In the 12 years or so we’ve been heading west, there’s always been a profound contrast between Montpelier and Missoula, particularly temperature-wise, with Montana often approaching triple digits while Vermont remained moderate: sunny, balmy afternoons and cool evenings. What we’d never seen out here before was any significant rain. Dawn to dusk rain was impossible to remember — it just didn’t happen. But apparently, like everything else the past year, we discovered Big Sky Country could deliver far more than the usual ambient sunshine, jarring us with its own dismal array of weather most foul.
The irony, of course, is that while we were enveloped by a winter-like weather system parked above us for several days, with temps in the mid-30s and a windy, rain-snow mix, Vermont enjoyed an unusual dose of record-breaking sunshine and warmth, topping out in the 90s for several days running. Flipping the climactic switch left me wondering why I’d packed so many shorts and T-shirts and so few things made of wool or stuffed with down. This trip felt like it was shaping up as something that could turn out pretty weird.
Watching wet snowflakes splatting on the windshield, wearing most of what clothes we’d brought, we dodge in and out of thrift shops, discussing the merits of old Dave Brubeck LPs; faded color photographs of the Rockies; and an assortment of ancient farm equipment, dusty costume jewelry and overpriced western art; all the while waiting on the elusive sun. The first decent day — the only decent day our first week — we spend drifting the St. Regis River, west of Missoula, where enough cooperative rainbows provide insulation from the biting wind doing its damndest to convince us getting in the boat was a mistake, despite the sunshine.
The respite was short-lived. The following day marked a return to low-hanging clouds, penetrating cold and a positively evil combination of moisture in all its forms, raising river levels as well as fishermen’s frustrations as our floating prospects dimmed. Alternative activities needed conjuring. The rain was a tough competitor though, washing away any thoughts of slogging over washed-out hiking trails or peddling through puddles on the bike path. We’d probably be better going with the flow as it were, rather than struggling against the current. Our choices were somewhat limited but surprisingly, there were choices.
The first, although rejected out of hand given our respective ages and our desire to get even older, was impervious to rain because participants were already wet. Surfing downtown Missoula might seem insane, not to mention impossible, for those unfamiliar with “the wave,” but most afternoons, even throughout the winter, find a dozen or so young (and some not so young) adventurous types taking plunge after plunge into the frigid water of the Clark Fork River, seeking purchase on a variety of multi-colored surfboards. Constructed in 2006 in memory of a world class kayaker who died in an accident, “Brennan’s Wave” is a series of boulders, carefully positioned, creating the legendary perfect wave, depicted as an elusive, spiritual quest in the mid-’60s movie “Endless Summer.”
Unlike surfers, mushrooms have been estimated to go back a billion years according to the fossil record. They have been gathered for centuries and are only slightly less dangerous than big wave surfing since a shrooner’s wipeout comes from mistaking one of the numerous toxic varieties for a luscious morel, rather than being ground into a coral reef by several tons of churning water. So with our own tons of water riding the seemingly endless conveyor belt of purple clouds over the Rockies, we decide to head for the woods and harvest some of the fungus among us. Maybe even enough to build dinner around.
The first thing you learn about snagging some Montana morels is it’s considered a rite of spring, forever wed to both temperature and elevation with identification an important factor in whether it’ll be Bon Appetit or Bon Voyage. Although relatively few people actually meet their demise through malevolent mushrooms, enough are sickened each year to make us more than a little wary and happy to have Sam guide us safely through the woods as expertly as he does down a river. “False morels” being a rarity in Montana also helps.
But generally speaking, the forest in question is nothing like Vermont’s Green Mountains, which pretty much live up to their name. Out here, the best morel habitat is blacker than a Soho art dealer’s wardrobe, ideally a year or two following a forest fire, the morning after a rain. Considering nearly every morning so far has been preceded by rain, we figure we’re good to go, until we run into that altitude thing, quickly turning the search from wet to white, adding a touch of drama to our first fungi venture.
Hours north of Missoula, off a rutted, red-clay Forest Service road, we’re in an ominous wonderland of charred tree trunks and solitude. The springtime ground cover peeking up through several inches of heavy, wet snow is an early indication this once wooded, post-fire area is beginning its long resurgence back to health. When Sam comes up with the first morel, I actually get goosebumps, excited to know they’re here but somewhat daunted by its almost foolproof camouflage. When I find my first, the dull ache in my back from continual bending goes away immediately. I feel out of proportion triumphant, as if I’ve become a small part of something or let in on a secret.
That evening, our sack of morels is mingled with shallots, garlic, butter and cream, creating an incredible pasta sauce, tasting vaguely of the Earth itself, putting a fine point on our day of foraging. Over dinner, we discuss the day and where we might be able to scare up a trout or two tomorrow, but we’ve learned on this trip that the very same rain that keeps us out of the drift boat, offers some delicious, landlocked alternatives.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.