Jay Southard waits just south of mile marker 1313 on the Alaska Highway. It's early June, and the temperature at 8 p.m. is in the 40s, with a raw wind running off the Alaska Range, which rises, iron-colored and veined with snow, in the near distance. Southard is not looking at the mountains, but at the highway running through the center of the town of Tok, keeping an eye out for a red Ford van carrying eight Mexican mushroom pickers. Just because they've been selling him their hauls of morels--450 pounds one day, a little more than 500 the next--doesn't mean they'll sell to him today. If the Weasel got to the Mexicans, Southard might as well pack up and go back home. With several tons of mushroom-drying equipment and $20,000 of setup here in Tok, this is something he really, really does not want to do.
A former Oregon State fullback who raises and trains horses when he's not working the mushroom circuit, Southard appears to have a grip on his anxiety, but just barely. He and the other mushroom wranglers who've come to Tok are betting that the 2005 morel harvest will be the big score, the mother lode, that the elements that cause mushrooms to grow--wildfire, rain, sunlight--will continue to collude. But tonight, it's the human element that threatens to bring the enterprise crashing down. Has the Weasel upped his price per pound? Have the Mexicans turned fickle?
"Maybe they're going on their beer run before they sell," says Southard, as he watches the red van roll by.
Alaska's 2005 morel season actually started in the summer of 2004, when the state experienced its largest recorded wildfires, which burned more than 6.7 million acres, much of it around Fairbanks and Tok. Fairbanks locals wore dust masks for weeks, and a resident of Chicken, 60 miles from Tok and on the fire line, expressed the opinion that "there are two seasons in Alaska, winter and smoke."
What was a trial for humans and wildlife was a treat for mycelia, the underground fungal webs that produce mushrooms. In a process known as mycorrhiza, mycelia form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees and other plants, the fungi receiving sugars and amino acids they need to grow, the roots receiving water and minerals. But morels are clever, as one theory has it, and instead of dying when trees do--in a fire or by insect infestation or other major disturbance--they tap a rush of nutrients from the decomposing roots, and thrive.
Tracking wildfires in order to locate next year's crops is Wild Mushrooming 101. And most species that grow on the West Coast are reliable: Every spring there will be morels from Northern California to British Columbia; chanterelles flourish in the Pacific Northwest's coastal regions in late summer; and come fall in central Oregon there's the matsutake, a mushroom so highly prized by the Japanese that in years past it has sold for $1,200 a pound.
Of course, dependent as it is upon acts of god or accidents of nature, the mushroom trade is extraordinarily risky. Colloquially known as "cash in the woods," it can be quite profitable. In 2004, Alpine Foragers' Exchange, the company Jay Southard buys for, purchased more than 200,000 pounds of chanterelles for as little as $1.50 a pound and sold them for as much as $6.50 a pound. But it can just as easily be ruinous: This year's morel harvest in Oregon was one of the worst on record.
Alaska is the great unknown on the mushroom circuit, having produced them on a commercial scale only once, after fires in 1990 resulted in what are often recalled as "carpets of morels" near Fairbanks and Tok. If this ever happened before, no one had paid much attention, but by the spring of 1991 wild mushrooms had become a culinary essential, and a few prescient buyers made their way to the state. They were amply rewarded. That year, the 98,000-acre Tok River Fire yielded a morel harvest of 300,000 pounds. By comparison, this year's burn is nearly 70 times larger.
"This is huge, this is vast," says Casey Jonquil as he spreads a USDA Forest Service map showing the extent of the fires over the counter of his gourmet kitchen in Portland, Ore. "The wilderness and the distance and the inaccessibility is very daunting, but the good news is, there are roads going right through it." His fingers trace byways near Fairbanks and Tok. "The ground is proven--Tok especially. Tok had a fire 15 years ago, and 14 years ago they kicked ass....This is the same damn ground."
Jonquil, who's been in the wild mushroom business for 16 years and owns the Portland-based purveyor Alpine, started planning his Tok operation in December. "The guy that gets the prime, killer spot can make a big difference in how the buy goes," he explains, adding that he's just gotten back from a week in Alaska, "shaking hands and writing checks." The day before, he sent a barge carrying 3,000 pounds of supplies to Tok, including hundreds of 5-kilo plastic mesh picking baskets, the sort of thing that might cost 99 cents at a Target in the lower 48 but is impossible to secure in quantity in Alaska, and several of what he calls "blue Chinese dryers," large upright boxes in which fans continuously blow warm air across racks of fresh mushrooms, drying them and thus extending their shelf life from days to years.
