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Walking Without Roads: A Day In The Life Of A Professional Mushroom Picker

Rowan Moore Gerety/NWPR

Every spring in the Northwest, morel mushrooms sprout from the blackened mountain soil where wildfires burned the year before. For a few thousand commercial mushroom pickers, it’s time to pile into dusty pickups and follow the bounty across the region.

Hongueros, or mushroom pickers, have their share of tense encounters in the woods: with cougars and bears, and sometimes, with competing pickers who threaten to call border patrol.

But Jose Denova Calles says the core job qualification isn’t bravery as much as endurance. “We walk all day every day,” he says. “Here, there, anywhere.”

Denova is part of an itinerant workforce over twenty thousand strong. They supply restaurants and florists around the world with mushrooms and plants from the Northwest, an economy that peaks with the spring flush of morels on areas burned by last year’s wildfires. But even at its height, the industry goes largely unseen, confined to remote stretches of national forest, and staffed primarily by an undocumented immigrant workforce.

At 29, Denova is tall, lean, and evidently at home in the woods. For a day of scrambling up ravines and creeping through dead brush, he brings a knife, a bucket, and a 16 oz energy drink. “It’s not ideal,” he says, “but I forgot my water in camp.”

Now, outside the town of Twisp, we climb into steep hills burned by the largest wildfire in Washington state history, the Carlton Complex fire. A year later, it’s a landscape of downed logs, charred pines with green tops, and morel mushrooms.

“This looks promising,” Denova says as we reach a dense thicket of half-burnt trees. Here and there, he bends down to cut morels from a carpet of pine needles and drop them in the bucket.

“They’re very well-camouflaged,” Denova remarks. “The mushrooms are the same color as the ground.” Yet even as he finds one after another, the smaller morels seem almost invisible to me: soft brown with a honeycomb surface. From a few feet away, they’re dead ringers for a pine cone.

Every few minutes, Denova’s two way radio buzzes with news from other members of his 6 man crew. “They can see over here, and I can see over there,” he says, pointing to a neighboring ridge.

On opposite sides of the same canyon, Denova says they do reconnaissance for one another and scope out good areas to forage. Most pickers work this way, fanning out like a search party, then traveling together to sell their bounty at roadside buying stations.

Many crews are groups of relatives. “In my family, it started with my brother-in-law. I brought on my brother, then my other brother, then another brother-in-law: it’s a chain,” Denova explains.

Near their home in Oregon, they pick huckleberries in the summer, then chanterelles, black trumpet, and hedgehog mushrooms through the winter. April is the start of a grand morel tour, from California to Washington and Montana, sleeping in tents the whole way. This year, that tour includes Denova’s wife and 2-year-old son... but not for long.

“We’ll put him in school so he’ll follow through studying: I don’t want him doing this,” Denova says.

Foraging is a hard life. To Denova, the morel is both the best and the worst of mushrooms. Worst because they fruit in fire-damaged areas with the first signs of spring. As a result, many forest roads in morel areas are still badly rutted and washed out, and picking them requires a lot of walking. Best because Morels are also the most lucrative crop of the year: some days, Denova brings in as much as 150 pounds, worth more than $1000.

Sometimes, Denova says he finds nothing at all. But the lifestyle has its upsides: “no traffic, no stress, and no boss.”

Denova first came to the US at 15, to escape the mounting violence and unemployment at home in Mexico. He trimmed hedges and hauled trash in Washington DC, then came west when construction work dried up during the recession.

“All my friends have tried city life,” he says: “painting houses, laying carpet—and they like it better out here.”

Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio