Saturday, April 28, 2012

Morel Uncertainty

Once you find yourself cast under the heady spell of the morel mushroom, things can get a little out of hand.  You roam the woods, undeterred by sheets of rain and creepy little ticks, dreams of morels resting on rare venison loin swirling around in your head much as the partnered pinot will swirl in the glass.  Miles click by in the truck and on foot, fueled by the future memory of that one perfect meal.  It is spring after all, time to be in the thick of it with all the promising new green and furtive songbirds returned from winter haunts, even if your mushroom bag might remain unfilled sometimes.  Should you be lucky enough to find the meaty springtime morsels, you'll need not search high and far to meet company willing to join you at the table.

There are many ways in which one walks through the woods, from the jostling rush of the weekend hiker to the controlled, glacial pace of the stalker.   A still-hunter crouches and creeps, often crawls as a stalk reaches its climax, his movement almost undetectable, his wish to meld completely with his surroundings.  As his title denotes, he spends more time still than moving, yet he slowly makes his way forward in search of prey.  I once read the still-hunter should imagine himself as the minute hand of a clock, in motion but nearly imperceptibly so.  A day hiker, at the other end of the spectrum, covers much more ground, making time over terrain to reach a predestined goal.  Our friendly day hiker (birder, backpacker, has miles to go and pressing matters to attend to, it would appear.

Somewhere in the grey middle we find the wanderer.  I've been both the still-hunter and the rambling hiker, as have many who make their way through the wilds.  I enjoy the entire range of purposes and their relative velocities, but the happy caste of the wanderer is where I most often find myself.  We uplanders pass days following working dogs, we fly fishermen spend hours fighting current and stubbing toes, and we deer hunters invest small eternities simply waiting for a deer to happen by.  Still, as a bloke who enjoys as much time outside without a rod or gun in hand as with, much of my time is spent happily bushwhacking as one of the wanderers.

It behooves us to remember here, as Tolkien taught us, not all those who wander are lost.  Many times, a good ramble can and will put us in the hunt, whether it be for mushrooms, a cute Badger girl in pink Wellies, or fresh cheese curds.  Though I suggest hopping in the truck to find the curds.  This, then, is precisely where the morel hunter finds himself, a wanderer.

Morels are supposed to grow most commonly in certain places, near certain things.  Any article or forum discussion on the topic will quickly lead the casual reader to believe the he or she need only seek out dead or dying elm trees.  Or fruit trees and the shady side of poplars.  Or the un-glaciated sand of a dry creek bed where a prehistoric heron once took a crap.  The lording mysticism can get a little daunting sometimes.

The truth is, morels can pop up nearly anywhere within their native range when they deem the weather acceptable.  Almost every year, somebody within our little mycological cult has a story of morels being discovered in somebody's lawn or down in the sand by the dump.  It happens.  Often, the only way to find them with any consistency is to put your boots in the dirt, and get to gettin'.  So the hopeful morel hunter ambles slowly from one likely looking haunt to the next, stopping often to peer into the thick brush or under the may apples.  Wandering with purpose if there is such a thing.

Confession time: I've got a ringer.

I want to say that I've been under the morel spell for six or seven years, which probably makes it about a decade in truth, considering the way memory works.  Those first years were spent happily hiking, but not often finding.  Though I can't recall the exact year, I know the total keep from my rookie season of seeking morels amounted to only the left-side shed from a six-point buck.  As happy as I was with my find, it was pretty crunchy sautéed with spring onions.

Only through the willingness to cover a lot of ground in likely areas did I manage to eek out a few earthy fungi for my dinner in the early days.  Morels began to grace my plate slightly more often than they had, thanks to experience and plenty of walking in the rain. I slowly added a handful of semi-reliable spots to my list of likely check-ins, and a few more that always look good but never produce.  Left to my own devices, I was an avid hunter and opportunistic gatherer of morels at best.

That all changed one day a few years ago.  I was at the University of Wisconsin Varsity Band Spring Concert, a place one might not expect to find a lot of inside information on morels, but they came up in conversation.  As I was happily relating my find of a few morels earlier that week, my friend Woody invited me out to his farm, which happens to be outstanding morel country.  He assured me that if I wanted to up my take from a plateful here and there to something much more substantial, I could do so out at his place.  It was too late for a trip that year, but I made my way out there the following spring, and he hasn't been able to get rid of me since.

To a guy who was used to gathering enough morels in a day to feed himself and a single dinner guest, Woody's farm was an eye-popping revelation.  Morels were measured in pounds, not single digits.

