May long weekend brings memories and mushrooms

For me, the surest way to predict when we’ll finally get some rain is to have firm plans for an important outdoors event. It is surer still if the day is also part of the Victoria Day or May long weekend, when the whole province goes camping.

For me, the surest way to predict when we’ll finally get some rain is to have firm plans for an important outdoors event.

It is surer still if the day is also part of the Victoria Day or May long weekend, when the whole province goes camping.

Ever since my Dad died on May 16, 39 years ago, I go out somewhere we had fished together, to remember him. The season opened on May 16 when I was a kid, and the Guv always took me fishing opening day. It is also a good day for natural signs and omens.

This year, the May Long was as early as it gets by law, and May 16 was its start, so naturally it rained all day and was cold and dismal, above and beyond what sometimes triggers March brown or blue-winged olive hatches, rising trout, and good fishing. Early that morning, son John and I called it off, then on again when the May 17 forecast was promising clearing and sunny.

Just west of Red Deer on May 17, the aspens were showing that lime-green young leaf that makes me feel like a boy again, and always reminds me of old friend, the late Dr. Bill Parsons, growling you don’t go fishing “until the aspens are rimed with lime.”

So John stopped on Hwy 54 in Caroline to buy a fishing licence, and in the 15 minutes he was gone I counted rig after rig heading west loaded to the gunnels with shiny Kamikaze 500 ATVs and other weapons of mass destruction. They’ll all return Monday bemired with acres of our public land.

We went straight to my favorite dead-end, no exit, and most picturesque road in Clearwater County to get some pictures of the greening aspens that border it. Alas, no more: the aspens are now piled near the bulldozers that toppled them, waiting to be burned in a destructive Clearwaster County war on trees that is highly unpopular with the two, three, maybe even four families that live along as many miles of these roads.

The cost, especially of the fencing, has to be horrendous and the loss of native flora and fauna habitat is a disgrace. Two of the disgruntled residents hint that there either has to be some kind of racket going on or Clearcutter County has more money than it knows anything good to do with, or both.

Soil disturbances, forest fires, etc., frequently bring on mass eruptions of morel mushrooms, so we tried our luck by road-hunting a couple of these razed roads that generally dead-end at a river or creek. Nothing — but morels are notoriously hard enough to spot when the hunter is afoot, let alone from a slowly moving vehicle.

Easier to see are the purple wild clematis that bloom at morel time, but there were few of those. We didn’t even bother checking the two swampy places where a few of the rare and gorgeous calypso orchids bloom; simply too early. One latest-legal May Long year, a Sunday blizzard dumped on our campfire sitters. Next morning, the delicate calypsos poking up through the snow cheered us up.

We adjourned for lunch, for the first time in two years to the casting deck over the Night Hole on Prairie Creek, to which John, friend and fellow stump rancher Ken Short were able to push and pull me in my first wheelchair. En route, I saw early blue violets, meaning callibaetis mayflies could be hatching on the area’s lakes and spring creeks, and noticed that the dogwood blossom buds were miniscule, meaning that the Prairie Creek salmon fly hatch is weeks away.

John tried fishing, but didn’t last long wading water far below the 63F needed for mature salmon fly nymphs to start moving shoreward and preparing to “hatch” into winged adults. It was bright and sunny, but bitterly cold on the deck as Ken and I watched John cast, almost too cold for the traditional al fresco fishing lunch with my Dad: cheese and onion on pumpernickel with an ice cold ale.

The world’s biggest-ever morel harvest is expected later this year on 120 km of forest burned two years ago in the Northwest Territories, where professional pickers and buyers are expected to congregate in hordes for as long as the “burn-morels” last.

Ken was astonished to hear that the best professional pickers can clear as much as $1,000 per day under such conditions. The best account I know of professional fungi foragers is chapter 4, Hunters, Gatherers, Thieves in Myacophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, by Eugenia Bone.

We agreed that our no-burn morel prospects were poor after a warm, dry winter and a cold, dry spring, but Ken admitted he couldn’t believe the number of morels he was finding in low wetlands; he made a believer of me with the gift of enough for two morel omelets and four bowls of cream of morel soup, a reward for keeping the faith, even a day late.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at