He's also hoping to move fresh, so he's lined up a refrigerated van to keep the product cool. Fresh morels are more profitable but harder to handle, because they tend to mold and melt. "Morels are like little nuclear materials," says Jonquil. "You get a bunch of them together without refrigeration ... they get this exothermic thing going. I mean, you stick your hand in there and it's hot."
Jonquil's best-case scenario is that he pays no more than $2 a pound, that he buys and dries 4,000 to 6,000 pounds a day, and that at the end of an estimated two-month season he sells $250,000 worth. "Worst case is it rains cats and dogs, and the mushrooms will come in wet and heavy and dirty." He pauses. "Well, that's not the worst. The worst was getting embezzled by a field manager's bookkeeper. Nicked me for about 40 grand, but I got 10 back."
Unpredictable weather and the perils that attend a cash business, and still, Jonquil lives in a pretty swank house.
"Mushrooms have been very, very good to me," he says.
Jay Southard is wearing a dusty Carhartt vest and ignoring a cup of coffee at a cafe in a shopping plaza outside Portland. It's late April, a week before he leaves for Tok, and he's just back from Washington state, where he tried to persuade some pickers he's worked with to make a 2,000-mile detour.
Professional mushroom pickers, known as circuit pickers, are on no one's payroll or schedule. Predominantly Mexican, Laotian and Cambodian, they sell for cash what they pick each day. Many do not maintain permanent residences, but follow the seasonal mushroom trail.
"I suggested that they carpool because of the price of gas. I figured that out for them," he says. "What scares me about this trip is getting my hard-core pickers up there." Southard has been buying mushrooms for Casey Jonquil and others for nearly 20 years, and knows a lot of pickers. He also knows what he doesn't want to see happen in Tok: local yokels manhandling the product.
"Every time you go into a new community like this, ma and pa go out there and they do it wrong," he says. "They pull 'em, they pack 'em in bags, they put 'em in their trunk when it's 80 [degrees] out and they melt down.... It's always the local guy, he knows what he's doing, he's been tipping a few back and there's always an argument. [His mushrooms] are crawling with maggots, they're covered in dirt. 'They're fine,' he says. 'Yeah? Well then, you eat them.' ... It's always that same guy. It's the same guy in every town."
The transient nature of the wild mushroom business ensures that the animosity flows both ways. Pickers pull into town, set up camps or park their RVs, leave trash in the woods and fire guns--if not at each other, then to signal their location, as they often spread out for miles.
Then there's the money. The wild mushroom trade is frequently cited as the largest legal cash transaction in the United States. Southard often carries $100,000 or more in cash, which is why he's licensed to carry a firearm, and does. "If we did this job in the city," he says, "somebody'd gun us down in a heartbeat."
Like most other buyers, Southard is paid on commission for buying and drying the mushrooms. He works only two crops a year, morel and matsutake, but as long as the buy goes well, he does well. "I got 40 acres and two houses; we got a ton of horses. It will put my kids through school," he says. "There's money there if you're in the right spot on the food chain."
Circuit pickers, too, can be well positioned, and in addition to picking mushrooms, many forage wild crops such as bear grass, salal, moss and fronds for florists and seasonal markets.
"You know, we're riff-raff, or we're hobos," says Southard. But "I could take you to a community in Washington where a lot of these Asians live, and they've got their Toyota picking rig parked next to their Jaguar. They're making $100,000 a year."
As point man in Tok for Alpine, Southard will get the infrastructure in place: the phones, the garbage, the Portosan. Then he'll stay through the harvest, ideally through the end of July.
"It burned different. It burned high. There's no [tree] canopy left," he says of the fires around Tok. "It's like the face of the moon up there, is what they're telling me. Should produce."
From a plane landing in Anchorage on Memorial Day, one can see no evidence of forest fires, only glacial lakes the color of mint toothpaste, at the base of mountains that appear not to have changed since the beginning of time.