Right on, Woody!

With him as my guide, we scored a few pounds of mushrooms from the soggy slope of a ridge in just a couple short hours that first year.  I couldn't believe it.  He doesn't know this, but I stopped on the way home from that trip at the boat launch on the Wisconsin River to answer the call of nature.  Business taken care of, I suddenly gave an almost involuntary whoop and fist pump to the universe, standing there alone in the gravel turn-out.  To that point in my life, I hadn't known a grown man could fist pump for mushrooms like Kirk Gibson gimping around second base in the '88 Series.

I've been out to the farm three times now for morels, I believe.  Every year we are greeted by rain and thunder in the steep green woods, every year his kids have grown another foot.  And every year morels are gathered by the bag full.  He's more experienced than I am, sees them more readily hiding in the grass, always has a bigger bag at the end of the day, but I'm catching up.  I only need another decade of practice, Woody.

There has come from all this mushroom hunting an unexpected outcome I'm grateful for.  Before he invited me to pick morels, I hadn't been seeing Woody much at all.  The addition of one trip a year to walk in the woods together isn't a lot, we really should do more, but it's more than we were getting together before.  And "The Morel Dinner" has become an annual rite in my immediate family.  I call to remind the lucky ones that it's coming when I start to find the first few morels of spring.  They get another call or text when Woody lets me know it's time to head out to the farm with my rain gear.  Finally, we gather to celebrate the harvest of morels every year now, with venison and risotto, fresh asparagus and fiddleheads, wine and cheer.

Little doubt exists in my mind that the morel is the king of the spring mushrooms around here.  The legendary profile, honeycomb obelisk on a stump, leads to ease of ease of identification, the deep musty aroma that fills the truck as I carry them back home, the simple joy of a few of them in an omelet with a dab of goat cheese... all of it is well earned by the humble little fungi.  I believe, though, that I'm most thankful for the fellowship garnered by the hunting, gathering, and eating of morels together.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Old Guys

I was in Milwaukee looking to hit a couple of the Lake Michigan tributaries for steelhead late last week, and needed a place to lay my furry head.  Since a tent set up in the parking lot of a corner gas station seemed like a questionable idea at best, I offered to provide dinner at my younger cousin's apartment in exchange for couch space.  A small group of friends, roommates, and relatives quickly agreed to join us for dinner.

I arrived early in the evening, and got to work, sort of spinning my wheels a little at first like you do cooking in a foreign environment.  You tread water and monkey around a bit looking for cutting boards and the like, but it eventually comes together.  Or you order pizza.

We had a few beers and shared more than a few laughs together, gathered in the kitchen as always seems to happen.  I put together salmon with mango relish and wilted spinach on ancho sweet potatoes and asparagus with lemon butter sauce while sipping beer and enjoying the din of a hot kitchen filled with friends.  The meal was fine, but I believe the Crave Brothers Petit Frère, paired with a torn demi baguette and medjool dates, may have stolen the show before I'd so much as peeled the taters.  That there is some cheesey goodness, I do declare.  I only stepped on the dog once during dinner prep, which I considered the foremost accomplishment of the evening

Hey Chucklehead, quit slopping the food around!

Confused when my alarm startled me from my couchy slumber, the strange quarters and belly full of beer conspired to complicate the matter of finding the bathroom in the dark.  Eventually, dressed and ready to go, I smiled as I crept stealthily down the back stairs.  It has been a while since I had to sneak my way out of an all-female apartment before the sun.

It was apparent as soon as got in the river that the spawning run was almost completely over.  I saw one deserted redd and one fish in a couple hours of fishing.  Like everything else outside this year, the fish had hopped a meteorological wormhole from the end of March to the beginning of May.  I was a few days late and a thousand dollars worth of fly tackle short.

Discouraged but undaunted, I hopped back in the truck, and pointed her due north, out of the city and up the west coast of Lake Michigan.  In the time-honored tradition of internet fishermen everywhere, all streams will remain nameless here, but I soon found myself standing in another burbling ribbon of tributary water, it too nearly devoid of spring chrome.

I know when I've been beaten.  I could've pounded the water, swinging flies blind with little confidence, but there are other species to prey upon out in the woods.  I walked the banks, kept my eyes peeled for new quarry, and eventually found it in the form of ramps.  Delicious spring onions that have since been pickled for use later in the year sprouted from the pockets of my vest until it resembled a poorly constructed ghillie suit.  And for the record, yes, I was on public land open to digging.  The fact that I didn't confirm that via the internet on my phone until later is unimportant now.

