6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Thursday, July 14, 2011

'Shroom Huntin'

          I am halfway across the fallen spruce, inching along on my butt, sandaled feet dangling in a raging torrent closer resembling a river than a creek, when it occurs to me that our intended reward might not be worth this level of risk. In order to move, I have to place both palms on the bouncing bridge between my thighs, put the combined weight of my body and forty pound backpack into my shoulders while lifting and pulling myself forward a couple inches at a time. Twice already my hands have slipped on the wet bark causing a gut-wrenching instance of imbalance before recovering with a slow exhale and shaking of the head.

          Just downstream from my precarious perch, half submerged in the bubbling froth is a logjam of deadly strainers, fallen trees with branches still attached guaranteed to pin someone against, or under, one of these traps should they slip into the icy runoff. My pack has all of its buckles unfastened, but I’d still be lucky to get it off my shoulders before the current swept me into a life-threatening situation. What’s worse is knowing that once across, I’ll have to stand helplessly on the other side while my wife attempts the same feat.

          So enthralling is the creek ford, I don’t realize how badly my frozen feet hurt until I hit the far side. Hopping in place on the creek bank to bring some life back to my aching toes, I watch Jamie straddle the log and begin her own crossing. When she reaches the halfway point, I swallow hard against the frigid torture and wade out into the powerful flow as far as sanity allows. At this point, if she falls there is a chance I’ll be able to reach out and snag her before the current drags my wife into the nest of ominous strainers. My plan is to grab whatever part of her, or her pack, I can get ahold of and then throw myself backwards in hopes that the combination of my momentum and weight is somehow a match for the current.

          Thankfully, none of my planning is necessary. Jamie makes it across safe and sound and shaking slightly from the adrenaline rush. The pins-n’-needles sensation of our feet and legs thawing has us gritting our teeth for a full thirty seconds before the pained grimaces dissolve into a shared expression of nervous relief.

          “That was sketchy,” she says as we swap our river sandals for hiking boots. “Maybe on the way back we should look for another crossing.”

          “Yeah,” I reply, “besides, I’m not sure if the runoff has hit its peak. If the water gets any higher, we’ll have to find a different route.”

          “Let’s just keep the end result in mind,” Jamie suggests. “We’re out here to forage because we want to. We aren’t starving to death, so let’s not get ourselves killed.”

          She is correct, of course, but if there is a wild food worth dying for, it just might be a particular, highly sought after mushroom. No, not the magic kind. Although, I have found the hallucinogenic variety on Idaho’s public lands before. The primary target of our hunt thrives in areas of well-drained, sandy soil and recent forest fire activity. It possesses a meaty texture and earthy flavor that is impossible to beat, especially when sautéed with garlic butter, or better yet, battered and fried in bacon grease. The finest meal I can recall was a cheeseburger loaded with freshly picked ones that Jamie and I grilled up after a few exhausting days spent hunting the sometimes elusive treat. Ah, the mighty morel mushroom, or as I like to say, “King of the forest cuisine.”

          Due to their grid-like network of ridges and pits, giving the fungus a distinct honeycomb look, morels are easy to identify and thus, one of the safest wild foods to harvest. Something in their size and tan to brown colors remind me of toads, only slightly misshapen to also resemble a conical gnome hat. There is a fake morel that is similar, although the stem is longer and the cap more round, giving it a microphone-like appearance, and while some claim they cause gastrointestinal issues, other people eat them like potato chips. In any case, accidently including a couple of fake ones in your bounty won’t kill anybody. And, while morels are the holy grail of our June quest into the mountains above the South Fork of the Salmon River, foraging conditions for a variety of edible flora is at its prime.

          In a plastic bag attached to the outside of my pack, I have already collected a variety of leaves for a salad, and inside my pack is a small plastic tub of butter, garlic, and onions to accompany our planned mushroom feast. I brought the sauté fixings despite the fact we might find some wild onions and garlic, mostly because I can guarantee we won’t stumble across any butter out here. In a third bag, I have also harvested a collection of huckleberry and strawberry leaves for an anti-oxidant, after-dinner tea. In the absence of ripened fruit this early in the season, their leaves will have to do.

