“Guys were arguing,"explained Tony (pictured with the rustic furniture he builds). "It was a bar fight! A group of about twenty met in the morning to settle it. One of them was a Lion’s Club member. They said, ‘We should organize this for the city. Nobody else is doing it, so let’s call it the National Morel Mushroom Festival.’”
This is bucolic country, a photogenic trip back to an older, more innocent America, with rolling hills of leafy hardwoods, neat geometric agricultural plots, and farm houses dotting the countryside. The city itself is a small if fairly bustling burg of restaurants, galleries, and shops, a place that does much of its business in the summertime—with a head start in mid-May thanks to the morel fest.
Yoopers would say—to check it out. I was also hoping to see the sort of morels that are typical in the Midwest but less common where I live.
Like the Pacific Northwest, midwestern morel hunters find natural black morels, which are usually the first true morels to flush in the Great Lakes region each spring. But after the blacks fruit they also find a confusing variety of species commonly called grays, whites, and yellows. Some of these might be the same species at different stages of growth; others look suspiciously similar to what we sometimes call Morchella esculenta.
Measure of the Heart. Mary Ellen warned me that I better be ready to hit the woods at a full gallop because these hunters were serious. Sure, sure, I said. I'll be ready. My main concern was getting some photos of the action.
With that in mind I tried to identify likely experts—camo clothing, trucker hats, and a sneaking caginess were all part of my criteria—to follow into the woods for a photo-op. But then, moments after stepping off the bus, a bullhorn siren blared and everyone took off in a mad, cutthroat dash for the woods. I was still fiddling with the settings on my camera! Even Mary Ellen, who I figured could be my guide in a pinch, was last seen high-stepping through raspberry brambles on her way out of sight.
I wandered into the forest nearly last, fumbling with the camera and realizing I'd left my compass behind.
Verpa bohemica mushrooms (pictured) that look somewhat like morels. Caps are fair game in the contest even if most people don't eat them, and good thing—otherwise most of the contestants would have scored a big goose egg, including me.
This year's contest winner ended up picking something like 342 mushrooms in 90 minutes, of which only 40 or 50 were true morels. The record is held by Tony, with nearly 800 mushrooms picked during two consecutive 90-minute contests in the mid-eighties.
Ramps of perfect harvesting size carpeted the ground and Dutchman's breeches bloomed in delicate bunches.
"How will we ever see them with this riot of greenery?"
"Look for the ash."
My eye was getting better. I picked out a cluster of three ash trees and then started poking around. Voila! A small morel tried to hide from me beneath a trillium. And another... Soon I had a dozen from this one cluster of ash trees. We spotted another large ash and made a bee-line. More morels. I was scoring the way the locals did. An hour later, with enough morels to bring to Marquette, I thanked Mary Ellen and reluctantly bid adieu to Boyne City.
That night my old friends Russ and Carol put together a feast of homemade pasta with Lamb and Morel Stew ladled on top and spring asparagus on the side. Local, seasonal, and superb. We walked it off on the beach a few blocks from their home, Lake Superior lapping in the moonlight, and finished the evening with a couple beers at a hotel bar in town. The next day I would be leaving—but not without a fistful of that other local delicacy, ramps...