It was then, crouching in the sun on the bank of a glistening stream, that I felt something amiss. Nothing blatant, no neon sign blinking and buzzing.  Just a tickle, a niggling wisp of something out of place.  I'd caught the tiniest vibration of something not right, hiding in the periphery.

So I did what you do in that spot.  I became a squatting statue trying to ignore the sound of my own heartbeat.  I watched and listened and waited.  And there it was again, off to my right and downstream.  I still didn't know what it was, but I'd caught a hint of movement this time.  I remained still, struggling to see farther and clearer, trying to evolve into a hawk or a deer.

When it happened the third time, I had it pegged through the crash of riverside fallen trees and brush.  A puff of smoke.  Using careful woodsmanship and stalking skills honed through years of practice, I'd discovered one of the most coveted prizes on the stream and in the forest.  The mysterious and often cantankerous, old guy.

He was in worn, but well cared for gear, and eyed up my own tackle with a cynical stare as I approached.  Chewing on a dime store cigar and staring into the water as if to make the steelhead appear through sheer force of will, he looked as though he might've grown up out of the ground right there, as natural as any other tree stump.  I was greeted with the standard silverback brusque indifference.

You're too late.  Fish'er gone.

Thanks, Old Guy.  I can see that.  Why do you think I'm wandering around the forest with onion tops flopping out of my fly vest?

As is the case with with most of the wizened old cranks you meet out there, his initial bark was all show.  Once I'd demonstrated my worth in the form of passable fishing knowledge, an understanding of local weather patterns, and tacit agreement that the current evil incarnation of government (no matter the current evil incarnation of government) was out to destroy fishing and generally ruin the world, I was accepted into the fold.

We had a great conversation, if with a slightly more radical political bent than I normally adhere to, and I was able to glean a little more fishing knowledge about that spot from him.  The great thing about old guys who have been fishing a spot for as long as I've been alive is that they often share a lot of detail, even if it is buried in ranting and stogie chomping.

I hunt and fish with a lot of them.  For the purpose of a little definition, I'm referring to anyone old enough to be my father, and on up from there.  Brian is going to go ballistic when he reads this, but sorry dude, you're one of them even if you can still kick the asses of men a third your age.  Settle down, it's a term of admiration.

I love them for their stories, I try to shut up and learn when they speak, and I'm constantly amused that they just don't give a slippery shit what they say.  I don't know when you get that pass, when you've seen and lived enough to say anything to anyone, but I can't wait to get my membership card in the mail.  It is my sincerest hope that it only arrive without the stipulation to wear my pants up under my nipples.

I met Dennis back when we had an apartment on Orchard Street, just over the hill from Lake Wingra and Wingra Creek.  I'd seen him time and time again when I'd head down there after work, sitting half asleep in his lawn chair, a couple lines in the water.  Dennis was a devout carp fisherman with the optimistic and patient ways that accompany such an endeavor.  He'd worked for the post office for decades before he retired, and I learned a lot about the city of Madison from him.

Like most old guys, he was set in his ways.  As we became friends, I tried to help him out by attempting to update his ancient gear and techniques.  I made boilies and dough balls, taught him how to tie a hair rig, and got him a reel with a clicker.  Mostly, he was content to mash canned corn onto a treble hook, and drink his warm  PBR into nap time.  He could've caught more fish if he'd cared to update his fishing, but he'd probably caught more than his share already.

He did keep meticulous records of every fish he caught.  Date, time, size, and bait used were religiously recorded in his tattered little notebook.  That always gave me a laugh.  Even funnier to me, he was still a horn dog.  He could barely walk, but he was forever craning around to gaze upon the tanned college girls running the paved path behind us.  He once fell to a knee out of his lawn chair trying to get a good gander.  After I was able to compose myself, I dried my eyes, and offered to install bike mirrors on his chair.  He declined, stating that if he broke his neck staring at a woman, it would be a fine way to meet the Lord.

Our deer camps are predominately filled with old guys, using the definition above.  Some of them are just sliding into old guy-dom, while others have been comfortably there since I was invited to join them almost sixteen years ago.  If I stop to think that some of them will not be there to greet me any longer someday, I can get downright distraught.  Their stories and jokes are fantastic, their knowledge of the land and people is deep and indispensable.  And they've taken more of my money at the card table than I care to admit here.

I don't think they'll mind me stating that they don't always hunt as hard as they may once have, but there is nothing better for me than coming into a warm camp, and being greeted by their cheers and jeers from around the fire.

