it's one A.M and I'm heading south, heading home for the last reason I would ever want. I can see the red glow of a sunset directly north of me, while in the southern sky the moon shines, full, in a clear yet seemingly starless sky. looking prominently on the horizon is a mountain peak, with just the right combination of purples and blue, curve and cliffs to be straight out of Tolkien. How far south would I have to go to see a star? I wonder to myself. It could just be my imagination, but this single hour on the road has already brought me to lands where the sky is a shade darker... Would it be possible to drive south fast enough to see a star before the sun comes up? I don't know.
Have you ever found yourself in a moment that just seemed so perfect that you had to do something to record it, to preserve your memory of it before it fades away into just another forgotten day in the past? Sitting on the banks of a backwater in along the Dease River the night before last seems just such a moment, a scene worth sharing, if possible.
For the last several days I've been picking mushrooms, morels to be exact. It's my last weeks of freedom (backbreaking and crushing freedom!) before I start doing what I love in Bella Coola for the rest of the summer, followed by school, followed by work, and you see the pattern. I started by driving to northern Alberta, to the not entirely accurately named Zama City, where a large fire had attracted us mushroom pickers like, well, like some analogy that paints a nicer picture of both pickers and mushrooms than the phrase "flies to shit."
We all looked a little out of place, and by the end of the first day, I felt out of place as well. Zama is oil patch. Upon arrival I drove my little car past a few hundred new, large, pickups parked in front of a $200 a night hotel that sold showers to the pickers at ten bucks a pop. A ways up the road was a public campground filled with subarus, jettas, colourful clothing, tents, and inviting campfires - mushroom pickers the lot of them. It seemed roughly half the pickers were from Quebec, with the other half being from northern BC, only a small handful of locals.
As I said it was oil patch. Until I started hiking I had no idea of what this meant. The day I arrived the oil company had closed all the gates it could cutting off access to the fires. A week or so before that a pipeline had started leaking, apparently in or close to the burn, and spilled over nine million litres of "produced water" - essentially salt water with a slurry of oil and other chemicals mixed in - over half a square km of already saturated muskeg. All roads to that side of the fire were blocked as news of the spill was being kept largely under wraps. When I did find an access into the burn, I was confronted by cut lines criss-crossing the landscape left and right, water everywhere, none of which was safe to drink, no wildlife, and precious few mushrooms. The buyers were handing out leaflets on how to deal with H2S gas, nasty stuff that can pool in low lying areas and is highly dangerous. My first day out picking I smelled it twice.
Two days of this was enough for me, so I visited my way back south, then back north to Watson Lake, and south to the Boya Lake fire just in time to meet up with Tyler, Sierra and Gino and start picking, catching a scow up the river just after six in the morning, us and a father/son team hitchhiking north to prospect for the summer.
This fire is everything I look for in a fire - not enough water, tough access, and lots of mushrooms. We hit the burn, see mushrooms, and started picking - stooping, bending, hunkering, or squatting, we work twisted disorganized lines through clump after clump, scribing circles around ourselves and each other as we cut, pick, move, trying to streamline the slash of our blades and minimize the number of times we stand and stoop, even as we try to push faster between clumps. I try not to let my mind wander, knowing that if I lose focus my pace will slow. The mushrooms are small, but they are legion, and after six hours of up and down we have more than enough pails to make the hike back to where the boat is already waiting for us feel much longer than its actual forty minutes.
As we pick we meet other pickers; a group of young guys up there slashing trails for the west-coast wild foods buyer Billy, an old couple up from Kitwanga, several dogs, and a couple couples from Watson lake - carrying rifles on slings as they fill their pails.
We reach camp, feast like gods, and are asleep by midnight, since after all we do have to get up at 5 to catch the boat...
The boat is late. The driver Sydney is an older guy with a pirate demeanour whose face betrays (or just outright states) an amazing sense of grouch, with glimmers of humour popping through from time to time. He's been up till 3 waiting for a picker who never showed, and it shows when I go over to wake him up at eight. He's also heard of a much shorter route than the two hours up and one hour down that we took last night. While we sleep by our fire, he scouts out the new put in point, then we go up to the new access road and wait for him to come up, watching boat after boat head across to the fire. With the exception of us and the buyers, everyone there seems to be native, almost all of them from Watson Lake. There's a father / son team, both of them looking quite Johnny Cash. There's an extended family loaded into a little aluminum boat, grandpa down to a four-year-old boy who doesn't like his life-jacket. Finally our pirate captain arrives, but it's almost four by the time we start picking, pushing hard up and in, then racing each other for ever mushroom, every pail, pushing ourselves and our backs in an endurance race that doesn't end until we have to take our mushrooms to the waiting boat. We load up almost the same weight of mushrooms today as we did the previous day, but in far less time. Either the mushrooms are bigger, or we've gotten faster - most likely both.
