The fungus among us: Yukon's morel pickers seek sought-after mushrooms

As morel season winds down in Yukon, at least one Whitehorse man hopes to pick a profitable haul of the popular and pricey mushrooms.

This season for morels is slower than other years, Yukon gov't says

Mike Boudreau of Whitehorse says he's been picking mushrooms for a decade, but this is the first season he's harvesting morels to sell. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

As morel season winds down in Yukon, at least one Whitehorse man hopes to pick a profitable haul of the popular and pricey mushrooms.

Morels are a delicacy and they generally pop up in the spring following a summer forest fire. Every spring, Yukoners venture to their favourite picking spots — which are often closely guarded secrets — to harvest the mushrooms, whether it's to enjoy with their next meal or to sell to restaurants and other customers.

"I picked this up at Riverside [Grocery] one day and thought, 'Oh wow, 20 bucks. I know where these grow. I should do this,'" said Mike Boudreau, as he prepared to head back into the bush on Tuesday for 10 days of picking.

While he's picked other types of mushrooms every summer for a decade, this season marks the first Boudreau is picking morels commercially.

"I've been a culinarian most of my life, and just the appeal of picking mushrooms to me is just — it's fantastic going out in the woods and finding something that you can eat and is absolutely delicious and sought after over the world and it grows wild here. It's pretty cool."

Boudreau says he has invested about $10,000 into this season, with the goal of selling $20,000 to $30,000 in morels, primarily to restaurants and gift shops.

"I consume quite a few of them as well, so I'm not going to lie," he said with a laugh. "Christmas, everybody gets morels!"

Boudreau holds a handful of morels that he's picked at his secret spot in central Yukon. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Slow season

This year's morel season in Yukon has been slow compared to other years, says Robin Sharples, acting operations manager of the Forest Management Branch with the territorial Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.

"In general we've had some activity earlier in the year. Last few weeks have been busier around the Windy Arm area, but generally it's been lower compared to other years in the past, specifically in 2015, when lots of folks were at the Little Salmon Carmacks area," she said.

"Windy Arm near Carcross is a busy area, as well as the areas near Watson Lake," she added. "We've heard, though, that a lot of the activity is south of the Yukon near Telegraph Creek [B.C.], where the big fires were a few years ago."

Robin Sharples is the acting operations manager of the Forest Management Branch with Yukon's Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, which oversees the harvesting of morels in the territory. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)
Sharples says anyone who wants to harvest morels to sell are required to obtain a permit — which is free of charge — from the department's Compliance Monitoring and Inspections offices across the territory. People picking morels for personal use do not need a permit.

Like many morel harvesters, Boudreau won't disclose exactly where he's picking, except to say getting there involves a charter flight and a five-hour boat ride.

"It's in the middle of the Yukon, it's on a burn site on Crown land," he said. "I've got my permit and I did my research and I stayed away from First Nations lands, and I did my due diligence and found my secret spot that I'll take to the grave!"

One thing all harvesters need to watch out for is "false morels" that are actually poisonous, said Sharples, who advises harvesters to bring guidebooks with them and be aware of the differences between real and false morels.

"The morels have a honeycomb shape, they're a little bit different, whereas the false morels have more of a brain-looking cap," she explained. "Their stalks are interwoven into them, the real morels. And when you slice them open, there is a clear difference."

As for the appeal of morels, Sharples said it's all in the flavour and in the fact they grow in the wild in Yukon.

"People like the taste of them. They're tasty and they dry really nicely and you can use them for a long time," she said.

"People like that you can't just buy them at the closest grocery store. You can buy them at like markets and specialty stores."

Written by Donna Lee, based on a report by Jane Sponagle