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Strange Fruit 

Morel mushroom season is NOW!

Just last week Deschutes County 911 received a report that a 52-year-old mushroom hunter had been missing for about four hours. Albert Reisert did not return to the designated meeting point after a hunt in the Deschutes National Forest west of La Pine. As happens in Central Oregon, the weather had changed from temperate in the afternoon, to about 29 degrees and snowing large, wet clumps.

Luckily for the lost hunter, he was able to light a fire and hunker down until the K-9 dogs sniffed out his location. Reisert said that he had been mushroom hunting in the area before but this time got turned around while combing the dirt for fungi.

Like hundreds of others, Reisert has taken to the Central Oregon woods to combthe ground for morels. Right now is prime time for wild morels. A mushroom that resembles a pumice stone or a brain rather than a cap and stem, the morel is a delicate buttery treat.

But finding the mushrooms is anything but easy. Linda Gilpin, a self-proclaimed fungofile who teaches Central Oregon Community College's mushroom identification class, explaied that morels are some of the most rarest and hardest to find mushrooms in Central Oregon.

"You can't create or farm them," Gilpin said. "They have to be wildly harvested; it takes a lot of gas and time, and the season has to be right."

Morel season lasts for about three weeks each year. Between the short window of time and difficulty in cultivation, morels are treasures to those who hunt for them. They are so rare that retail prices are extravagant, $40 a pound at Newport Avenue Market. But the mushrooms are out there for the taking in the woods, and for three weeks in late May and early June, our forests are a gold mine of the tasty buggers.

Gilpin said she goes hunting every few weekends. Knowing the tricks to the hunt is key to making a successful trip. Gilpin explained that morels tend to thrive in areas of mixed conifer, with both fir and ponderosa trees. They flock to dry areas, typically on the east side of crests, and tend to do well in areas that have been disturbed, like along old road cuts or near fallen trees. When the weather is cool, as it has been for the past week, they fruit in the open in sunny spots. As the weather gets warmer, they grow toward the shadowy underbellies of logs. Currently, Gilpin said, the best elevation for finding morels is about 4,500-5,000 feet.

Some mushroom hunters keep their hunting spots close to the cuff. I had several friends decline interviews and urge me not to publish the mushroom-producing spots they had discovered. If cut, not pulled, the mushrooms will sometimes grow back in the same place, so a fruitful spot can continue to produce, even after an initial pick, and become a treasured secret. But Gilpin is more generous. She has been getting word there are morels springing up in patches along the Metolius River Gorge. Because morels tend to thrive in areas of recent burns, she suggested the scorched Pole Creek Fire wilderness outside Sisters.

"Morels are pretty finicky about where they pick and choose to fruit; you have to be just plain lucky," says Gilpin. "You might stumble on them right away or you may look for a couple hours and find none."

"It's like an Easter egg hunt and the morels are the worst! Just enough to make you crazy," says Gilpin. "You can be out there for hours looking for nothing." SW

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