Now I'm getting to THE SCENE, the "I wish I had a camera" moment. I'd like to reorder the narrative, to tell the next day first, then put the scene at the end of that day, but that's not how it was.
We arrive, load our mushrooms onto the boat. People are setting up camps along the trail into where our boat is, and there are a couple little girls playing at the top of the trail, going up and down, playing with a little husky pup who find mushrooms, our mushrooms, both fascinating and tasty. There's a big cottonwood standing by the shore, and our driver's brother is relaxing at it's base. We sit down to wait for Sydney (who's gone picking as well), then out of a small tent structure at the back of another boat crawls Billy, the other buyer. He looks like he's been beat with a stick, and tells me that there's no messages for me (relating to the reason I'm heading south now), and we discuss the state of the fire.
Gino and Sierra decide that they're too destroyed for a night pick, but my curiosity has gotten the better of me so at nine, I head up the hill once more, meeting group after group coming out; young guys packing a couple baskets, the family from the boat trailing out behind a quad carrying mushrooms, an old lady working slowly with a cane, and the couples from the day before They're all heading out to sell as I head in to pick. In two days of picking we have yet to leave the lowest ledge, so I cut a beeline for the top of burn, tracking my direction on the GPS as the daylight dims slightly. The ground is beautiful - big poplar, big spruce, moose and elk sign all over, and mushrooms, not just sign but there in person, surrounding trees here in there with large circles of Two hours of hard going I have another pail and head down, hoping to get to bed by midnight.
Now for the scene. I know that we're camped (and moored) well beyond the end of the cut quad trail, but as I push on through the trail it never seems to end. Then I burst out onto a patch of parked Argos and quads, surrounded by tents and tarps, and realize that in the last hour the trail has been pushed forward a few hundred yards, and everyone has arrived to sell. I drop down onto the little patch of shore shelted below the cottonwoods on the banks, and find a place to sit down just up the bank towards the back of the line.
It's midnight. The full moon is shining through the cloud cover, lighting the resting clumps of pickers and assorted family members. Although it's midnight, the longest day of the year is tomorrow, and at this latitude it's still not dark enough to see any stars. It is dark enough to draw attention to the warm glow of cigarettes here and there among the perhaps forty people resting, chatting, and doing a little low-energy milling on the bank. My eyes track a line through the clumps over to a fire around which several guys are standing, some with cans of cokes, others with beer. The husky pup is lying just past my feet, his legs kicking as he dreams. The water is smooth, the beaver having left the area. They then track back to the centre of attention, Billy.
He's crouched, trapped, a victim of his own success in the midst of the as much of a storm of activity a crowd of exhausted pickers can muster at midnight. On an upturned basket in front of him his scales cast a faint green glow, but the batteries are dying as he tries to set tare on the last basketfuls of the day. He's calling around trying to find someone to take the boat down the river to start ferrying pickers back to their camps. Mushrooms are stacked five or six baskets deep all around him, yet he looks so shaky on his feet, and the baskets are so precariously stacked, that I'm sure he'll topple over one way or another, sending mushrooms flying everywhere. He doesn't have to, however, as a little girl runs by and knocks a basket off. He grabs it, sits it back on the pile. It slides off and he grabs for it again, sits it back in the same spot, with the same result. Someone else grabs it and puts it on the ground.
The buyer finishes weighing out a man's mushrooms, reaches into a charcoal coated backpack filled with stacks and counts out three bills off a stack of hundreds. "Oh, your wife beat you bad!" a guy teases, and the crowd laughs quietly. "Nah, I was taking care of the kids all day," he replies, picking up a little boy. "Not bad take for baby sitting." The banter continues.
The fire flares up, and it's my turn. I pass over my pail, and look around. Some I know, some I don't know, but many I will know soon. I realize that this crowd is why I love doing this. The shared camaraderie of exhaustion, the joy of watching someone get a big payout, and the sense of living just off the edge of the map, not just geographically, it all comes together for me right now.
For this to be a perfect story, my friends and I would have showed up at this scene with a few hundred pounds of mushrooms, but we didn't. After three days of working towards it, building up a shared language of inside jokes and references, Gino, Sierra and Myself made a push for summit the third day, achieved the double crown, picking twenty six baskets, and hobbling away from the buyer with our biggest take ever, and the desire, if not the ability, to show some spring in our steps. Still, for me, the culmination of the week was the night before on the beech. So maybe this isn't really a story at all, and just an attempt to convey a memory, a feeling, along with the sense of belonging, safety, community, excitement, openness, laughter and exhaustion that accompany it. Either way, I'm going to sleep now, and I'll sleep contented.