"Live a good life, and in the end, it's not the years in the life, it's the life in the years."

Childhood memories come flooding back on a hunt for morels

Often elusive, the wild morel mushroom is a prize for the dinner table.

Story and Photos

By Lance Stegemann

Clutching to an overhanging tree limb, I tried to steady myself as I dug a foothold into the steep side slope.

The ground is blackened from a forest fire that took place only a few months earlier. There’s a slight drizzle from a mountain shower passing overhead and the wet ashen soil makes for some slippery footing.

Finding a solid perch near a charred tree stump, I almost step on the very thing I’ve come here to find.

There, only inches from my boot heel, grows a familiar catacomb crowned diamond in the rough. Reaching down with my pocketknife I slice through its spongy cream colored stem and place the fragile gem gently into a folded paper sack.

Scanning the ground carefully, I spot two more, then maybe a half dozen or so, and suddenly they seem to be everywhere. Today I’m out looking for the sometimes elusive, but always deliciously prized, morel mushrooms.

There’s something deeply gratifying about wandering through the woods, as winter ebbs toward spring, a light breeze carries the scent of musty earth, and the ruffed grouse thumps its wings in protest against the long endured silence. Creeks run high with melting snow water and new growth abounds with each passing day.

It’s these early days of spring I find myself roving the forests in search of my favorite fungi (Morchella esculenta) or more commonly known as the morel mushroom. The draw for me isn’t just the pursuit of finding a few mushrooms, but also the fond memories I have associated with this particular outdoor activity.

Every spring, my family would partake in a traditional mushroom hunt, with friendly wagers on who might find the largest or who could pick the most. We were a bit competitive to say the least, but it was all in good fun.

Over time, I developed a keen eye for spotting the familiar cone shaped mushroom caps that revealed their inconspicuous whereabouts. Old burns and recent timber cuts proved to be a worthwhile place to do some exploring. With a little leg work and a knack for finding the honey holes, let’s just say, I won my fair share of wagers.

Now my wife Barb has started hunting mushrooms with me.

Today we find ourselves in one of the old burn sites from last year. The clouds are starting to break and a warm glow scatters across the charred landscape. New vegetation sprouts from the blackened soil, adding to the familiarity of another season’s renewal.

Barb spots a striped gopher snake as it fluently disappears into an old stump hole.

We are both covered in black soot streaks as we weave our way through a tangle of lifeless tree limbs. Despite our grungy appearance, it’s a great day to be out in the woods, and the thought of a sizzling skillet full of sautéed morels keeps our motivation high.

Both Barb and I had been hiking for some time, when the near miss of my boot heel revealed the first morels of the day. It was like I’d stumbled into nirvana.

I began to harvest my prized find, when I heard Barb excitedly shout she’d also found a sizable patch. Good fortune had reluctantly found us and we both began picking at a feverish pace. Our paper sacks bulged perilously under the strain of countless mushrooms.

Feeling a bit famished from a light lunch, our thoughts turned toward deciding how we might prepare the first dish of the season; whether to sauté them simply in a hot skillet or add them collectively to a favorite entrée. We found ourselves in a state of mental bliss as we thought up various dishes we might prepare. The possibilities were endless.

By mid afternoon, we’d gathered enough mushrooms to meet our needs, and decided to call it a day. We gently spread them out over a sheet of cheesecloth and admired our sizable bounty.

It was a good year for morels and a great way to introduce my wife to one of my favorite pastimes. She’s also an exceptional cook and appreciates the value of fresh ingredients, so this was an activity we could both enjoy.

That evening we indulged ourselves with a glass of red wine and a decadent meal of freshly picked morels. I don’t know if we were just extremely ravenous by dinnertime or the morels were really that good, but a tastier dish would’ve been hard to find.

With an air of satisfaction and quietly enjoying our delectable table fare, I eased my chair back against the wall and unpretentiously asked Barb, “What do you know about huckleberries?”

Lance Stegemann works for the Wenatchee River Ranger District in Leavenworth as a packer for the trails department. He lives in East Wenatchee and enjoys the outdoors with his wife Barbara and two Australian Shepard dogs.

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