I’m going chantrelle picking. That’s one of the joys of living on Vancouver Island. There are lots of chantrelles in the woods. Some people pick chantrells for money. There are cardboard signs up and down the highway saying “We buy mushrooms.” Some people pick for the health food and specialty stores. Others sell their mushrooms to a couple of the classier restaurants. Some of the pickers are out of work loggers. Others are people who live off seasonal work: tree planting, fishing, crabbing. I’m not that serious a picker. I’m happy with enough for a couple of meals.
You can’t just say, “I’m going picking chantrelles.” You’ve got to prepare. First, you need to wait for the rain. A good rain and chantrelles pop up overnight. After a rain they’re heavy and solid instead of dry and light. When I hear the rain on the roof, I say to myself, “I think I’ll go picking chantrelles the day after tomorrow.” That gives me time to prepare.
I have to get my old jeans out and my heavy socks. My hiking boots. An undershirt, a plaid shirt and a waterproof jacket. A pail and a small knife. Then I’ve got make a lunch, nothing itsy bitsy, a real lunch, the kind I used to eat when I was a kid. A couple of sandwiches packed with meat and cheese and pickles. Something sweet. A thermos of coffee. A bottle of water. A pack sack. I have to dig through my everything drawer to find my compass. I don’t go into the bush anymore without a compass, not since the last time I got lost for four hours.
I went picking mushrooms with a pro, the kind who fills up pails while I’m still diddling around finding my first half dozen mushrooms. We went to his territory. Nobody owns these territories but pickers find them and keep them a dark secret. They don’t want somebody else coming in and scooping a hundred dollars worth of their mushrooms. Some of them even carry machetes just in case. It’s not as bad as the marijuana growers who dot the island. They’re totally paranoid. Not of the cops but of marijuana rustlers. Most of the marijuana is grown on government land so even if the cops find it, not one can be charged, but that means other people, if they discover it, can do the harvesting without the labour. Some of the growers, when the crop is nearly ready, take to sleeping in the middle of their patch with a rifle.
We started up this ridge in an area I’d never been before. We were working our way inland. You’ve go to understand what this ground is like. First, it’s steep. In some places, you’re hanging onto trees and pulling yourself up the slope. You’re looking for mushrooms in the moss and fern and under logs. Second, this is the kind of forest where ten feet from the road, you can’t see anything but trees. And they all look the same. Turn around twice and except for the slope there’s no telling the direction. We went up over one ridge, then I lost my professional friend. He’d gone gallivanting off following mushrooms like Hansel and Gretel followed cookie crumbs to the witches cabin. I followed a stream that turned into a trickle that turned into nothing and then I realized I was lost. Not a little lost. Lost lost. The kind of lost that means spending the night in the bush waiting to be rescued. It took me four hours to find the road again. Now, I don’t go anywhere without my compass.
After I get all my gear into the truck, along with a second set of clothes behind the seat in case I get really wet, I go off with the same feeling I had when I was a teenager and was getting a day off school. I drive the paved highway, turn onto a gravel logging road, follow it until the trees are nearly touching, then snug the truck into a space behind a large cedar.
People say to me, do you take a rifle with you? What about the bears and the cougars? When they say it, I can see the fear in their eyes. These are the same people who live next door to a drug dealer, who lives next door to someone who talks out loud to God on the bus, who lives next door a survivalist who’s convinced Armageddon is coming and has three rifles and a case of dynamite to keep off the roaming hoards of desperate people. No, I say, but if you want to come with me, I’ll let you carry the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If we meet a bear, you feed them to him and I’ll run for help.
The forest is silent. At least it seems silent at first. That’s just because we’re used to so much noise. After I’m in the bush for ten minutes, I can hear again. The kind of sounds that would be drowned out in the city. The sound my feet make in the moss, the dry brushing of my clothes, the creaking of the trees. On really still days, I’ve actually heard a leaf as it struck the ground.
To pick chantrelles, you’ve got to pay attention to the ground. The chantrelles range in colour from white to brown, depending on the minerals in the soil. They often grow under the bright green moss. Only a patch of colour shows through. The first time I go out each year, my mind has to adjust. I have to learn to see again. At work it’s office politics, I’ve got to watch , memos and body language. I’ve got to hear the words and assess them. There are no words here. I stop every so often and crouch down, getting close to the ground, scanning the area all around me, looking into the shadows, under logs. If I find one chantrelle, I don’t move again until I’ve studied every inch of the ground around me. Chantrelles often come in clusters. I don’t want to step on any or move past them.
When I’m tired from zigzagging up the ridge, I pick out a mother log heavy with ferns and moss, climb up on it and lie down. It’s so big that it makes a comfortable bed. I stretch out, staring up at the distant tips of the trees. This is all second growth but already the trees are bigger than anything you’ll find on the prairies. The tips seem to come together. Between them there are patches of blue sky.
I can hear the beating of my heart. Steady, purposeful after the climbing. I’m going to take a cat nap. Twenty to thirty minutes. Then I’m going to have my first sandwich of the day and a cup of coffee. This I think is a far better way to pick mushrooms than out of box in Safeway.