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Natural Sciences Outdoor Adventures

Morel Madness

morels

The lilacs aren’t blooming yet, and oak leaves are still smaller than a squirrel’s ear, but Fisherman and I went mushroom hunting anyway on Tuesday. The morels didn’t care if the old signs weren’t in their favor, they sprouted from the side of a steep hill anyway.

It is odd how I regard detail and specificity so highly in writing but will cut almost all of it from this story. Anything that would give it a sense of place could give intrepid Google users — both its search and its satellite maps — a trace to the place where we found five pounds of mushrooms when we shouldn’t have.

But there is still a story, we just have to focus a little closer. A good morel spot is a closely guarded secret, yet you can photograph them from a few feet away and put that picture anywhere. So it is also with words.

Native habitat

The delicious wild mushrooms only emerge from the leaf litter on the forest floor for a few weeks every May. They are some of the first edible anything to grow every year — the return to a world that sustains you, not tries to kill you like a six-month winter with 50 days below zero degrees.

But they don’t give themselves up easy; the woods are big when you’re looking for a four-inch fungus. There are lots of likely spots where they don’t grow, but you will spend long minutes staring at those spots anyway, seeing nothing.

So you search, with no certainty, waiting for that dark cone to appear. And each time one does, it feels like finding hidden treasure.

An unusual guardian welcomed us to the morel thicket: an Eastern Towhee, an uncommon bird that neither of us had seen before. An eight-inch long sparrow with splashes of white and orange against a black back and head, it sang and hopped between branches before fluttering out of sight in the brush.

We resumed our slow patrol, heads bowed.

Forest floor flora

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Miscellaneous

A blustery beginning

Corey Mohan sets off for Lake Superior
Corey Mohan sets off for Lake Superior

The temperature was 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind was gusting out of the northwest at 15 mph. The current in the still-flooded Minnesota River was clipping along at 31,700 cubic feet/second (some 20 miles upstream at the nearest gauge). With these unchangeable natural conditions, Corey Mohan set off this morning on a canoe trip from St. Paul to Madeline Island on Lake Superior.

As a crowd of 30-40 wind-whipped well-wishers clutched Bloody Marys and Mimosas, Corey thanked his supporters and his wife, and read a bit of poetry:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

– T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

Seeing them off

Corey, and his wife Lois, who will join him for this first day, left from Sibley House, a Minnesota Historical Society site where previous explorers of the upper St. Croix — Schoolcraft, Nicollet and others — also departed in centuries past. His Mad River Canoe had been dubbed the “Elizabeth Pelagie,” in recognition of a Wahpeton Dakota woman who was given Pike Island, an important Indian site across the river, by an 1821 treaty.

Corey and Lois would only be on the Minnesota River for a few hundred yards before it joined the Mississippi. If all goes well today, they should get to at least Grey Cloud Island, but with the current and the tailwind, I’d be surprised if they don’t make the St. Croix, some 17 miles downriver. Corey hopes to make it the some 300 miles to Madeline Island by about May 31.

Route map:

In an e-mail, Corey told me:

I’ve been thinking about this particular route for 5 years and then some. The idea came from James Taylor Dunn’s, The St. Croix – Midwest Border River. Early chapters on Native Americans and early Euro-exploration caught my attention and inspired some “what ifs”. In partcular, Schoolcraft, Nicollet Carver among others made the same or close to the same route and I enjoyed Dunn’s re-telling of their story… At the end of Dunn’s book, he writes about his trip down the the river from Upper St. Croix Lake to Taylor’s Falls. I wondered about how much may have changed – or not – from the 1960s to the present. Also, my first canoe trip on a Minnesota river was on a stretch of St. Croix in or near Wild River State Park or St. Croix State Park. I had just moved up here from Illinois, 1982, can’t recall exactly where we were but it was July, buggy and and lovely.

Cory’s Mad River canoe, with a Cooke Custom Sewing spray skirt:

Corey's Mad River canoe with Cooke Custom Sewing spray skirt

Off they go:

I hope to have more about Corey’s trip as he blogs from the river and as I share some more from an e-mail interview I recently conducted with him.

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Miscellaneous

“Between snow and sun”

Early spring fishingSpring morning fishing
Orange for lunch on the bank
Between snow and sun

Those seventeen syllables won me a new t-shirt! Yes, I’m the proud winner of the FruitShare haiku contest. The Marine on St. Croix-based organic fruit delivery business recently sponsored the contest, requiring only that participants choose a currently-available fruit from their inventory and write a haiku about it.

At the risk of completely undermining the brevity of the piece, I will say that it is based in some of my favorite moments. I have always liked bringing an orange with me fishing, because it’s often hard to bring enough water along in an already-heavy fishing vest. A juicy orange can really quench the thirst you get when standing in a cold, flowing river all day. I’m also still pleased with how the last line refers back to the first, as spring is “between snow and sun.”

There were several good submissions. You can see them all here. One of my favorites was from Pam McClanahan, a friend from the Minnesota Historical Society Press:

Kumquat, small and bright,
I’ll be full of luck tonight
with you, full of light.

Categories
Miscellaneous

Yearning for what is yet to come

When I turned 30-years-old last May, I took the day off work and went for a long hike with my dog at Wild River State Park. It was quiet in the park that day, the trees starting to get green and only the two of us on the trail to breathe it all in.

Having recently gone morel hunting for the first time, my eyes were often glued to the forest floor, looking for mushrooms. I didn’t find any. But I did see all the delicate early-spring flowers; they seemed to be the first natural color I’d seen in months and months.

I was just flipping through photos and experienced an almost unbearable sensation in these cold, snowy, gray winter days. It’s overwhelming to feel the longing of life in the landscape, still a good two months off, but also the joy of that annual deep breath the forest takes as the sun comes back to us. I thought I would share the pain and the ecstasy with you, readers.

Click the images below to see larger versions. Click the larger image to see a very large version that might make an appropriate computer desktop this time of year.

Any help identifying the flowers would be much appreciated.

Categories
Trip Reports

Morel hunting

A delicious foraging find.I spent much of Sunday afternoon and evening traipsing through various woods in the St. Croix River valley, alternating between scanning the forest for standing dead elm trees and studying the detritus of the forest floor. My reward was a handful of morel mushrooms, and several photos which fail to do justice to what a beautiful, peaceful Sunday it was.

The few mushrooms we found were the leftovers at a spot that had already been visted–and harvested–by another hunter. Not a surprise, as it’s a popular spot for such foraging. Whoever it was got quite a haul; there were lots of big broken-off stems that we could only admire enviously.

After this first fungus foray, I see there are a few strategies for successful mushroom hunting:

  1. Get to a well-known spot before anybody else
  2. Discover an unknown spot and keep it secret
  3. Make friends with a landowner that has a good mushroom spot–share your bounty

I also came to understand just how finicky these mushrooms are. They like to grow at the base of dead elm trees, but the trees shouldn’t have been dead too long. They like a little bit of sun but not too much. The soil can’t be rocky. It should be moist but not wet. And so on. All the conditions coming together is a rare thing and I get why people post boastful photos of their bounties when they hit the bonanza.

After  collecting what we could at the well-known spot, we pursued strategy #2. We walked about four-miles along some railroad tracks, investigating every dead elm we saw, and a lot of other shroomy-looking spots. Our biggest obstacles seemed to be that the railroad embankments were too steep and thus too well-drained, or the plentiful springs coming out of the limestone bluffs made for vast boggy areas that were also unsuitable.