Old guys rock.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Garbage Bag Kid Assaulted By Savage Duck

My fly tying vice broke last week, and right in the height of the tying season for me.  I was laying a hook in, and when I went to tighten down, the jaw tensioner screw snapped in half, and doinked off my chin before being temporarily lost in the the bits of fur and feather on the bench.

I, being minimally mechanically inclined, if not downright confused about such things most of the time, was compelled to ask advice of friends concerning how to get the rest of the broken screw out and replaced.  Even with my paltry skills, after some coaching I was able to remove the remainder of the busted screw, and find a temporary replacement without too much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Much more importantly, I was able to get back to tying!

 A screwdriver had to be used to set the jaws with the temporary fix, but at least we were back in business.

As far as outdoor-related calamities go, that little inconvenience was somewhere on par with a pesky hangnail.  No real problem, just a sudden and annoying tiny setback.

Most gear failures are just such a case.  Somewhat annoying, often cuss inducing, but almost never a singular moment of anguish or danger.  I bought an exploding baitcaster once.  It was a pretty sweet reel and a great deal.  Ron Popeil would've loved this thing.  It was all shiny and cool looking, with trendy little cut-outs and holes drilled all over, supposedly to cut down on weight.  It is rather torturous, after all, to heft those extra grams around all day, but we fishermen somehow manage to muster on.  This thing had all the magnets and spool brakes a gear nerd could ever hope for.  About the third time I threw it, one side of the case and the handle plopped off in the water.  Never have I been more impressed with a fishing product.  The rest of it went in the water shortly thereafter, and I learned, once again, to stick to more established brands and believable price points.

I've owned a set of rain gear that I'm fairly certain was constructed of sponges and dish rags.  It may have even created water on it's own, I'm not sure about the science on that.  I practiced for hours and hours with my first cheap fly rod, frustrated with the impossibility of creating a decent cast, before it was tossed unceremoniously in the bushes by a more experienced caster after having tried it only once.  My first ice auger, handed down to me I now think with a smirk and a wink, simply refused to cut ice no matter what.  Blades were sharpened, shimmed, replaced, and shimmed again.  If you had one guy apply all the downward force he could muster while another man somehow managed to turn it, and if you'd sacrificed a wombat to the Aztec god Amimitl, and if it was 80 degrees out, you might have been able to get one hole drilled in a half hour.  That lovely piece of equipment (you ice fishermen can surmise the brand, the light blue one that isn't Nils) was also cast tumbling through space like a 3-iron after a bad shank out of the long rough, and I never even saw where it landed.  Kept right on walking.

Equipment failures, as exasperating and annoying as they can be, generally populate the shallow end of the pool when it comes to true outdoor kerfuffles.  Far more interesting, scary, and amusing are the instances in which we the hunter, forager, or fisherman fail.  And fail hard.

I was almost murdered by a duck once.

Fishing off the Country Club pier in Fontana was a favorite boyhood pastime.  My best buddy Steve and I would pass the sunny hours catching rock bass and sunfish from the gin-clear waters of Lake Geneva, interrupted only by randomly shoving each other into the water and the very beginnings of girl watching.  We didn't catch very many fish, and never ever spoke to a girl.  Gross!

Being the inattentive youngster that I was, at some point, I left my Zebco combo laying on the pier to attend to a pressing matter like chucking rocks at seagulls or cannonballing my younger brother, the bare Aberdeen hook dangling mere inches above the water.  A hen mallard happened by with her fluffy little chicks paddling along behind.  I looked back just in time to witness the last little duckling take a curious nip at my sparkly gold hook, and impale itself.  Cue the Benny Hill music.

I swam over to reel in my catch, and attempt to release it.  I got a hold of the spaztic fluff ball, and was trying to set it free, when I was quickly taught about the protective nature of a mother duck.  As I struggled to free the duckling, I was suddenly enveloped in a hurricane of pissed off duck.  Mom blustered and bit, squawked and dive bombed.  She kicked and nipped and flapped all over me, making it nearly impossible to free my inadvertent catch.  By the time the melee had concluded, the baby was released with only a pin hole in the top of it's bill, and I was left shaking, covered in half-moon duck bite welts.  She then hung around for a while to taunt and berate me while Steve and my brother tried and failed to stop laughing uproariously.  It's no wonder I want to hunt ducks now.

