjam of deadly strainers, or fallen trees with branches still attached that are guaranteed to trap anyone who slips into the icy runoff. All the buckles on my pack are unfastened, but I’d still be lucky to get it off my shoulders before the current swept me into a life-threatening situation. What’s worse is the knowledge that once across, I’ll have to stand helplessly on the other side while my wife attempts the same feat.

So enthralling is the creek ford, I don’t realize how much my frozen feet hurt until I hit the far side. Hopping in place on the creek bank to bring some life back to my aching toes, I watch Jamie straddle the log and begin her own crossing. When she reaches the halfway point, I swallow hard against the frigid torture and wade into the powerful flow as far as sanity allows. If Jamie falls, there is a chance I’ll be able to reach out and snag her before the current drags her into the ominous nest of strainers. My plan is to grab whatever part of her, or her pack, I can get hold of, and then throw myself backwards in hopes that the combination of my momentum and weight will somehow be a match for the current.

Thankfully, none of my planning is necessary. Jamie makes it across safe and sound, and shaking slightly from the adrenaline rush. The pins-and-needles sensation of our feet and legs thawing makes us grit our teeth until our grimaces dissolve into nervous relief.

“That was sketchy,” she says as we swap our river sandals for hiking boots. “Maybe on the way back we should look for another crossing.”

“Yeah,” I reply. “Besides, I’m not sure if the runoff has hit its peak. If the water gets any higher, we’ll have to find a different route.”

“Let’s just keep the end result in mind,” she suggests. “We’re out here to forage because we want to. We aren’t starving to death, so let’s not get ourselves killed. ”

She is correct, of course, but if there is a wild food worth dying for, it just might be a sought-after mushroom that thrives in areas of well-drained, sandy soil and recent forest fire activity. The mighty morel, king of forest cuisine, possesses a meaty texture and earthy flavor impossible to beat, especially when sautéed with garlic butter, or better yet, battered and fried in bacon grease. The finest meal I can recall was a cheeseburger loaded with freshly picked morels that Jamie and I grilled up after a few exhausting days spent hunting the sometimes-elusive treat.

Because of a grid-like network of ridges and pits that give the fungus a distinct honeycomb look, morels are easy to identify and, thus, are among the safest wild foods to harvest.

Something in their size and tan-to-brown colors reminds me of toads, only slightly misshapen in a way that also resembles a conical gnome hat. The “false morel” is similar, although the stem is longer and the cap more round, giving it a microphone-like appearance. Some people say false morels cause gastrointestinal problems, but others eat them like potato chips. Rest assured, accidentally including a couple of false morels in your bounty wouldn’t be fatal.

While morels are the holy grail of our June quest into the mountains above the South Fork of the Salmon River, foraging conditions for a variety of edible flora are at their prime. In a plastic bag attached to the outside of my pack, I have collected a variety of leaves for a salad, and inside my pack is a small plastic tub of butter, garlic, and onions to accompany our planned mushroom feast. I brought the sauté fixings despite the possibility of finding wild onions and garlic, mostly because I can guarantee we won’t stumble across any butter out here.

The majority of my salad gatherings consists of wild mint with a slight smoky taste, the delicate petals of strawberry flowers, and the subtler flavor of young dandelion leaves. The mint looks a bit like stinging nettle, and you certainly do not want to confuse the two. Actually, even stinging nettle is quite savory, but it must first be boiled to destroy the plant’s tiny needles and itchy toxin. In any case, our goal for the evening is a dinner of grilled mushrooms served over a bed of fresh greens.

Shortly after the creek crossing, I find our first edible wild mushroom, although something has beaten us to it. The white dome top of the fist-sized puffball has been neatly removed by the gentle bite of an animal, most likely a black bear, leaving a shallow bowl filled to the rim with what looks like a smooth chocolate surface. Unlike sand grains, the individual spores are so fine the naked eye is unable to tell them apart, which makes the collection of particles appear to be solid. I bend at the waist and blow out a quick breath through pursed lips. The spores scatter in a small brown cloud, some of them instantly snagged by the faint breeze and carried away, hopefully landing somewhere favorable for producing more of the tasty fungi.

Like a bear, I have a habit of sampling any plant I know to be non-toxic for its flavor and texture, but never push my luck with the immense variety of mushrooms. When it comes to fungi, I will only eat what I can positively identify. Thankfully, the edible mushrooms are fairly easy to recognize. However, in addition to the inherent risk of foraging wild food, there are other concerns to consider, especially this time of year.

“Tick!” Jamie says, stopping in mid-stride, her voice laced with disgust. She plucks the flat, red arachnid off her shirt and crushes it between her thumbnail and index finger. As if once assigned by Mother Nature herself to guard the treasured morel, ticks coincide almost identically in season with the mushroom harvest, and Jamie’s bloodsucker is the first of many. Peak conditions for both organisms run from March to May, depending on the weather and elevation. The higher we climb into a cooler climate, the more ticks we find, seemingly appearing from nowhere to lurch across our clothes, backpacks, and exposed flesh in search of a warm, hair-covered crevice. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile our pacifistic beliefs with our attitude toward ticks, but I think no spiritual philosophy is complete without a few quirks.

In addition to ticks, other harvesters, particularly mushroom hunters, have a surly reputation when it comes to protecting their favorite patches. More than once, I have heard of firearms being drawn and vehicles sabotaged. As Jamie and I round a bend and come face-to-face with two young men in dirty hiking clothes, I wonder if we have encountered fellow foragers. One of them is thin, has jet-black hair and a knife hooked on his belt. The other guy, much stouter, holds a broken branch that is too heavy to be an effective walking stick. Otherwise, they carry no gear.

