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A Visit To The Zoo

By Lawrence Millman

    Setting out from the town of Terrace in British Columbia, you drive northwest over wash boarding seemingly calculated to destroy your transmission. Likewise you try to avert potholes so deep that they should be signposted with "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter." Suddenly, in the middle of an apparent nowhere, you come upon a medley of tents and tarps, converted school buses, trailers, teepees, Winnebago's, and rough plank shanties. Welcome to Cranberry Junction, pop. @250. Or at least that's what the name on the road sign says. But nearly everyone in these parts calls this seasonal bush settlement The Zoo.

    "This place has lots of animals, but they've all got two legs, and they're all here to pick mushrooms," says one of The Zoo's residents, an eroded-looking, fifty something man who goes by the name of Alberta Al.

    Mushrooms -- specifically, the large cream-white to bronze-colored mushrooms called matsutakes -- are in fact The Zoo's raison d'etre.  In Japan, matsutakes are symbols of fertility, wealth, and happiness. The Japanese also prize them for their subtle flavor and unique odor, described by one mycologist as "a provocative compromise between red hots and dirty socks." Since the Japanese demand for matsutakes far exceeds the local supply, wildcat buyers descend on the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest each fall and pay pickers top dollar -- cash up front, no records kept -- for this fungal delicacy, often as much as $300 a pound in good years. In bad years, well, there's not much overhead on a teepee or plank shanty.

    Not surprisingly, The Zoo is a bit like a Gold Rush town, with fortunes made, broken, or drunk away almost as fast as you can say matsutake. Its citizens are a bit like Gold Rush characters, too. They include hirsute sons and sturdy daughters of the forest, the unemployed and the unemployable, certified eccentrics, the disenfranchised, the opportunistic, and wanders with no fixed abode. There's a man named Wormy Pete who boasts that he hasn't had a bath in at least a year, and a toothless but otherwise attractive woman who cheerfully lowers her jeans to reveal a matsutake tattooed on each buttock.

    In front of a rundown trailer sits a huge barrel of a man who calls himself Tiny. Tiny has come all the way from Truro, Nova Scotia, more than 3,000 miles across the continent. "This is about freedom, man," he says, making a 360 degree sweep of his hand. "Freedom to roam where you like, sleep where you like, and do what you like."

    After a pause, he adds: "I haven't paid a penny in taxes in five years."

    His pause is not without significance; mushroom harvesting is probably Canada's most noncompliant underground economy, so pickers tend to be somewhat reticent about speaking with outsiders, who may or may not be representatives of the law. 

    The Zoo has a cookhouse which offers, according to a piece of cardboard tacked to the door, "Three Coarse Meals." It has two churches, both non-denominational and neither much bigger than one of the community's port-a-loos. It also has several illegal saloons operated by bootleggers. Supposedly, there's even a brothel.

    The town is more or less deserted during the day, when pickers are roaming the steep, forested slopes of the nearby Skeena Range in search of mushroom bounty. Then, in the late afternoon or early evening, the pickers return and make a beeline for the shanties that serve as both buying depots and local hangouts. In one of these shanties, you might hear snatches of conversation like the following"

    "Some bastard raided my patch, and all he left me with was three empty beer cans and a Snickers wrapper."

    "Every mushroom I found was slushed out or full of bugs, but then I tripped on a deadfall and landed with my nose right on top of a Grade 1 pine (matsutake)..."

    "I got a real mother lode today. Probably forty pounds of hooters (buttons) and only two or three flags (mushrooms with open caps)."

    "Just look at this beauty -- a $75 matsie!"

    "...chased down a mountain by a bear, but luckily I didn't lose a single mushroom..."

    Buyers sort the mushrooms into six grades, weigh them and pass wads of bills into the hands of pickers. The thickness of the wad depends on the condition and grade of the mushrooms, the current Asian market, and whether there's a price war going on among the buyers. It might also depend on a buyer's mood that day: if a dog bit him, the price might be lower than usual, and if his girlfriend declared her undying love for him, it might be considerably higher.

    Prices can shift dramatically during a twenty-four hour period. Today's price may be almost twice yesterday's, and vice versa. There's a story about a picker who got lost in the woods for two weeks, and when he was found, he was suffering from severe hypothermia. Even so, he was still gripping his bag of by now rotten mushrooms. According to the story, the man's first intelligible words were: "What''s...price?"

    Each night the closing of the buy stands is announced by a volley of gunshots. This usually occurs around nine o'clock, so the night is still young. There isn't a lot in the Zoo you can spend your money on, no fancy restaurants, for instance, or movie theaters, so what's a picker to do? Being somewhat thirsty by nature, he might get boozed up. Then you might see a few punches exchanged, or someone who's imbibed not wisely but too well sleeping it off in a rain puddle. And since liquor lubricated the tongue, you might also hear the occasional tall tale, like the one about the matsutake so big that it could be removed from the ground only with a winch or chainsaw, but alas! the picker who found it had neither implement with him.

    "Despite everybody having knives and some having guns, there's not a whole lot of violence around here," observes a man named George, who refers to himself as the Mayor of The Zoo. "Well, there was an incident last year when two guys got into a fight, and one ended up killing the other. But they were fighting over a woman, not mushrooms. Somehow I think they got their priorities mixed up."

    Increasingly frigid temperatures and even snowfall would not deter stalwarts like George, Alberta Al, Tiny, or a woman who calls herself The Iron Maiden, but frost and snow do deter matsutakes. So it is that when the weather turns wintry, the pickers pull up stakes and either go home or head south along the mushroom trail, to places like Bella Coola and Boston Bar in British Columbia, and then later in the season, Washington and Oregon.

    Whereupon The Zoo, bereft of its nomadic menagerie, once again becomes Cranberry Junction, a mere potholed crossroads in the back of the great northern beyond.

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