The Mushroom Hunters: Outlaws in Lobster Park

Langdon Cook presents his new book The Mushroom Hunters at Village Books in Bellingham at 7 pm on November 13 as part of our Nature of Writing Fall 2013 series.

The forager stops me abruptly with his hand. Wait. I stand motionless behind him and listen. All I can hear is my own labored breathing. We have walked a mile of unforgiving old-growth forest to reach this spot, zigzagging through bogs of devil’s club and traversing fallen conifers high above the forest floor like construction workers shuffling along suspended I beams. My left hand is pincushioned with tiny thorns. We pause on a forested hillside overlooking a gravel road. In the mind of my guide, this road presents the only real obstacle. He cups a hand to one ear.
He hits the dirt on all fours and flattens himself against a knee-high nurse log. I slump behind a hemlock snag as wide as a front door.
The car is a white sedan, not a ranger’s truck. It comes around the corner and pulls into a turnout. An elderly woman steps out with a lap dog. The forager is relieved but still cautious. “I’ll wait here for an hour if I have to,” he says, still on the ground, leaning back comfortably into the hillside now, with his hands behind his head and one boot crossed over the other, his eyes closed as if he might take a quick nap. This is his element. Even at a distance of only a few feet from me, he blends easily into the landscape, like all the other creatures that use cryptic coloration to avoid detection. He’s wearing tan canvas work pants and an ash-gray T-shirt. His collapsible bucket (for easy stowing) is painted hunter green, as is his backpack, a simple rucksack with one large compartment that can hold about fifty pounds of product. The product today: wild mushrooms, the sort prized by restaurant chefs across the land for their earthy flavors and firm texture. These are not the bland white variety found in produce bins at the supermarket. Wild mushrooms grow only in nature, in ragged, untended corners, not in the warehouses or rectilinear, climate-controlled environments used by cultivators. And these particular wild mushrooms—about sixty pounds in all between backpack and bucket—were, until a few minutes ago, growing right here, inside the boundaries of this national park where we’re currently trying to hide. It’s illegal to pick them here.
Wild mushrooms are commercially foraged for the table throughout North America, but it is here, in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest, where a mostly undocumented commerce has blossomed into big business—with an outlaw edge. The fungi travel from patch to plate along an invisible food chain. It starts with commercial pickers who fan out across wooded areas of the region to harvest the mushrooms. Driving beater cars and vans along bumpy Forest Service roads, pickers follow the great flushes of fungal gold up and down the coast and deep into interior mountain ranges. They spend months at a time in hardscrabble timber communities, pitching base camps in places such as Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, the Central Cascades of Oregon, and California’s foggy North Coast. The pickers in turn sell their goods to buyers and brokers. The top rung of the food chain includes the end users: Many of them are home cooks who purchase wild mushrooms at farmers’ markets and gourmet shops; most are restaurant chefs scrapping for a leg up, always on the lookout for a novel product to highlight on their menus, a product that speaks to the renewed enthusiasm for real, seasonal food.
Today’s target species, here in woods officially closed to such harvest, far below the glaciated peak of Mount Rainier, is one of those foods, and whether obtained illegally or otherwise, it’s not hard to spot among the drab hues of the forest. As big as a cantaloupe and flamboyantly dressed in a flame-colored suit, the lobster mushroom is a striking denizen of the woods. Though such fiery color is often nature’s way of saying DO NOT TOUCH, the lobster mushroom, like its boiled crustacean namesake, is a sublime taste of the wild—and, like marine lobsters, the mushroom’s flesh is succulent, even silky in texture when properly sautéed, and faintly evocative of the sea.
Almost apologetically, my guide explains that he doesn’t make trips into the park every year, just in dry years. “Only if it’s worth the risk,” he adds. In wet years he doesn’t need to break the law. In wet years there are plenty of mushrooms for everyone. But this isn’t a wet year, and competition is beginning to hurt his bottom line. He needs all the lobster mushrooms he can get. I can tell the decision to poach a national park weighs on his conscience more than he wants to admit.
After the woman has walked her dog and driven away, we continue down the hillside, parallel to the road. Though the mushrooms try to hide in the duff and moss, their bright-orange complexion gives them away. The forager spots them, and so do I. With each new discovery I am filled with immense pleasure. It’s like being a kid again, on a treasure hunt in the woods. The forager fills all his receptacles—his backpack, his bucket, even an extra green canvas bag brought along for the purpose—then hides
everything in a thicket of brambles next to the road. We return to the car, which is parked well away from the patch. The plan is to drive back down the road, pick up the load, and get out of the park as quickly as possible. Stealth and speed are critical. The forager isn’t even driving his own car today. He’s planned every detail, down to the color of his socks. To get caught is to risk arrest, pay a huge fine, and endanger his future earnings as a harvester of wild foods. He hands me the car keys and instructs me to coast up to the secreted mushrooms, park, and keep watch while he loads the car. “Whistle if you hear anything,” he says, before disappearing into the bushes.
The last thing I want to see is the rectangular grille of a ranger’s truck appearing around a corner. I study the road as it vanishes behind a wall of unruly green in either direction. The forager reemerges with his contraband and hides it under tarps in the backseat. I’ve come here seeking knowledge, immersion in the natural world, perhaps even a form of enlightenment. Now I’m behind the wheel of a getaway car.
From the Book, THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS by Langdon Cook. Copyright (c) 2013 by Langdon Cook. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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