Hunting for the mysterious morel is an art that requires an innate understanding of the woods, the weather and the winds of spring.
The morel’s bewitching powers overtook me at a tender age. Over the years, their magic has seeped into my soul.
I spent my early childhood in the peaceful drowsiness of the Rainy River District, a five-hour drive northwest of Lake Superior. I was educated in a one-room school that sat in a clearing carved out of the wilderness, about a mile from home. While the other kids pored over their lessons in the rows of desks beside me, my eyes and my imagination were fixated on the images of the tiny characters that played across the pages of my early readers – the elves and imps living under mushrooms and morels and the stories of their dwellings deep in the woods. Yes, I can blame my early fascination with morels on the Ministry of Education.
On spring mornings, I would keep my eyes peeled for morels along the trail’s edge on my way to school, and then again, on my way home. Not only did I believe the morels were the key to discovering the secrets of the woodlands, they were prized delicacies at the dinner table. I can still remember the pungent smell of morels sizzling in a cast iron skillet of bacon grease and butter on the wood stove.
In today’s world, it may seem hard to believe that my family’s subsistence depended on proficiency in our outdoor and farm skills. Being the best at one skill brought elevated status. I was the best at finding morels! We hunted morels every spring, especially after a warm rain or when thunderstorms brought bolts of lightning to the ground. (Old-timers said the lightning bolts woke up the morels.) If the spring weather was cold and dry, the morels were scarce. If it was warm and wet, they were more abundant. But they were always elusive and held their secrets well. Despite the weather, one year you’d find them in a poplar grove, the next year they had all but disappeared until you dcovered just one, and then another, poking up through decaying leaves on a logging trail. One year, we found a motherlode in a burnt-over area, but never again. Just like the woodland characters, morels confounded us at every turn. I began to question my dad’s theories about their whereabouts and pushed for my own answers, but the mysteries remained.
In the early ’60s, we moved to Northumberland where my dad planted an orchard and developed a market garden. The nearby creeks were full of speckled trout, brown trout, lake-run trout, smelt and large chub. My brothers and I always went fishing on Mother’s Day – each one of us vying for my mom’s attention and affection, trying to bring home the best catch. On our very first spring in Northumberland, I found my way to a speckle stream that coursed its way through a swamp of white cedar and hemlock, but mostly mosquitoes. Deep within the greenery, the stream banks were lined in emerald moss. The scene mirrored the illustrations in my Grade Two reader. In a short time, I had five fat speckled trout. I truly believed that there was something magical in that moss. A few moments later, I had irrefutable proof.
Atop a sandy crest of the swamp trail, a morel appeared before my eyes. It was the first one I’d ever found in southern Ontario. I laid down my fishing rod and gunny sack of trout and just stared at it. (My oldest brother once said that if you don’t stare at the first morel you see and turn your head momentarily, they sometimes disappear. I believe him to this day.) And then I spotted another. They were different morels – yellowish-orange and huge compared to the small, almost black ones of Rainy River. I tied the arms of my shirt together as a cradle and carried home a feast of morels and speckled trout. Mom said it was the best Mother’s Day present ever. Morels became my badge of honour but they also drew me to the solitudes of the spring wilderness that filled me with vigour, energy and the promise of treasure – not only the vaunted morel, but many other discoveries – blueberries in bloom, blackberry canes emerging, saskatoons, pin cherries and choke cherries in flower. All locations noted and all prizes for pies, jams and jellies.
In over 60 years, from the Rainy River District to the Ottawa River Valley and all points south of the French River and here at home, there’s never been a spring when I didn’t find morels. But as life teaches us, never be too sure of anything. Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about morels… Tom Henke, former pitcher of the Toronto Blue Jays, invited me to Missouri on a spring turkey hunt. Turkey season coincided with morel season and believe me, they take morel hunting seriously in Missouri. It was game on.
“While morels became my badge of honour, they also drew me to the solitudes of the spring wilderness…” ROGER THOMAS
Just outside his hunt camp, Tom’s wife Kathy took me to one of her favourite morel spots near a tumbled down apple tree in a stand of oaks. We separated and I stumbled upon my first Missouri morel and then another. But when we met up later, Kathy had 38 morels in her bag, and I had two.
My dismal performance made me the target of incessant barbs from my American friends for years to come.
My redemption came a few seasons later when my brother and I were back at Tom’s camp, hunting in a stand of sycamores on the banks of the Gasconade River, a thousand miles from home. That morning was the crowning glory of all my outdoor achievements. We found 126 huge yellow morels amongst the sycamores. With the sleeves of our jackets tied together as makeshift baskets, we returned to camp as heroes. This time, the magic of the morels was on the side of the Canadians. It turned out to be the largest single find that year in the state of Missouri – a state record. And only my brother, the woodland creatures and I know their location.
As the last week of April approaches in Watershed country, say some prayers. Pray for thunderstorms that bring warm rain and lightning bolts that come to the ground. Pray that in the first week of May you have time to walk on forest trails and sit on a secluded stump in sunshine. Pray the gentle spring breezes sift through the woodlands, and that you feel the promise of new life as the wind whispers across your brow. Believe in morel magic and mysteries of the forest that surround you. Stare at the first morel you see and your rewards will be many.