"People seem to think things are understood better than they are," says Tricia Wurtz, a boreal ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, on the way to the Boundary Fire, as the 600,000 acres that burned near Fairbanks are known. She drives past dead peat mines and active gold mines, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and mile after mile of charred black spruce.
For the last three years, Wurtz has been studying morels--why they grow, where they grow, if they'll grow. Last year she used global positioning satellites to map how many fruited in a one-hectare area, and this summer she hopes to persuade a few pickers to attach small GPS units to their baseball caps.
"This is classic morel habitat," says Wurtz as she slips on an orange safety vest and tromps into the forest. It's not an easy walk, over blackened tree trunks collapsed on spongy tundra, which sometimes gives way to melted permafrost. There is also a low-level hum, which turns out to be mosquitoes, biblical numbers of mosquitoes, so many that Wurtz says the way an Alaskan counts them is by slapping his knee and then counting the corpses.
Seventy-five is her personal best, she says, and then crouches over what she thinks is a promising spot for morels. "This is fire ash on top of a little bit of moss, but mostly the moss has been consumed by fire, and then these needles"--short, dry spruce needles. "This is exactly the place I'd look."
Looking for morels turns out to be a bit like studying an "I Spy" illustration, in which many things that could be what you're looking for are not. Is that a morel? No, it's a spruce cone. That? Moose spoor. That? Mud clump. Wurtz points out tiny orange mushrooms she calls firecups (and others call buttercups or firecaps) that are thought to be a precursor to morels. Though not today; today, Wurtz finds nothing.
The 200-mile drive from Fairbanks to Tok goes past the highway-adjacent town of North Pole, with its 900-pound fiberglass Santa Claus fronting Santaland RV Park; past Delta Junction, "Home of Missile Defense in Alaska"; and, once across the Big Delta Bridge, with its view of the pipeline suspended over the Tanana River, through 100 miles of hills covered with carbonized spruce.
Tok itself, population 1,400, has one main road on whose shoulder little kids trick-ride ATVs, two chain-saw repair shops and a restaurant that stops serving breakfast at 8:30 a.m. In the first week of June, what it has in abundance are handmade signs that say "Mushroom Buyer," maybe half a dozen of them propped up at intersections and in motel parking lots. On the south end of town, next to a long shed-like structure painted with the words FLEA MARKET, Jay Southard has set up the area's most prominent buying station, two tables beneath a plastic canopy. Several of the blue Chinese dryers sit idle. So does Southard.
"It's slow, scary slow," he says.
He and the others here to buy for Alpine--Al Rankin, a wild-meat butcher who's worked the mushroom circuit for 20 years, and Dave, a picker from Oregon who declined to give his full name--bought 450 pounds yesterday, which today are already dried and in cardboard boxes. They're paying $4 a pound, twice as much as Jonquil had anticipated paying, and may have to go higher, as two competitors are paying $5.
A couple pulls up in a Ford Escort, wanting to buy mushrooms. Southard says he does, too.
The men wait. Though it's after 6 p.m., the sun shows no sign of dropping, and the sky in fact will not ever get dark, but from about midnight to 3 it will take on an eggshell-blue wash. This does not mean it doesn't get cold; the previous night it dropped to 28 degrees.
"Let's go inside," says Southard, heading into the building, where the men have set up sleeping tents and other amenities. Rankin fires up an 80,000 BTU torpedo heater, which makes the living area toasty in minutes. The men sit around a long folding table with a centerpiece of a jar of peanut butter, a deck of Iraqi most-wanted playing cards and a book titled "Alaska Bear Tales," which they've been reading aloud to pass the time, including the true story of a man who had a top quadrant of his face torn off by a bear and, as he ran blindly from the scene, "reached up to confirm that it was my eye bouncing on my cheek like a pingpong ball."
The phone rings, and Rankin answers. It's Jonquil, who says he doesn't want to raise the buy price, not if he doesn't have to.
Southard thumbs though the bear book. "Volume will solve every problem," he says.
At 8:25, the red van pulls up. The eight Mexican pickers, in dirty sweatshirts and baseball caps, get out of the van and open its back doors. Inside are baskets full of morels. Linda Garcia and her husband, Jose, the lead pickers, approach the buying table. A guy down the road, they say, is offering $5.50. Rankin says he's paying only $4, and can understand that they have to make their money.
