Photos and Story by Ben Giesbrecht
I believe everyone should experience the full potential of their home country. I pride myself on the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to explore a large portion of Canada, but there’s still a long list of remote locations I have yet to check off. When I heard that a group of my friends were planning a trip to the Northwest Territories to scour a burnt forest in search of a rare, sought-after mushroom, I couldn’t resist joining them.
Vancouver to Yellowknife is around 1,500 miles—a full 24 hours of driving. About half of that is in a completely straight line through a featureless landscape. With a combination of podcasts, questionable gas station snacks, and gallons upon gallons of coffee, we made it up there no problem.
Morel mushrooms are a rare fungi that grow in a short window sometime between May and June the season after a large forest fire. This season was predicted to be one of the largest of all time; with over 100 kilometers of highway-accessible burn, pickers guessed that only 5% of the mushrooms would be harvested. It was being called the modern-day gold rush.
Naturally, we showed up about two weeks late expecting to be swimming in mushrooms right off the bat. Our friend Andy had already set up camp and a fully functioning buying station with a drying trailer and dozens of makeshift racks. What we learned was that it hadn’t rained in weeks and the shrooms were struggling. Our friends had spent the last few weeks building forts and frisbee golf courses and kitchens, fishing, drinking beer, and bathing in swampy water—all the things you could possibly think of doing in the middle of the wilderness for two weeks.
After researching previous harvests, we were told to expect to walk away with $10,000 after a few weeks of intense picking. Our hopes were high, but we quickly had to make new goals. On our first day out, we picked only four pounds each, at $8 a pound. It was going to be a long month. Some of the more experienced pickers were bringing in 20-40 pounds a day, but they definitely hustled for it.
It was an amazing experience to be up there during the solstice. At one point, the sun took over the sky for all 24 hours of the day. It took a bit to get used to, but I learned to love it by the end. The horse flies, mosquitos, and black flies were something that you never really adapted to, just accepted the torment they bestowed on you.
Much like the gold rush, many people flocked from around the continent and invested everything they had into the experience, only to walk out disappointed, dirty, and defeated. We even met a group from the UK who had quit their jobs in hopes of basking in mushroom glory. Overall the experience was amazing—spending time with some of my closest friends and meeting new ones under some very unique circumstances. In the end, we made enough to pay for our gas, beer, and food. To me, that’s the definition of a successful trip.