This is my final report from interior Alaska, where I’ve been covering the harvest of morel mushrooms, which appear in great abundance in freshly burned forests.
Over 6.5 million acres of Alaska burned last summer, and you would think that there would be enough mushrooms for everyone. But access is tough. The terrain is rugged, and unless you’re a superhero or have a means of backcountry transport, you’re stuck near the road. By now, the easy ’shrooms have already been picked, and pickers are going to greater lengths to gain access to the inner reaches of the burn. And that’s the easy part. The hard part is getting yourself and your mushrooms back out.
The boys in the campsite next door bought a jet boat with which they’ve been plying the rivers into the depths of the burn. Amazingly, there is one crew of pickers that they’ve barely been able to out-run with their boat: the Mexicans.
The Mexicans have become legends in this valley for the distances they cover on foot, and the weight of the mushrooms they pull out. The sight of their red van by the roadside announces that there are mushrooms back there, way back there, farther than anybody else will walk. Many times the boat boys have motored miles up river, only to find mushroom stumps left behind. But as viable habitat retreats ever-further from the road, even the Mexicans have reached the limit of their range. I suppose what happened next was inevitable.
I awoke to gunfire. Six shots.
Dinner the night before had been epic: giant morels stuffed with moose meat, washed down with Yukon Jack. We partied until five in the morning. Still, I knew these were gunshots and not my hangover magnifying squirrel farts into cannon fire. The two possible causes, I figured, were bear attack or turf war. Either way, I was ready for a vacation from the mushroom scene.
Just then, the red van rolled into our camp. I was honored, and gave our guests a fawning welcome. But this was no social call. The Mexicans wanted to hire the boat boys to take them up river. The negotiations were in full swing as I began a road trip to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.
Six hours to Anchorage, where I had mushroom risotto with friends. Around midnight, buoyed by the manic energy of 24-hour light, I drove south toward Homer.
At half-past three, I stopped at Gwin’s roadhouse in Cooper Landing, open 24 hours. The chalkboard in the dining room announced: “Out of Beer-Battered Halibut.”
Halibut. My favorite white meat. Alas. My sadness at the menu’s lack of halibut helped crystallize my plan for the day: pay my way onto a halibut charter, catch fish, and send it home. Invigorated with my new plan, I drove south into the dawn.
But alas, the seas were too rough, and the boats stayed in port.
“Go down to the fishing hole,” I was advised more than once. “It’s full of king salmon, and season’s open for snagging.
Snagging is a method of acquiring fish, arguably related to fishing. You cast a heavy hook and reel it in, giving frequent sideways jerks with your pole in hopes of snagging a fish in the mouth, eye, body, tail, fins…anywhere. Then you drag the poor fish to land. The shore was lined with snaggers, many of whom were successful, unlike me. I rented a pole and gave it a whirl, but after an hour I felt about as ridiculous as I ever have—and that’s saying a lot. The depression triggered by my attempted snagging quickly degenerated into a full-on existential crisis. “What the hell am I doing here?” I wondered. I turned in my pole and headed north, back to the morel harvest.
En route, I stopped again at Gwin’s roadhouse, and this time they had the beer-battered halibut. Fresh, juicy and hearty, it exploded in my mouth. The cook was kind enough to give me the recipe, which I’ll pass along to you. Hopefully you have more halibut than I do, and can give it a go.
For the batter, mix 1 cup Krusteaz Pankake mix, 1/2 cup Alaskan Amber beer, 2 pinches dill and 1 pinch Lawry’s Seasoned Salt. Refrigerate if not using immediately.
Cut the halibut into 1 to 2 inch chunks. Dip them in the batter, then roll in panko flakes (Japanese-style breadcrumbs). Place the battered chunks on wax paper on a tray in the freezer until thoroughly frozen. Double-bag it in sealed plastic until meal time. Then deep fry.
Those crispy, juicy chunks got me all the way back to Chicken, Alaska, where I finally learned the source of those six gunshots. It was the red van crew.
Frustration had run high that morning. Barely a week since they’d attempted, unsuccessfully, to float 200 pounds of mushrooms out on an air mattress, the Mexicans had returned from the Fairbanks Wal-Mart with an inflatable kayak that wouldn’t even go in a straight line. They had dealt justice to their boat Alaskan-style, with a .357 Magnum!