"Fifty cents, I don't care," says Jose, meaning he'll take $5.
Rankin is silent. "I'll do five," he says, deciding it's in Jonquil's best interest to stay in the game.
The pickers begin pulling out baskets, lining them up on the ground, more than 40 of them, each filled with 10 pounds of morels. The air takes on the smell of wet dirt and something funkier, vaguely post-coital. Southard weighs morels and works a calculator; Dave transports the baskets to the dryers. Linda watches Rankin give the first picker his cash, more than $400 in hundreds and twenties.
"A lot of walking today," she says.
"More than 10 hours," says Jose. "We walk three or four or five miles in."
"A lot of babies out there?" Rankin asks.
"Oh, yeah," says Jose. "Lot of grays, too," he adds, meaning gray morels, which can fetch a higher retail price.
Linda says she and Jose have been on the mushroom circuit since 1995; their youngest son picks with them now, too. They work 10 months a year, and have no home base. "We do all right," she says.
Southard weighs the last picker's haul, 114 pounds. Rankin hands him $570. Altogether, the Mexicans have brought in 508 pounds. They pile into the van, and then, apparently as an afterthought, Jose walks back and hands Southard a piece of yellow paper. It's a note from another buyer, stating that he'll give Jose a $1,500 bonus tomorrow if he'll sell to him.
"But this guy, another time, he said he give us $15 [a pound] and give us $7," Jose says.
Rankin and Southard agree: The guy can't be trusted. Jose mentions something about more pickers, relatives, flying into Fairbanks. Southard says he'll be happy to pick them up.
"You guys are doing a really good job," he says.
The red van takes off and a station wagon pulls in. It's after 9 p.m., and the driver says he's thinking about going out mushrooming.
"I got a bunch of kids here," he says, pointing at five boys who look to be between 7 and 12, eating corn chips and playing with the radio. "I was here in 1991. We laid them out on blue tarps and hauled them in."
Southard says there aren't that many right by the side of the road, and that it might be a little late to take the kids that far into the woods.
There are no limits on how many morels one can pick--and there are. Anticipating an avalanche of pickers and buyers this year, the state of Alaska and the Bureau of Land Management laid down some rules: Picking morels on public lands is allowed, up to 10 gallons per person per day for personal use. Permits are required for any overages, with a minimum permit of $50. Pickers are expected to abide by the honor system and pay more if they exceed their limit. A state of Alaska business license is required for anyone engaged in commercial activity, though different rules may apply to state park, tribal and native corporation land.
"I think people just assumed it was gonna be like it was in '91, and they were really shocked when they found the state was taking the lead in trying to make mushroom picking a state economic situation," says Will Rutherford. "Why should the state make anything? Is the state going to provide any compliance for these rules and regulations?"
Rutherford and Alex Sinyon share one side of a booth at a Tok diner, drinking coffee and smoking. They make up the bulk of Tetlin Native Corp. ("We have two board members," says Rutherford, "but we don't know where they're at most of the time"), which controls 100,000 acres of privately held tribal land, some of which was immolated during last summer's fires and is accessible from the Taylor Highway. Sinyon, a full-blood Athabascan, is not so sure he wants morel pickers on that land.
"What if they get mauled by a bear?" he asks, adding that this afternoon he and Rutherford will be posting No Trespassing signs. "We don't have liability insurance."
"We're in the interior of Alaska, where the best policy is no policy," says Rutherford. "People hate government up here. They hate restrictions."
Back in 1991, Rutherford wound up at the center of the morel boom. He'd just started working with the Tetlin Native Corp. when he received a call from a mushroom buyer out of Oregon, who told Rutherford to phone him the minute he saw the first morel come up.
"Nobody up here knew anything about mushrooms, or morels, or what the potential of morels was for a cash crop," he says. "I was doubtful whether I even knew what I was looking for."
But with a buyer in place, Rutherford and several others set up a buy-and-dry: a shack and some plastic sheeting on which to sun-dry the crop. They paid pickers $2 a pound, and bought 200,000 pounds over the next two months.
