A morel mushroom grows in disturbed gravel on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo credit: USFWS)

A morel mushroom grows in disturbed gravel on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo credit: USFWS)

Out of the Office: Morels surge confidence

I’m writing this in the car on the drive to Anchorage. My boyfriend, Nate, and I are in the process of moving back to the city, where we both are from, and we’ve been spending our weekends moving carloads of books, shoes and other nonessentials to our old/new home.

Right now, we’re driving toward Cooper Landing, beyond Sterling. Right along the road are acres and acres of long, charred spruce trees, free of any branches, sticking up from the inky hills of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge — like bristles on a hairbrush.

On these drives to and from Anchorage, I’ve been looking for potential spots where we could pick morels. We were lucky last summer when we explored the Skilak area. We found enough to make dinner, and that’s all I can really ask for after an afternoon trampling through an ash-covered forest that’s no longer really a forest, and more of a graveyard.

Last summer, when the Swan Lake Fire ignited on our peninsula, I was worried, but took comfort in the promise of spring morel hunting.

Now it’s spring, and it’s just about time to start looking for morels. Morel mushrooms are truffle-ey, buttery, earthy, savory morsels. Like uncovering sparkling gold flecks in a pan full of dirt and rocks, morel foraging requires a bit of research, a little finesse and some good, old-fashioned luck.

Morels are known to grow after a burn. In areas scarred by Mother Nature’s fiery reset, the little mushrooms actually seem to thrive. For some reason, fire prompts the morel to burst from the earth as if to say, “There’s nothing that can stop me!” and, “I can do anything!” Seeing their little honeycomblike caps among ash and rubble has a way of making me feel like anything is possible.

Right now, I’m looking for burned areas near birch trees. I heard morels might grow near birch. Thinking about morels means I don’t have to think about the new coronavirus, or my friends who’ve lost their jobs, or who’ve had to cancel their weddings or the other happy gatherings to which we all look forward.

These days I’m stuck thinking about moving and how to start life over in a new place with a new job all within a new normal with which we’ve all become acquainted in the last couple of months.

Nothing has felt easy in the last few months. I was just beginning to feel burnt out by work and life when the threat of COVID-19 revealed itself back in mid-March. Almost immediately, people needed news of canceled events, mandates, panic shopping and the closure of the economy. I was happy to inform. The speed of the news gave me an adrenaline rush that lasted for weeks.

As the breaking news subsided, then came the more harrowing news — the first positive cases, first deaths. I took note how people in my life were reacting. It’s hard to watch your family and friends suffer from loneliness and illness, lose their livelihoods or be stripped of their pastimes. I’m lucky though and I can’t forget that. Thousands and thousands of others are losing everything.

Now we’re in Girdwood along our drive to Anchorage. When we get to Anchorage, we’re heading to Spenard where we will get the keys to our new little apartment. Earlier today I accepted a job offer from KTVA. I feel like, “I can do anything.” We’re passing hooligan fishermen along the Seward Highway.

It is finally summer and almost time to pick morels.

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