The other day I tagged along with Doug to see how it was done.
To say Doug is an interesting character is to make a broad understatement. He's been a logger, served in the military, and captained a crab boat. When you drive around the Olympic Peninsula's down-at-the-heels timber communities with Doug in his $500 Buick Century sedan, you spend a lot of time waving to the people you pass, all friends or former colleagues: shake rats*, long-liners, other pickers, and those three old codgers jawing around the tailgate at the general store.
After that we visited a hedgehog patch. I found myself struggling to keep up. Doug knows exactly where the mushrooms are. He has patches up and down the West Coast, has in fact forgotten more patches than most pickers will ever know. When you follow Doug through the salal and huckleberry and old cedar slash, you're following a man who has created little trails through the forest just like the deer and elk and bears. These trails lead directly to mushrooms, which end up in his bucket by the pound, and are later emptied into baskets to be weighed by the buyer.
After picking hedgehogs we visited a chanterelle patch and another porcini patch. A good portion of Doug's day is spent scouting. The chanterelle patch needed another week and he figured his early porcini patch was about to pop. He predicted a 30-pound haul for the following day, and when I talked to him on the phone the next night he said it put out 35 pounds—and that was just the beginning. He'll be visiting that patch every other day for the next week or two until the patch peters out.
Meanwhile the hedgehogs were just coming on and there were always chanterelles to pick. Plenty of chanterelles. When I asked Doug why he picked, he didn't talk about the money or the virtue of hard work or the allure of being your own boss. It was all about the woods. To pick mushrooms on a daily basis is to be intimately involved in the web of life. Doug knows which salmon streams still have decent runs of wild fish, where to find the best berries, and how to lose himself in the forest's grandeur without getting lost.
Writers have an expression: a writer's writer might be unknown to the critics and taste-makers, but earning the admiration of fellow scribes is the highest honor. Doug is a picker's picker.
* A shake rat is a logger who specializes in cutting cedar shakes, or shingles.