Morels to spring up soon on the Kenai Peninsula, in second season after wildfire burn

Two small brown mushrooms next to a knife
Morels in the Swan Lake Fire burn area. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

It was morel mushroom mania on the Kenai Peninsula last summer.

The 2019 Swan Lake fire left behind perfect conditions for the brown-capped mushrooms to grow, including in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which saw a large portion of the burn.

And while the second year after a burn is never as good as the first, morel-wise, there’s still hope for mushroom hunters this summer.

Kate Mohatt, an ecologist for the Chugach National Forest, said the biggest factor determining whether it will be a good morel season is whether there’s enough moisture for mushrooms to fruit.

Listen to KDLL’s Sabine Poux’s interview with Kate Mohatt here:

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kate Mohatt: For the Swan Lake Fire burn, that burn occurred in 2019. Typically, burn morels fruit with the highest abundance one year after fires. So, this would be the second year after fire, so it’s questionable what that sort of abundance will be like for this year.

Because the ground is likely pretty wet down there — we had a good snow year — that bodes well for moisture, and probably gonna find some anyway.

The other kind of interesting thing about what we found out last year when we had kind of a citizen science campaign through iNaturalist, where people on the Peninsula in the burn area and outside the burn area collected or uploaded their morel observations — there were quite a few morels that were found outside the burn area, as well.

Sabine Poux: When should folks start looking? Are you are you going to start looking for mushrooms anytime soon?

KM: I would think it’s getting pretty close. Typically, late May is when things start really popping on the Kenai Peninsula. And then, of course, the tricky part is getting them when everything’s still kind of wet, because they stopped fruiting when the ground dries out. But if you go too soon, they’re really small and even harder than they normally are to find.

SP: Last year seemed really fruitful. Did you collect a lot of morels, and what did you do with them?

KM: Yeah, I collected maybe just a couple days. I don’t enjoy eating them too much. I’m one of those people whose fairly sensitive to them. But something I tried new this year with preserving them was to put them on the smoker.

I let them sit for a couple of days, like on a screen or sheet so that there’s airflow and they don’t mold — morels mold really fast if you let them sit in a bag for too long. So keep that airflow, let them kind of air dry for a couple of days, and then have them on the smoker for three to five hours. Then I finished them in a dehydrator, to make sure you get all the moisture out of them. And that was outrageously good.

SP: What are some of the things people should be careful about when they’re going out and looking for morels?

KM: Bears. The first time I went morel hunting on the refuge, like 15 or so years ago, there was a woman coming out of the forest that had just been attacked. It happens periodically, because in the spring, the brown bears are hungry and mushroom hunters tend to be pretty quiet and looking at the ground not looking up. It happens.

Also, anytime you’re in a burned area especially, you got to look for overhead hazards, pits. It’s not a very fun habitat to hunt mushrooms in. Do not wear your favorite pants.

SP: And wear bear bells.

KM: And wear bear bells, and bear spray.

The other thing it’s really easy to do, especially on the Kenai, is it’s really easy to get lost. So having your iPhone tracking your location or GPS. Especially if you get a long flat expanse, you can get turned around pretty easily out there when you’re fixated on looking for mushrooms on the ground.

SP: Any places in particular in the burn area that you think would be good, a good place to start, at least at this point in the season?

KM: Anywhere you can access it.

The burn had a lot of kind of spotty areas where there wasn’t a complete burn. There’s a lot of blowdown, and I think people were having some luck finding morels in there. But my advice would be to get to a section of burned conifer or broadleaf or mix, and to an area where he can walk for a good distance so that you’re able to cover a lot of ground and hit a variety of aspects. If you’re not finding them on one aspect, it’s helpful to start looking in a different one.

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