Steve and I were hiking along the river behind the Abbey Resort in Fontana a winter or two after the Psycho Duck Incident.  We had sleds in tow, having just hit the runs over at the golf course, but that never held our attention very long.  We were much more interested in stomping around down by the river.  Building snow forts, poking around in the mud, daring each other to walk on the ice... boy stuff.  On one such adventure, Steve fell through the shore ice in only a few feet of water.  Using my cat-like wits and dexterity honed through years of  stumbling around outside, I quickly rendered aid to my friend in the form of cracking him in the face with my handy dandy walking stick.  I'd attempted a rescue, and managed only to bloody his nose to go along with his soaking feet.  That's what friends are for.

The stories are deep and many.  I can't even begin to recall all the instances in which I or my outdoor compatriots have blundered into comical situations.  However, as I was paddling Selma Kayak around Cherokee Marsh the other day, simply enjoying the sun and keeping an eye out for ill-tempered looking ducks, I thought of the Tale of the Garbage Bag Kid, a family favorite still shared almost without fail during long holiday gatherings.

The Kickapoo river is the longest tributary of the Wisconsin river, and a very popular canoeing and fishing destination.  You would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful river as it glides and meanders it's way through the bluffs of the Driftless Regoin.  And twist it does.  From headwaters to mouth it is only 60 miles long, but that run includes nearly 130 river miles as it bends back on itself over and over and over again.

It's also a bit a of a bugaboo for me, personally.  We paddled it often when I was young, frequently returning to it more than once a year.  I've also floated it fairly often as an adult.  It is a placid little gem, gorgeous and inviting to seasoned paddler and rookie alike.  None the less, that river has bucked me from my boat more often than any other.  I can think of only a few other instances of unplanned swims in my paddling life, but there have been almost a dozen on the comely, diminutive Kickapoo.

It was a cool, gray spring morning in the Kickapoo Valley.  Fog settled in the bottoms, and light rain misted down, giving the whole thing a cast like something out of Faust.  But we would not be deterred.  My family and I were there to paddle the Kickapoo, and it was going to happen.

My brother and I were still too young then to be trusted in a canoe of our own together, so he rode with Dad, and I manned (boyed?) the bow for my step mom Carolyn.  Carolyn and I were not great paddling partners then, nor are we to this day.  It started off as a joke that we seemed to complete a full circle directly after or right before launching or landing, but it soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  So we'd get our spin out of the way, and continue down the river.

Dad and Josh were even worse.  A long wet day in the canoe with a young son get can try a father's patience, I gather, and we can all recall the sound of my normally gentle, doting father's voice bellowing down the walls of the bluffs nearing the end of a particularly trying trip.  Josh!  Just keep your God damn paddle out of the water!

Being regulars on this section of popular river, we'd come to be friendly with the other families that frequented it.  Smiles and happy greetings were often exchanged as our caravan made it's way to the take-out.  On this trip, I'd somehow forgotten to pack my rain gear, after having been repeatedly reminded to do so.  Dad grumbled a little as he fashioned a makeshift poncho for me from a garbage bag.

Directly following one of our requisite spins, in a narrow section of the river, Carolyn and I were forced by the current into one of the many downed trees on an outside bend.  The canoe came to a sudden and complete halt.  I did not.  I tumbled into a deep pool of frigid spring runoff.  Suddenly finding myself in a bewildering low oxygen environment, I surfaced and immediately attempted to clamp onto Brian's passing canoe.  Being the wise river man that he is, he instinctively paddled away from my flailing attempts at self-rescue, knowing he'd be the next one in the drink if I managed to grab onto his boat. I eventually got my wits about me, and swam up onto the bank.  We caused a quite a backup, the other paddlers waiting patiently for me to get out of the water, and Dad to rescue Carolyn and the hung up canoe.

As I stood there, stripped down to my pre-teen briefs in the chilly rain, the other families paraded by.  Voices called out up and down the river wanting to know who'd gone in.  I was quickly linked to my most identifiable trait that morning -- my garbage bag poncho.  The garbage bag kid went in the water!  The garbage bag kid went in!  I finished the last hours of the trip looking like a half-drowned hobo in my dad's long underwear and my signature garbage bag poncho.  It simply cannot get much more demoralizing than that.  The moniker stuck with me on that river and in the campground we stayed at for seasons to come.

I've flipped boats on that river before and since.  Alone and with a crying girlfriend.  With my brother laughing like a demented hyena. With Steve glaring at me like I did it on purpose.  I came pretty close to real trouble once, my shirt sleeve caught on a strainer until Frisbee arrived to hoist me out of the water, but the precipitous fall from grace of the Garbage Bag Kid remains at the top of the list in re-tellings around campfires and dinner tables to this day.

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