'Yourself against yourself in the forest': B.C. pickers pursue elusive morel mushrooms
Tasty treats that sprout after wildfires are a multimillion-dollar business
Neva Givnish is in her seventh season hunting for morel mushrooms in British Columbia, but this year it's a bit different — she's five months pregnant and taking care of a two-year-old back at camp.
Still, she climbs over fallen trees and pushes through branches as her face becomes layered in fine soot.
"It's your own personal challenge. It's only yourself against yourself in the forest," says the 32-year-old Philadelphia native, who now lives in Oliver, B.C., and often does seasonal work.
Her longing for solitude in the woods is echoed by hundreds of nomadic morel pickers who brave the hordes of mosquitos and flock to the western province each season. The foraging camps are spread all over, but Givnish is based at one a few hours north of Fraser Lake in central B.C.
The foragers are part of a multimillion-dollar industry thriving on the aftermath of wildfires. Their work is the start of a journey that ends on the tables of mushroom connoisseurs from here to France. Each picker typically makes thousands of dollars each season and is often paid out in cash.
The lucrative fungi pop up in bunches in flame-ravaged forests in spring and summer.
Last year B.C. was hit with its worst forest fire season on record, leaving nearly 1.4 million hectares of scorched land —and later, hundreds of thousands of morels to be plucked from the ground.
The elusive mushrooms are loved for their nutty, earthy flavour, but there's no telling where they will grow.
Each season, the hunt begins with finding the hidden spots deep in the forest.
Once the pickers arrive, they're left to their own devices, forced to read the terrain in search of fertile ground and fungus gold.
"It's a really physical, difficult job. A lot of times we're walking two, three, four kilometres into the bush, and you don't want to, with 50 pounds on your back," says Givnish.
Not strangers to seasonal work, many of them plant trees and pick cherries at other times of the year.
Young and old, they thrive on being outdoors and connecting with nature, seemingly unfazed by the elements. But each year there are people who go missing or get hurt foraging for mushrooms.
Market fluctuates 'quite a lot'
At the end of a typical 10- to 12-hour foraging day, the time comes to get paid.
Pickers sort through their bounty, discarding leaves, stems and old growth before handing over only the best mushrooms to be assessed by buyers who have set up stations.
"The market fluctuates quite a lot depending on the volume, how many mushrooms are out there. If there's lots of mushrooms on the market, the price is low, and if there's not as many, the prices go up," says buyer Norman Reisser.
It's the beginning of the season and pickers are getting $5 a pound, which is half of what it was just five years ago.
Some in the industry blame the artificial cultivation of morels in China, but others say that product is nowhere near as coveted.
The average picker collects anywhere from 40 to 50 pounds a day, but those with laser-sharp focus can forage more than 100.
Reisser works for Burnaby-based West Coast Wild Foods, which sells fresh and dried product to markets around the world. It's one of a handful of wholesalers in B.C. that exports the delicacy.
The number of morels harvested each year in Canada is hard to pinpoint, as companies are reluctant to share sales data and the government doesn't track it.
On its website, West Coast Wild Foods sells one pound of fresh morels for $30 and the same amount of dried product for $180.
'The mystery' of mushrooms
Addicted to the nomadic, free-spirit lifestyle, pickers come back year after year, and at the end of a hard day they rest at nearby camps.
Children run around barefoot while dozens of families fry up potatoes and beans to share with the rest of the foraging community.
When night falls, the desire for solitude dwindles as good times are shared with friends who understand the day's hardship.
Similar camps are set up throughout the province at various picking sites.
There are still months of prime picking ahead, and while British Columbia braces for another season of destructive flames, the pickers remain fascinated by the beauty that's come of last year's terror.
The delicious bounty that sprouts from the devastation is ultimately served up and celebrated by chefs and foodies around the world.
That's something Givnish finds remarkable.
"Mushrooms are kind of an amazing thing. How they grow, the mystery."