          The majority of my salad gatherings consist of wild mint with a slight smoky taste, the delicate pedals of strawberry flowers, and the more subtle flavor of young dandelion leaves. The mint looks a bit like stinging nettle, and you certainly do not want to confuse the two. Actually, even stinging nettle is quite savory, but it must first be boiled to destroy the plant’s tiny needles and itchy toxin.

          Shortly after the creek crossing, I find our first edible wild mushroom, although something has beaten us to it. The fist-sized puffball has had its white dome top neatly removed by the gentle bite of an animal, most likely a black bear, leaving a shallow bowl filled to the rim with what looks like a smooth chocolate surface. Unlike sand grains, the individual spores are so fine the naked eye is unable to differentiate one from the other making the collection of particles appear solid. I bend at the waist and blow out a quick breath through pursed lips. The spores scatter in a small brown cloud, some of them instantly snagged by the faint breeze and carried away, hopefully landing somewhere favorable for producing more of the tasty fungi.

          Like a bear, I have basically learned what wild plants are edible through trial and error. While walking backcountry trails, I sample random leaves that appear to have digestible potential. This isn’t a process I necessarily recommend, but it works for me. Basically, I let taste and texture serve as my guide while adhering to a few simple rules. First, while a lot of green plants have a disagreeable flavor, there are very few in the Rocky Mountains that will truly sicken you if ingested. As far as I know, and from what I’ve read, there isn’t a single plant that tastes good but is also poisonous. Toxic plants taste terrible and you should know the second one touches your tongue. Same goes for harvesting wild berries. Poison berries are gross, although it’s worth mentioning that even some of the edible berries don’t have a particularly pleasant taste, especially prior to ripening.

          Such is the case of the elder berry. This purple fruit grows in clusters resembling tiny grapes and while it can be processed into tasty wines and marmalades, the berry itself runs a tad bitter. Actually, because a lot of wild flora tends to taste sour, I keep plenty of water on hand to wash out the flavor of anything nasty. Also, if a particular leaf actually tastes agreeable, I will only eat a small sample the first time around and then wait to see if I experience any kind of adverse reaction. Never eat more than a bite of something until you are sure it is safe and even then, gradually increase the amounts until you are certain an actual portion can be consumed risk free.

          While this taste testing strategy may work on plants and fruits, I do not push my luck with the immense variety of mushrooms. When it comes to fungi, I will only eat, or even taste, what I can positively identify. Thankfully, the edible mushrooms are fairly easy to recognize. Again, while my harvesting techniques have yet to land me in any kind of trouble, I have spent my life in the forest, possess a certain familiarity with the common flora, and make no claim this system will work for others. Besides the inherent risk of eating wild plants, there are other concerns to consider, especially this time of year.

          “Tick!” Jamie says suddenly stopping in mid-stride. The tone of her voice is laced with disgust. She plucks the flat red arachnid off her shirt and while grinding her teeth in anger, crushes the blood sucker between her thumbnail and index finger. “Die you bastard!”

          Ticks and the potentially life-long blood diseases some carry, have zero diplomatic immunity in our eyes. Despite a two week anti-biotic treatment, the last bite Jamie suffered led to an entire year of swollen lymph nodes and periodic outbreaks of itchy bumps. So, when we see one, it dies. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile our more Buddhist like beliefs with our blood lust for ticks, but no spiritual philosophy is complete without a few hypocritical quirks. Besides, if someone can point out a useful role they serve in the grand scheme of things, I’d be willing to reconsider my prejudice.

          Jamie’s tick is the first of many. The higher we climb the more we find, appearing from seemingly out of nowhere to lurch across our clothes, backpacks, and exposed flesh searching for some warm, hair-covered crevice to call home. Each one is met with a similar, and hopefully painful, fate. Their peak season typically runs from March to May, but it really depends on the weather and elevation. Ticks do not like the heat and by the end of June are much harder to find. Or, as I should say, the less they tend to find you. Despite the lateness of their season, we are approaching the lingering snowline and up here, the little devils remain abundant.