“Nice day for a hike,” Jamie says in her usual beguiling manner. My wife is nicer than I am and thus the communicator. My job is to look intimidating and only talk if I have to when encountering strangers in the total isolation of Idaho’s backcountry, especially during morel season.

As it turns out, the two aren’t harvesters, but a couple of city kids, one from Dallas, the other from Vegas, out to prove something to themselves by experiencing genuine wilderness for the first time. They are on an epic hiking quest throughout the Pacific Northwest, trying to hit as many broad expanses of backcountry as they can. At least that is their story, but the young man with the sheaved knife keeps throwing harsh looks at his companion as details of their trip drop readily from the larger guy’s tongue.

The talkative fellow has a blond beard, rosy cheeks, and must weigh close to three hundred pounds. Looking like a young Santa Claus who took up hiking, he is easily the heaviest individual I have ever seen this high in the mountains. Part of me is struck with admiration, but the more suspicious side, knowing how hard this sort of physical activity can be for even a lean individual, can’t help wondering if they are on the run for some reason.

“So you guys do have actual supplies?”’ Jamie asks, fishing for information. “You must have a camp nearby…”

The blond fellow opens his mouth to speak, but is cut off by his friend. “We’re camped back that way,” the dark-haired man says, motioning down the trail from where we just came. “Where are you two headed?”

Jamie tries to reply, but I interrupt her with an equally vague gesture toward the snow-covered mountaintops. “We’ll be up there somewhere.”

Shortly after our encounter with the two men, Jamie and I jump over a small stream and notice a fresh bear track in the mud lining the bank. The track is as large as one of my outstretched hands, its claws unmistakable in the damp earth. A quarter-mile later, we find an even fresher pile of bear scat that reflects a shimmering, green hue, indicating we’re not the only ones out foraging for plants.

With my attention somewhat scattered by the prospects of strange men, ticks, and bears, I walk right past the first few morels before realizing we are standing in a patch. We planned on doing some off-trail mushroom hunting once we reached a certain elevation, but clearly, Jamie and I are the first to venture this high this year; otherwise, the bounty at our feet would have been harvested.

Morels are usually spoiled by this time in June, but their season is extended on the cool mountaintops. Even so, half the morels at our feet are already beyond their prime. We pick, pull apart, and scatter the dried-out ones, to create more next year. The rest, still heavy with moisture, are carefully cut at the top of their stems and deposited in a plastic container. The harvest is meager, yet we easily have enough to transform a couple of meals into royal banquets.

Another mile into our hike, we draw even with the snowline on the opposite side of the drainage. The snow on this southern aspect still covers most of the mountain face. On our northern side, we are just entering the elevation where snow banks shadowed by trees are sporadic. In predictable accompaniment to the retreating snow, we soon find ourselves a sizable patch of calf brain mushrooms.

While not quite as tasty as the morel, they do possess a similar meaty texture and are just as easy to identify. What literally appears to be an orange brain, somewhere between the circumference of a silver dollar and cantaloupe, growing near melting snow, is undoubtedly a calf brain mushroom. Some people insist they contain a mild toxin, but I, and other people I know, have been eating them our whole lives and have yet to experience any issues. In any case, the safest bet is to always cook wild mushrooms and only consume small portions until you are certain your digestive system agrees with a particular variety. Some people experience gastrointestinal issues even with morels.

After gathering enough brains to satisfy a zombie, we return to our hike. With ample foraging success, we now need a camp for the night. Still removing the occasional tick before it bites, we climb until we are approaching the northern slope’s snowline. Leading the hike, Jamie suddenly stops short, causing me to run into her backpack. I hear the problem before I have a chance to ask what’s wrong. The distinct sound of claws scraping wood grips my attention and over the top of Jamie’s head, I see a shaggy animal pulling itself up a sun-bleached snag next to the trail.

My initial reaction is to grab Jamie by the shoulders and start pulling her backwards. A second later, I realize the creature itself poses no threat and we stop in our tracks to admire a yearling bear cub staring down at us with frightened eyes. Although technically a black bear, the animal is the blondest of the species I have ever seen. The young bear looks like a juvenile grizzly, or at least as though it has been to a salon for a summer dye. An instant later, operating on some mutual wavelength, Jamie and I swivel our heads in every direction for what has to be a nearby mom, even as we start backpedaling.

Fifty yards is too close to a bear cub, but thirty feet is pushing one’s luck. As we withdraw, the young animal shimmies down the tree, leaps back onto the trail and charges uphill, out of sight. We see no sign of the mother and are left wondering if the cub has been orphaned. Bears have devoted and protective mothers, and only a serious, possibly fatal, incident would have separated the two. We hope the mother is just ahead of us on the trail, and joined her baby as it scampered past.

Not wishing to cause more stress to the bear, or its mother, we turn around and head back to the last flat piece of ground we can remember for our night’s campsite. Both of us are famished and tired of removing ticks. Not wishing to develop a full-blown case of tick paranoia, in which every breeze-blown hair feels like something crawling across one’s skin, we descend the mountain along with the lengthening shadows of the sun.
After setting up camp, we prep our salad fixings and cover the bed of greens with two kinds of sautéed mushrooms. The meal is a godsend, delicious in every way, but it still pales to my memory of that morel-infused cheeseburger. Oh well, just another reason to keep harvesting. Besides, our foraged supper beats anything we brought in our packs.

Jamie and I kick up our feet around a small campfire. It won’t be long until we return to the mountains on another foraging expedition for the scallop-shaped and appropriately named oyster mushroom, and to gorge ourselves on the impending berry harvest. From spring through fall there is always some kind of wild food in season. Anyone who is addicted to the art of foraging understands why otherwise level-headed individuals are willing to dodge bears, mix it up with dubious strangers, and even risk their lives to get hold of Idaho’s backcountry bounty. [/private]

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