"Everybody in the community picked," says Rutherford. "Some of them [quit their jobs] because it was so lucrative out there. I know a family that, between a mother and a father and kids, made as much as $15,000."
Rutherford thinks this season will be just as successful. "But it worries me that there are so many buyers, and what that'll do to the pricing," he says. "If they don't make money up here because they get into a pricing war, maybe they don't come back again."
Vuth Ouk says he doesn't know what the building he's renting used to be, but judging from the engine blocks, motorcycles and boat motors tossed to one side of the warehouse, a machine shop is a good guess. Ouk, who lives in Oregon, has been in Tok since mid-May, buying for a distributor in Canada.
"Everybody sell to me, I buy it, but I tell you, this business, you have to kiss [up] to people and plug the ears," he says. "It's not easy to make money. It's the first time I am on this ground; I give it 60% to 70% chance to grow. I cannot give my word to my pickers. I might make money, but maybe I don't."
Ouk's picking crew, Cambodian like himself, has set up camp next to the junkyard. Two women squat over a camp stove, making sticky rice and roasting a chicken.
"The pickers, they don't make much money, but they can't find a job better than this," says Ouk. "They don't go to high school or college, so the most they can make is $7 an hour, and after taxes, you can't make it, you can't support three kids. You know what rent is like in Oregon. This, they can make $80, $100 a day, they can bring over their families. They can make it."
Ouk says he's already put six grand into the Tok operation--and made only $70. "And I have to pay toilet $6 a day, I pay for garbage," he says, indicating the Portosan and a city dumpster. "I just sit here and lose money right now. I need 1,000 pounds. I drive 200 miles today, looking for burn. I don't see any. I talk to locals before, they say May 25. We've passed that, I see no action."
Vongdeuan Vongmany, from California's Central Valley, says he saw some action two days ago.
"I picked two baskets, I heard some noise--kup kup--I look to the back and saw a 500-pound bear--black bear!" he says. He crouches and waves as he explains how not one but five bears surrounded him. "I took a stick, and I say, 'Come on!' And the big guy follows me--and stopped. Then I ran uphill. I stay there one hour. I go back, and I saw they turned my bucket upside-down. He jumped on my mushrooms."
As for the price war heating up in Tok, Ouk says he's paying $5 now, and will consider working with Jonquil to keep a lid on things.
"I work with Casey Jonquil before, but last year, he say he buy 1,000 pounds from me and we pick and then, he don't buy," he shouts. "I tell him, now what I do with 1,000 pounds? I not a buyer! I can't eat this many! So I work with him but not as much, because I can't trust him."
For his part, Jonquil says he likes and trusts Ouk, but there have been "communication problems in the past."
There's a new sign posted on the Taylor Highway, a big one warning mushroom pickers about the bear bait sites, a state-sponsored program to capture and thus thin out Alaska's bear population. Picking mushrooms when there are not merely bears known to be in the area but food stations set up specifically to attract them adds a certain something to the experience, something that goes like: Scan ground for morels, scan perimeter for bears. Scan ground, scan perimeter. Scan perimeter.
There are more morels today: golds poking out of the tundra; grays on one nearly treeless patch where the fire burned hot; conicas everywhere else. And yet the buy barely nudges up. Besides the Mexicans, who bring in 550 pounds, Southard has only two other sellers.
At 7 p.m. an old man in a crusty flannel shirt stops by and asks for any special instructions. Southard tells him, same as he told him last time: Don't crush them. Not too much dirt.
"Do I have to stand them upright?" asks the man.
"No, you can just use a 5-gallon bucket," Southard says.
"And what can't I put on them?"
Southard audibly exhales. "Well, you don't want to put sand on them or salt the load or anything."
"And I won't pee on them," says the man, smiling. "That's what we used to do when we picked cotton--we'd pee in the bag before they weighed it, so it weighed more."
A few minutes later, two Laotian pickers pull in. Even before their pickup stops, the woman is hanging out the window. "How much you pay?"
"Four-fifty," says Southard. He knows Ouk has come down, and is paying $4.50 today.
"Five dollars," the woman counters.
Southard inspects what they've got, weighs it and, as he hands her $147, asks, "Do you have a permit?"
The woman just laughs.
Anyone traveling from Tok to the burn passes the Great Alaska Mushroom Co., situated in an open hangar under a really big sign.