          In addition to ticks, other harvesters, particularly mushroom hunters, have a surly reputation when it comes to protecting their favorite patches. I have heard of firearms being drawn and vehicles sabotaged more than once. As Jamie and I round a bend and come face to face with two young men in dirty hiking clothes, I wonder if we have encountered some fellow foragers. One of them has a wicked looking knife on his belt and the other is holding a broken branch that is much too heavy to be an effective walking stick, otherwise they carry no gear. Instinctually, my left hand slips into my pocket to ensure the razor sharp blade I always carry is where it’s supposed to be.

          “Nice day for a hike,” Jamie says in her usual beguiling manner. My wife is nicer than I am and thus the communicator. My job is to look intimidating and only talk if I have to when encountering strangers in the total isolation of Idaho’s backcountry.

          As it turns out, the two aren’t harvesters, but rather two city kids, one from Dallas, the other from Las Vegas, out to prove something to themselves by experiencing genuine wilderness for the first time. They are on an epic hiking quest throughout the Pacific Northwest, trying to hit as many broad expanses of backcountry as they can. At least that is their story, but the young man with the sheaved knife keeps throwing harsh looks at his companion as details of their trip drop readily from the other guy’s tongue. The talkative fellow has a blond beard, rosy cheeks, and must weigh close to three hundred pounds. He is easily the heaviest individual I have ever seen this high in the mountains. Part of me is struck with a sense of admiration, but the more suspicious side, knowing how hard this sort of physical activity can be for even a lean individual, can’t help wondering if they are on the run and hiding out for some reason.

          “So you guys do have actual supplies?”’ Jamie asks, fishing for information. “You must have a camp nearby…”

          The blond fellow opens his mouth to speak, but is cutoff by his friend. “We’re camped back that way,” he says, vaguely motioning down the trail from where we just came. “Where are you two headed?”

          Jamie tries to reply, but like our new acquaintance just did to his buddy, I interrupt her with an equally obscure gesture pointing towards the snow-covered mountain tops, “We’ll be up there somewhere.” After a few more awkward pleasantries, we move on with me sneaking glances over my shoulder. “What do you make of those two?” I ask.

          “Not sure,” she replies. “I hope they know what they’re doing, but Dallas and Las Vegas? Not sure their backgrounds have prepared them for something like this. Why, do you think they were lying?”

          I shrug. “Not sure about lying, but I get the sense we weren’t hearing the whole truth. In any case, let’s create some distance between us and them, shall we?”

          Shortly after our encounter with the two young men, Jamie and I jump over a small stream and notice a fresh bear track in the mud lining the bank. The track is as large as one of my outstretched hands, its claws unmistakable in the damp earth. A quarter mile later, we find an even fresher pile of bear scat. Unlike domesticated horses, our wild and furry friend had the good manners to turn his body sideways and drop his business just off the steep trail side. The massive pile is bright green indicating that we’re not the only ones out foraging for plants; our omnivorous neighbor has clearly eaten its fill.

          With my attention somewhat scattered by the prospects of strange men and bears, I walk right past the first few morels before realizing we are standing in an actual patch. We planned on doing some off-trail mushroom hunting once we reached a certain elevation, but clearly, Jamie and I are the first to venture this high this year or the bounty at our feet would have been already harvested. Like ticks, morels don’t like the heat and are usually past their season by mid-June, but the cool mountain tops are where their season extends a little longer. Even so, half of the morels are already beyond their prime. The ones having already dried out, we pick, pull apart, and scatter to create more next year. The rest, still heavy with moisture, are carefully cut at the top of their stems and deposited in a plastic container for safe storage. All in all, the morel harvest is fairly meager, but we have enough to transform a couple of meals into a king’s banquet.

