Slivers of Orange

Matt McAllister
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It was late August. Morel season was over, and I had the farmers market to supply next weekend. My lobster and chanterelle areas on BC's South Coast were still parched, and not worth considering. I had, however, been watching thundershowers develop over the Kootenay region. It was foreign ground to me at the time, but I had a friend who picked out that way. I asked if he had any advice on finding good ground there. He gave me one better; a semi-coherent string of verbal directions to the best lobster patch he knew.

     "Take this turnoff. You'll see two old roads- park on the second one and hide your vehicle. Cross the road and walk through a little meadow and down a hill towards the lake. Before you get too far you see lobsters, but the best ones are down further."

     I tried to remember it all until I could write it down. "Oh, and don't tell Irwin I told you. He picks that patch, but I don't mind giving it to you. Say you just found it if you run into him."

     And that was it. I promised not to tell Irwin about the tip-off, and set off driving that night, ready for a mushroom bonanza at first light the next day. You have to hope.

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First light came, and just in time to look for landmarks- I was nearly there. But which turnoff was it again? There were more than two old roads. There was no sign of a meadow. Did he mean a clear cut? There was a swamp...did he mean a swamp? Or maybe I was a couple kilometers off, and the right area was down the road. It all seemed so straightforward before I got here!

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In any event, the day would not wait on my indecision. I parked on what may or may not have been the right old road. I gathered a pack and a few buckets together. The air was sweet like only the mountains can be, and there was minimal dew on the undergrowth. That's good news for dry pants. Red and blue huckleberries were hanging ripe everywhere.

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I walked into the bush and looked everywhere all day long, finding nothing and leaving with a sense of utter defeat.

Just kidding. That happens sometimes, but not this time.

     There was a lobster! Mostly buried, spying my approach. Invisible but for a sliver of orange. Upon patting the ground for its secrets in Braille, I found more. Cutting, brushing, and trimming, I worked my way up the little hill filling half a bucket. Then the terrain changed and there were no more mushrooms. I walked towards the lake and found one or two, but not many. I concluded that this was not the patch I was looking for.

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I returned to the car and drove a little, looking for that same list of landmarks. I was somewhat more confidant that even if I did not find the exact patch, I could probably find a patch of some sort. Parking at another candidate road, I slipped into the hemlocks and firs. Almost immediately I glimpsed the bright orange of a lobster- fully exposed, robust and brilliant, thoughtlessly flaunting its splendor. That was its mistake. I flourished my Opinel and made short work of it. Frying pans are the grim fate of such a show-off as this.

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Ask any mushroom picker about the frenzied elation of a "honey hole." It can be likened to the experience of a weasel inside a chicken coup.

     "Some over here, but more over there- maybe this one first- oh no no, that one! Quickly!" I was scampering from patch to patch, fully immersed, forgetting all but my quarry. The lobsters were dense and absolutely perfect. Even a few white chanterelles could be found. The only remaining challenge was to stay ahead of a gathering mosquito cloud, which had found its own honey hole that day... me.

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The sun slipped lower, the forest's shadows thickened, and my pack was more or less loaded to capacity. It was then that I made a mistake universal amongst all venturers, across all time.

     "Seems to me, heading this way will be a nice shortcut back to the road." Such a simple folly. It led me up along the rim of a ravine in a promising direction. I was making good time in the relatively open forest. In fact, there seemed to be a path forming before me. Just for me? A dog barked.

     I tensed and swiveled my head side to side. Off to the right, a forager's dread; a residence. You have a high likelihood of not being taken kindly to when you stumble out of the forest into somebody's yard. I knew this. The dog knew this. It was time to move.

     I veered left over the bank, and down towards the creek. It was less stepping and more trying to remain vertical while sliding. You could call it dirt skiing. Gravity was friendly on the way down, but it changed its mind when I reached the bottom, attempting to ascend the opposite bank. Loaded with lobsters I strained against it, and every step came with a gasp or grunt. The dog barked menacing as ever. Adrenaline coursed. Slowly, my pack and I crested the rim and plunged on into thicker undergrowth. My pace slowed, I caught my breath, and I caught sight of that sweet, sweet road. It felt like a finish line. I had made it.

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I've always liked the reminiscing in sorting mushrooms. The hard part done, admiring and the spoils feels well earned.

     I recalled the picking of a few exceptional mushrooms as I placed them into their baskets.

     "Hello, you were hard to spot weren't you. You are the most massive one of the day! Oh you were beside that wasp nest I didn't see..." I shuddered. I continued to converse casually with my mushrooms. Eventually finishing, I stood and stretched my back.

     The vehicle loaded up fairly quickly as evening crept in from the East. I set off driving with the windows cracked open for the mushrooms. A little cool airflow would help them not to heat themselves up and begin composting.

      I had once sympathized with Russula brevipes, the mushroom that plays host to parasitic Hypomyces lactifluorum, creating lobster mushrooms. It is a morbid relationship, and I imagined the carnage if Hypomcyes crossed over to humans and lobsterified us. I looked to the back of my vehicle- stuffed with spore emitting mushrooms, windows cracked, billowing its spawn across miles of highway as I drove. It was a chilling realization that maybe lobsterification was a more subtle and genius outcome than my corny sci-fi imagination could conjur. Maybe the process was already complete, and these dastardly lobsters had us exactly where they wanted us. I would say that I enjoyed picking mushrooms, I would say I go out and come home at will. But... at who's will, exactly?