Rick Bernhardt says he's the first Alaskan to own a mushroom company, or so he was told when he got his business license earlier this year. Raised in Tok, he was here in 1991 and "saw the community not benefit as fully as it could have."
Bernhardt says he did "extensive research" on the morel, and that local support has been tremendous. "If we got one call we got a thousand from locals saying, 'When we pick, we'll bring them to you,' " he says, though his role as civic booster is somewhat offset by the fact that he has professional pickers flying in. "We got two teams of 15--a Korean bunch, and another out of Oregon and Washington."
Asked what he plans to pay per pound, Bernhardt hesitates. "Three dollars a pound," he says. "But if there's a big boom, we could go $4 or $5 a pound." Asked whether the price will go down if the market becomes glutted, Bernhardt pauses. "And we'll pay more if they bring in really big mushrooms."
He says he's set up to move fresh--there's a refrigerated truck out back--and to dry up to 6,000 pounds a day, though he has no drying ovens. "Most buyers want their mushrooms dried naturally," he explains, so he plans to air-dry them, which he thinks will take 24 hours, and which is a little like hoping that if one leaves a pan of cake batter on the windowsill for a day, it will bake.
"It's my intention to keep this as an annual thing," he says, as a mosquito the size of a silver dollar crawls on a lens of his aviator-style glasses. "We have everything in place."
Though whether he does or doesn't remains to be seen, as every evening this week, when the pickers drive back in with their loads, the Great Alaska Mushroom Co. is closed.
Casey Jonquil and his wife arrive just as the Mexican pickers are selling the day's haul, 500 pounds. Linda Garcia asks Southard who that man is. He tells her, the owner.
"Ohhh," she says. "The man with the money."
"Can we have some cold beer and soda tomorrow?" asks Jose, one foot already in the van.
"Sure, I'll have it for you," Rankin says.
Jonquil runs his hands over the morels. He's concerned about the bits of white fluff from birch seed pods, less concerned about several slender white maggots.
"If you heat the morels slow enough," he says, "they'll crawl out."
Jonquil is hoping to do a good business in fresh morels, which should get to market within 48 hours of being picked, which means they must be driven to Anchorage, where there are direct flights to Portland. But before any of this happens, there has to be enough product to make the rush profitable. So far, there isn't, so Alpine is drying almost all the morels instead.
Jonquil says the stories about dried mushrooms being worth $200 a pound are fantasy. "If you go to Whole Foods and you get their little half-ounce bags and you do the math, yeah ... but that's not what goes to the source."
He hopes to get $65 to $75 a pound for dried. The ratio of wet to dry is about 8 to 1, though if the mushrooms are very wet when they come in it can shrink to 13 to 1, which means he'll take a bath. The final price also depends on global markets.
"It's a real moving target," says Jonquil. "We have to see what happens in China and India and Pakistan and Turkey--though we know Turkey did not have a good season. China just keeps getting better and better at what they do every year, and in India and Pakistan they dry the morels over dung fires--which I like, they taste great, kind of with a bacony flavor--but Europe doesn't want them smoked like that anymore."
Back in Portland, the dried morels will be sorted, conicas and grays and jumbos, and two additional grades that go to Europe, extras, which have stems, and specials, which are stemless and bring a higher price.
"And of course, the pickers pick them with stems, because they weigh more," Jonquil says. Other weight-gain methods include a "river-dip," and stuffing each morel with a BB or a pebble.
Buyers, too, have their tricks, from the egregious--a sponge placed beneath the scale so it weighs light--to the plebeian, such as big-screen TVs, loud music and women in low-cut tops at the buying stations to distract the pickers.
Then there are those buyers who raise the price per pound unconscionably, until other buyers can't or won't meet it and fold, whereupon the high-price buyer drops his price. One such buyer, well known to the Alpine crew, is a man they call the Weasel.
"He's known to run down cars in the road and pull people's mushroom haul out and start weighing," Rankin says.
He also drove into town today, and is rumored to be paying $6 a pound.
"Whether someone thinks something is edible or delicious is really not an absolute," says Sveta Yamin, a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who is writing her dissertation on how the natives on both sides of the Bering Strait use their sustainable resources.
