Deep in the forest just outside the city, we take a peak into Matt McAllister's world of mushrooms.
Photography by Andrew Querner. Text by Grady Mitchell.
Matt McAllister marches up mossy slopes, long and loping. He strides across fallen logs in nimble, precise steps, scrambles over fallen trees and rocks. As he weaves through the woods his eyes constantly comb the forest floor. Suddenly he kneels down, pulls back some moss, and makes a few quick, accurate strokes with his knife. In his palm he holds a golden chanterelle. With a long fluted stalk and delicately ribbed underside, the mushroom almost glows in the west coast haze.
Matt is a mushroom picker. His first memories of mushrooms reach back to a childhood hike with his father around the woods in Kamloops, where he was born. He remembers pointing out a clump of Oyster Mushrooms growing on the trunk of a tree. "Those look like the ones from the store," he said. His dad explained that yes, they were, but there were lots of mushrooms in the woods that were dangerous to eat, and that it was best if he left them alone.
Matt did just that until 2011, when he started picking as a hobby that before long became a profession. This last spring Matt was deep in the wilderness of northern British Columbia, searching a series of burns near Tumbler Ridge for the most valuable mushroom of all, morels. They grow in burnt-out areas in the early summer months the year following a fire, and the mushroom is so valuable, the picking so competitive, that "mushroom cities" sprout up in these isolated areas: temporary encampments of vendors who buy the freshly-picked morels straight from the baskets of the pickers.
It's a modern Wild West scenario, Matt says. In addition to professionals, Morel season attracts a lot of wannabes, enthusiastic amateurs who don't know what they're doing and often stumble into deep trouble in deep woods. It also draws out some unsavoury characters, people who don't fit snugly into day-to-day society. Matt recounts one picker being run out of a camp after some drug-fuelled indiscretions this season.
But stories like that are rare diversions from the norm. Overwhelmingly pickers form a peaceful, tight knit community, drawing people attracted by the sense of industriousness, self-reliance, and adventure. Matt thrives on what he calls the "treasure hunt" aspect; cresting a ridge and seeing not a rich vein of gold before you, but a crowded patch of gold chanterelles.
As we hike he periodically kneels to collect another mushroom. He uses a specialized knife given to him as a wedding gift. It has a pale wooden handle, a short, broad and curved blade on one end for cutting stalks, and a brush on the other for cleaning away dirt.
Today Matt is showing us the first place he ever found chanterelles, a stretch of forest tucked between a river and a verdant wall of mountains on the west coast. Mushrooms are finicky, demanding specific and fleeting conditions to sprout: soil, slope grade and direction, humidity, and climate are just some of the dozens of variables that have to coalesce perfectly to result in a mushroom. Most are mycorrhizal, which means they interweave with the roots of a tree and trade nutrients. Mushrooms give water, nitrogen, and phosphorous. In exchange they receive carbohydrates, which, as they don't photosynthesize, they can't produce themselves. That fussiness is why it's so hard to effectively farm mushrooms, and why the best ones are still plucked from the wild by intrepid folks like Matt.
His favourite mushroom is a hedgehog. Found at higher altitudes near blueberry and spruce, it's similar to a chanterelle, although with a crisper texture and nutty flavour. Like any good picker, he likes eating mushrooms as much as collecting them, especially in stews and creamy soups. "It's hard to go wrong with mushrooms and cream," he says with a smile.
Not that all are tasty. Heedful of his father's advice, Matt has become an expert on which ones are delicious and which are deadly. He plucks a non-poisonous mushroom and points out its characteristics. It pulls apart easily in large chunks in his fingers, and when he throws it against a tree trunk, it bursts into pieces with a pop. That because the cells are round, he explains, and can be separated more easily, compared to the long, stringy cells of a poisonous mushroom. Still, few are lethal. With most, he says, "the worst they'll do is give you a bad day."
In fall of 2013 Matt undertook his first serious pick, near Terrace. He had been studying to become an electrician, but the company he'd been working for folded. Since then he's been picking for a living, chasing various species of mushrooms as they pop up across the province: Hedgehog, Lobster, Pine, Cauliflower, Bear's Tooth, Porcini (also known as King Bolete), and the varieties of chanterelle; blue, yellow, white, and gold. He also gathers herbs for natural tea blends, and hopes to harvest huckleberry and other plants this year. Mushroom season runs from early spring to the first serious frost, and during those months Matt will usually pick three days and week and spend three more at the market.
In a way he's always been drawn to these places and this lifestyle. For family vacations as a kid, he says, his two sisters dreamed of anywhere with sand and water. He always pleaded for somewhere swampy where he could catch frogs. He had a strict vetting process for potential campsites: "If it had a mowed lawn, that was a bad sign."
Since 2013 Matt has been building his archive of spots, the secret arsenal of every serious picker. Finding them is a half-forensic, half-intuitive process, based off piecing together knowledge and hunches to find areas rich in mushroom plunder. Every year the list grows and Matt's basket grows heavier. And for many to come he'll continue to scramble up mossy hills, over rocks and logs, and through remote woods in his search for his fungal treasure.