Last year, the Swan Lake Fire took away a lot of opportunity for outdoor activities across the western Kenai Peninsula. But, like many wildfires, it leaves behind a gift: morel mushrooms.
“After wildland fire, you end up with the conditions that are kind of ripe for welcoming morel mushrooms. We’ve had really large fires on the Kenai Peninsula in the past that have been very productive with morels,” said Leah Eskelin, park ranger for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Morels, which grow across northern climates and have conical, brown caps, are highly sought after by mushroom hunters. Why? They can’t be bought commercially, and they’re delicious. They’re also notoriously hard to find.
But, like many beautiful things, there’s also some challenges involved in hunting them. Recent burn areas can have their own risks, and even if you avoid the dangers, there’s no guarantee you’ll find any mushrooms. In the fire zone, there are three main risks — falling trees, ash pits, and tripping hazards. Eskelin says that even well-prepared people may run into these problems in the fire zone.
“The concept is pay attention to where you’re putting your feet. Carry a probe. Carry a walking stick. Put it ahead of you. Last weekend, I was out looking for morels in the Swan Lake Fire burn area and I stepped into about an eight-inch ash pit, and I was doing all of those things that I thought I was supposed to be doing right,” Eskelin said.
For starters, it’s a good idea to let someone know where you’re going, to leave pets at home, and to carry a GPS. The landscapes look different after the fire, so even people familiar with the areas may become lost, Eskelin says. While you can go anywhere except for closed trails, like Skyline and Hideout Trail, the refuge encourages people try to stay off the wet areas and keep vehicles on packed roads and parking lots.
Getting out into the burn area is one thing. Finding the mushrooms themselves is another. The coming rain this month may be a good sign for morel growth but it’s hard to say where exactly hunters will find them, says Kate Mohatt, an ecologist with the Chugach National Forest. But the recently burned areas in the refuge and the forest will be the best bet, as that’s where morels tend to come up in Alaska.
But while morels are pretty distinctive-looking, there are some deceptive lookalikes — false morels, for one.
“How you tell the difference between a true morel is the cap is much more, has more of a reddish tint than a brown or a gray. It’s brain-like, versus pitted or wrinkled, like the others. When you cut it in half, it has hollow parts but it’s more like chambers, the flesh is more folded and convoluted.”
While morels are a pretty commonly hunted and recognized mushroom, there’s still a fair amount scientists don’t know about them. Mohatt says one way people can help is by taking pictures of where they find good patches of morels while out hunting and submitting them to the app iNaturalist, providing good data about mushroom ecology. Yes, that would reveal mushroom hunting spots, which is taboo among the mycologically inclined, but don’t worry — waiting until the season is over is fine.
“Take some photos with your smartphone if you have the location enabled, and then wait a couple months until the morel season is done and then upload them to iNaturalist so nobody knows your spot and they can’t go there, it’s already done," Mohatt said. "And then we’ll end up with this great data that will help future morel hunters, such as ourselves, really target which habitat types would be good. And it’s going to be super interesting for science, too."
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge gave an online presentation about morel hunting in the Swan Lake Fire burn area Tuesday. You can watch the video here.