"I'm focusing my project on mushroom picking, because right now it's probably one of the most striking differences," says Yamin, a native of Belarus who wears her gold hair in dreadlocks. "On the Russian side, mushrooms are really an integral and important part of subsistence, and in Alaska, they're not perceived as food, so far.... They use fungi historically as mosquito repellent."
Yamin is in Tok to gauge the impact of a series of well-attended community extension classes sponsored by the university that taught the local population about the morel and its potential as a cash crop.
"I would say there is mild curiosity," she says as she drives down a dirt road off the Alaska Highway, heading toward the Athabascan community of Tanacross. "If word gets out and this gets big and everybody is capitalizing on that, maybe it will be worthwhile to drop everything and do it, but people really have their own way of doing things.... They go to their fish camps, they are involved in other subsistence activities, and a lot of people raise cash through arts and crafts and souvenir sales. So I really cannot say at what point they might do this."
Yamin walks through the center of Tanacross, a small village made up of a school, a combination clinic/tribal office and several dozen small wooden houses, most with a sled dog chained in the yard.
"Hey," calls a young man through a screen door. "You just looking around?"
Yamin asks if he attended any of the classes put on by the Cooperative Extension Service.
"The what?" he asks, as behind him four more young men emerge, holding DVDs and cans of beer, and all asking Yamin questions at once: Does she like Tanacross? Will she meet them later at a bar in Tok? Can one young man, who wears disturbingly blue contact lenses, touch her hair? Yamin obligingly tilts her head.
Asked whether they will pick morels, the men say no. They've all got jobs building federally funded houses here in Tanacross, the materials for which are staged around the village, including at its north end, across from a small graveyard, where instead of headstones there are coffin-sized houses, brightly painted and decorated with flags and flowers and teddy bears.
Nearby, a young woman pushes a child's bike. Will she pick morels this year?
"Oh no. They do that in Tok," says the woman, as if Tok were a faraway big city and not 13 miles down the highway. Yamin asks if she thinks anyone from Tanacross will pick.
"Not really," says the woman, and wrinkles her nose. "We don't eat them."
By the end of the week, the price per pound is up to $7, and though Southard has told the Mexican pickers he'll get them pillows and blankets, he'll get them pack frames, he still has no assurances that they'll sell to him. And he's got a bigger problem: The Weasel is offering $7.50 a pound.
"He drove into Vuth's camp and told all his pickers this," says Southard, sounding disgusted.
"He's looking for the Mexicans, too, but he can't find them," says Dave. "If he does, we're over. Time to go home."
Jonquil takes the crew to breakfast before he leaves town. They discuss what they'll do if the Weasel (who politely declined to be interviewed for this story) keeps paying more than anyone else.
"I don't want to get into a pissing match with this guy," says Jonquil. "But if we have to, we'll pay."
Talk turns to what sort of ceiling to impose if, say, the Weasel offers $30 a pound.
"And he'll do it," says Southard. "I've never seen him back down."
"And he'll tell the pickers we've been cheating them all along," Rankin says.
"This is the dark side of this business," says Jonquil. "It's the Wild West in the woods."
More troubles: Two buyers whom Jonquil describes as "just as reviled" as the Weasel are expected to hit town today.
"It's too aggressive and dirty and out of control," he says, as his wife puts their rental car keys on the table. Time to get out of Dodge.
The Mexicans have taken Sunday off. Southard is outside anyway, and a little before midnight, three guys in their early 20s show up. They're locals, streaked with mud from hair to shoes--but their morels are clean. Rankin weighs as Southard asks the guys where they picked. They tell him up on Native lands.
"You're really not supposed to be picking up there," says Southard.
"We meet an Indian in the woods, what's he gonna do?" says one guy, who has a screaming ghoul tattooed on his forearm. "How much we got so far?"
"Seven pounds," says Rankin, and tells them to cut the stems. They immediately start to trim the other 49 pounds they've brought in, and when Rankin hands them $395, they stomp their feet and whoop and pledge that they'll be back tomorrow.
As of press time, the morel market in Tok had stabilized. The buyers for Alpine Foragers' Exchange were again paying $4 per pound, down from a high of $8. On one day they purchased 2,000 pounds, their biggest haul yet, though they were still hoping to buy four times as much at half the price.