Since 2009, my friend Pam and I have wandered into the woods each spring to hunt for morel mushrooms.
There are two components, I think, to our seasonal addiction: First, the mushrooms are delicious. The English language has no adjective superlative enough to describe the smell and flavor of fresh morels sautéed in butter.
And second, they’re hard to find — and that makes it fun. Here. See if you can spot the morel:
Plus … even if you know when and where to look, there are no guarantees. The first year Pam and I went out we had a vague idea of how to hunt, but found nothing. We sure enjoyed getting lost, though.
Our second excursion came in 2010, shortly after I got a scary health diagnosis. I still have the card Pam sent me: “I told my dear Uncle Elmer about your [thing] and he said, ‘That’s it! OK. I’ll tell you where the morels are.’” But in spite of the secret intel we still came home empty-handed.
It wasn’t until 2011 that we finally struck gold.
Then in 2012 we again saw nothing, and in 2013 we found fewer than a dozen.
We were overdue for another bonanza, we figured, so we were hopeful this year when some friends reported harvesting four pounds (FOUR POUNDS!) near their Wisconsin farm. But let’s forget about the mushrooms for a minute.
The thing I love most about the annual morel hunt — apart from spending time with Pam — is simply being in the woods. I love the bright-green translucency of the new leaves, the softness of the forest floor, the fresh smell of the ferns …
… and I love it when we stumble upon an unexpected find — like a patch of new prairie grass, some old coyote bones, or a tiny, delicate flower.
It was exactly with this exploratory mindset that Pam and I split up for a bit. I headed into a dry creek bed at the bottom of a shallow ravine.
As I was climbing back up the steep, rocky bank I spotted a weathered bone — and next to it, a hole. “Who lives in there?” I wondered.
I continued a few more steps up the embankment before a sound froze me in my tracks. I’d heard it once before, in Mexico, and I knew it wasn’t good.
It took a moment for my eyes to find the source of the sound: It was a rattlesnake, in its coiled defensive position, hissing and shaking its tail furiously. It was literally right in front of me — within striking distance, only two strides away. The snake and I were having exactly the same reaction: “OHMYGOD, OHMYGOD, OHMYGOD!!!!”
A moment later I had somehow retreated 30 feet. My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking so hard I could barely hold my camera. But I managed to snap some shots of Mr. Rattler anyway:
I’d heard of the timber rattlesnake, of course, but always thought they were a myth — a scaly, scary Sasquatch of the Prairie. In fact, in the early 1900s they were considered vermin and were practically exterminated. They’re now off the endangered species list but are still threatened.
(Other interesting facts from Wikipedia: “Potentially, this is one of North America’s most dangerous snakes, due to its long fangs, impressive size, and high venom yield. This is to some degree offset by its relatively mild disposition and long hibernation period.” Yay!)
Anyway … I was still a bit ashen by the time I reached Pam. But never mind that I’d almost died; Pam was exuberant. So was her dear Uncle Elmer, when I corresponded with him today. “I worked in the woods in rattlesnake country for many years and never encountered a timber rattler,” he wrote. “You were lucky to see and photograph one.”
With a bit of hindsight — and 100 miles’ distance from the snake — I’m inclined to agree.
Well, back to the mushrooms: We did find four of them, but only harvested two because the others were well past their prime. Seriously. Isn’t this the saddest mushroom you’ve ever seen?
But Pam and I weren’t disappointed. In fact, I’m considering this hunt a very special success because we found two new (super-secret) spots — and because we both survived.
And anyway … there’s always next year.