          Another hour into our hike, we draw even with the snowline on the opposite side of the drainage. It being the southern aspect and receiving less direct sun, the snow still covers most of the mountain face. On our northern side, we are just entering the elevation where sporadic snow banks still shadowed by trees cling to life. Predictably accompanying the retreating snow, we soon find ourselves in the midst of a sizable patch of tannish-orange calf brain mushrooms. Less predictable is the sheer volume and size of these hardy fungi. Never have I seen so many of the delicacies and some are actually larger than the gray matter of your average bovine.

          While not as tasty as the legendary morel, they do possess a similar hardy texture and are just as easy to identify. If you see what appears to be the scooped out innards of something’s skull, somewhere between the circumference of a silver dollar and cantaloupe, lying on the ground near melting snow, you have found a calf brain. As it is with the fake morel, some people insist they contain a mild toxin, but I, and other people I‘ve met, have been eating them practically our whole lives and have yet to experience any kind of problem.

          After gathering enough “brains” to make a zombie jealous, we return to our hike. With ample foraging success, we now need a camp for the night. Still removing the occasional tick before it can bite one of us, Jamie and I climb high enough we are approaching the northern slope’s snowline. It is at this point in our journey that Jamie suddenly stops short in front of me causing me to run into her backpack. I hear the problem before I have a chance to ask what’s wrong. The distinct sound of claws scraping wood reaches my ears and over the top of Jamie’s head, I see a shaggy animal pulling itself into view up a sun bleached ponderosa snag right next to the trail before us.

          My initial reaction is to grab Jamie by the shoulders and start pulling her backwards. A second later, I realize the creature itself poses us no threat and we stop in our tracks to admire a yearling bear cub staring down at us with frightened eyes. Although technically a black bear, the animal is easily the blondest of the species I have ever seen. The young bear looks like a juvenile grizzly, or at least as though it has been to a salon for a summer dye job. An instant later, operating on some mutual wavelength, Jamie and I begin swiveling our heads in every direction for what has to be a nearby mom while we continue our back peddling.

          Fifty yards is too close to a bear cub, thirty feet is just stupidly pushing one’s luck. As we withdraw, the young animal shimmies down the tree, leaps back onto the trail and charges uphill quickly disappearing out of sight. We don’t see any sign of the mother and are left wondering if the cub has been orphaned. Bears have some of the most devoted and protective mothers in the wild, so only a serious, possibly fatal incident would have separated the two. We choose to believe, she is just ahead of us on the trail, and no doubt, joined her baby as it scampered past. The alternative is pretty grim to consider as most cubs need a couple years with their mothers before fully learning the ropes of the wilderness.

          Not wishing to cause more stress to the bear, or its mother, we opt to turn around and head back to the last flat piece of ground we can remember for our night’s campsite. Both of us are eager for supper and tired of removing the blood sucking arachnids that have been with us for the last several miles and are developing a case of tick fever. The symptoms of this illness are really more mental where every little breeze blown hair feels like something crawling across one’s skin. Tick fever also results in a lot of anxious dreams and restless nights. Not wishing to succumb to a full blown case, we descend down the mountain along with the lengthening shadows of a setting sun.

          After setting up camp, we prep our salad fixings and whip up a hot dish containing two kinds of sautéed mushrooms. The meal is a godsend, delicious in every way, but it still pales to our memory of that morel infused cheeseburger. Oh well, just another reason to keep harvesting, and besides, our foraged supper beats anything we are carrying in our packs. Our backup plan, had we been unable to find food, is beef jerky and trail mix so we are happy to be eating something other than the packing staples we have long grown sick of.

          It won’t be long until Jamie and I return to the mountains to not only gather more salad fixings and mushrooms, but to also wallow in our sizable berry picking addiction. We aren’t afraid to compete with grizzlies for the most delectable and abundant patches, and have even ran afoul of the Rocky Mountain King while foraging in Glacier National Park. However, if you’ve ever taken a plump huckleberry and crammed it inside the cavernous pit of a ripe thimbleberry and eaten both at the same time, you will never again question why otherwise level-headed individuals are willing to dodge bears, mix it up with dubious foragers, and risk their lives to get one sticky finger on Idaho’s glorious backcountry bounty.

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