Iíve spent almost 20 winters in North Idaho, most of them working outside. Always, the promise of spring kept me going through the bitter cold.
The outright worst of the cold days was spent building a warehouse near State Line, working in a scissor- lift, 20 feet in the air, installing metal panels while outside temperatures were loitering just above single digits. The wind surely drove those temperatures well into the negative, as I struggled to hold onto tools with my rigid hands. The knowledge that the sun would surely return was always in the back of my carpentersí mind.
Spring in North Idaho follows no guidelines. There are no expectations to be placed on spring except that it will do what it does and slowly give way to the more standardized summer months.
Some years it rains as if North Idaho had somehow shifted geographic locations and now resided along the west coast. Other years, spring appears to suffer a great defeat against the might of Father Winter, and snowstorms endure well into June.
While North Idahoans can never count on spring to behave in a rational manner, we can always trust that nature will trudge forward. Elk, deer and moose will lose their antlers, trilliums will rise to display their brilliant white flowers once the snows have receded, western larch will again be adorned with their vivid green needles, and as spring progresses, morels will heave out of the ground.
I have become fixated on the search for morels every spring and Iím not sure why. Neither my wife Karen, nor myself, much care for eating them. I always give away whatever I find. I suppose, then, that itís about the search. Iím always eager to return to the mountains after the winter season passes. Hunting morels is one of the first excuses I have.
Thereís something inexplicably enjoyable about returning to the same place year after year to find morels. Itís a familiarity that satisfies something in the soul.
The best day I remember hunting for morels was with my wife and daughters. We plopped down to have a snack along the edge of the abandoned road where sapling pine trees were reclaiming the open stripe through birch and larch.
All at once we realized there were morels secreted amongst the saplings where we lunched. My daughters danced around that old logging road laughing and yelling, ďDad, thereís more over here!Ē
I have one spot where I start checking once the lilacs in my backyard begin growing leaves, even though I know that there likely wonít be any morels until their blossoms begin to show.
I dash home after work, grab my backpack, grab my daughters from school and stop off for a beer to stash in the creek before racing toward the valley that I consider mine.
This year Iíve checked my ďspotĒ several times already. Typically, I hike down the road to the area where Iíve found morels every year, then check the side trail, where Idaho Fish and Game maintains a bear bait station, before hiking back out the road to my stashed beer. Then I drive up the road to check how far the snow has receded up the valley before heading back to town.
Last Thursday I took my youngest daughter Mariah to our morel spot and found the first couple morels poking out of the pine needles. I picked a few for a friend then checked another spot down the road where I will find them a little later in the season. Nothing yet.
I kept laughing at Mariah while we hiked because she had apparently watched a video about ticks at school and was afraid to leave the road as there might be ticks in the bushes. I boldly claimed there wouldnít be many ticks this year and plowed into the bushes.
Karma and I have always had a very close relationship. I pulled a tick off my neck as soon as I pulled into the driveway at home.
Once home, I looked out the window and saw that the first blossoms were barely showing on my lilacs. I know that the best time for morel hunting in North Idaho is almost upon us.
Iím in no way an expert on mycology (the study of mushrooms), but I have read a fair bit about hunting morels and this is what Iíve learned;
Morels will grow wherever they grow. There is no way of knowing exactly where they will grow. I was sitting in a restaurant in town last spring and happened to look out the window to see 25-30 very large morels growing in the bark dust.
Morels will begin emerging when the soil 4 inches below the surface reaches 50 degrees.
The morel season coincides with the blooming of lilacs in town.
South-facing slopes will get more sun and thus morels will grow there first.
Spring rains will hasten the arrival of morels.
Morels prefer disturbed areas such as recent burns, logging roads, game trails etc.
Ticks like human blood.
Make sure you know what a morel looks like before you start picking mushrooms to eat. There are false morels growing in the same areas where morels are found. To me, the two look nothing alike, and even though I know of people who eat them, false morels may cause extreme intestinal distress.
In just a few weeks, the morels will wither, and summer will be upon us. Huckleberries and swimming at the lake will be on everyoneís mind. Until then, take a short drive to the mountains and just look around.