On the last trip in our open skiff to the far shore of Lake Clark to hunt for mushrooms, Anne and I didn’t expect to find much. It was 2014, the end of June, and the fungi were thinning. But for over two weeks our skillets had been graced, and our taste buds enchanted. Those golden-brown morsels had a flavor like no other, and we knew the opportunity for harvest wouldn’t last forever.

One year earlier, lightning strikes had sparked a forest fire on the shore opposite our family homesite. The scorched area is part of the National Park, whose policy is to let wildfires burn unless lives or structures are threatened. Mention wildfire, and every amateur mycologist with a bucket and a Swiss Army knife will be drooling at the thought of Morchella esculenta, which often appear in abundance the year following a wildfire. 

The forecast was for partly sunny conditions with little wind. Anne’s brother, Craig, decided to join us but insisted that we take two boats in case he wanted to return early. Waves gently lapped the shore as Craig tied his boat to a driftwood stump. I pulled up a short distance away and secured my skiff to a nearby log. The three of us and Zeuggy, our little Australian shepherd, headed into the burn. There were pockets of morels scattered around, and we collected bags full of mushrooms as we worked our way along. The charcoaled woods sucked up the sounds of the beach, and except for the crunch of our footsteps and a random crack of wood as we scrambled over downed trees, all was hushed. We discovered new pockets of morels as our jeans and faces became smeared with soot.

An hour later we heard something. The sound built quickly, held its pitch, then dropped off suddenly, like wind funneling through a gap in the mountains. Craig stiffened. There was silence for a beat or two, then another sweep of sound. Craig thought several boats were speeding up and down the lakeshore, maybe campers that we’d seen earlier. He decided to head home.   

After Craig left, the sound rose again, and I listened with more interest. Then I listened harder, and suddenly I wasn’t convinced that it was a boat—or boats—at all. A sick feeling took hold. I yelled, “I think the wind’s picked up. We need to check the boat.” But Anne had lost her leather gloves, and her search for them caused a short delay. 

a pile of dried mushrooms
Dried and stored in jars, morels can keep for years—if one can wait that long to indulge. Photo by Steve Kahn.

When we finally spilled onto the stretch of sand and gravel, we could see Craig holding his boat, stern to shore, in the pounding surf. We jogged toward him and glimpsed our skiff turned sideways just beyond, incessant waves curling in over the gunwales. Craig explained that our boat had swung into his and the prop had scarred up the hull. Immediately I felt culpable—if I’d tied up farther down the beach, it wouldn’t have happened. But I had to shelve the guilt for later. “Is there a hole—will your boat float?” I asked. 

Craig was managing to keep his bow pointed away from the beach, but the breakers were hitting the shore at an angle, and it was an effort to keep it from swamping. “It’ll float,” he said. 

Our skiff was an aquarium—life vests, gas tank, and seat pads bobbed around like artificial fish. With each pulse of water the vessel ground itself a deeper nest in the sand. If there was any chance of swinging the bow out to the waves it had to be done soon. 

I urged Craig to launch and idle just offshore, so he’d be ready to help us if necessary. I was about ready to shove him off when Anne yelled, “Wait, can you take these?” She rushed over to him, not with Zeuggy, but with the bags of morels she’d collected. Even then it struck me as funny: her palate-over-pet prioritization—because I’d completely forgotten about our harvest. 

My worn-out hip and herniated disks had forced a change in my lifestyle in the past years. If I lifted too much or too often I would pay for it, so I measured the consequences of my actions daily and tried to adjust to my new physical reality. But caution was jettisoned when I realized that if we waited 10 minutes more, our boat would be stuck for a long, long time. I tightened my back brace and plunged waist-deep into the water. Anne followed.

“We have to turn the bow into the waves,” I yelled. “Wait until the water hits the boat, and when it lifts, even a little bit, push like hell.” We inched forward with the first attempt, straining our muscles against the aluminum hull. Water continued to pour in over the windward gunwale. Push, push, push, we shouted to each other, and the boat finally swung perpendicular to shore. With the bow splitting the waves, the skiff took on only an occasional splash. 

The plastic box that held the battery was full of water. I poured the water out and set the battery on a seat while the gas tank jerked around at the end of the fuel line. We each grabbed a bucket, leaned over the side and bailed. Anne was anxious to launch, suggesting that we could bail more once we were underway. Though my back protested from my effort with the bucket, I was concerned that if we tried too soon, all the water would rush to the stern and we’d be swamped from the back end. And I didn’t know if the outboard would even start. Not only had the battery been flooded, but the fuel filter was still submerged. 

Steve Kahn chopping up a morel with a buzzsaw
The author hams it up while considering the best way to slice the largest specimens. Photo by Steve Kahn.

While Anne grabbed Zeuggy, I emptied a few more gallons of water. I pushed the boat farther into the lake, and then Anne took the oars and tried to keep us from turning sideways. Suddenly, the gas tank turned upside down, floating like a pool toy. I flipped it over and hit the key to the outboard. It started. With the outboard in gear, we inched forward and Anne continued bailing. Neither of us could pull our eyes from the water level. As I applied more power, the water flowed aft and peaked only inches from the top of the transom. We crept along, heavy and sluggish, plowing through the waves. 

“Since we’re moving, can’t you pull the plug to drain the water?” Anne asked. I didn’t think we were going fast enough. She threw a few more buckets of water over the side, then again implored me to pull the plug. I gave in and advanced the throttle. Increased rpms made little difference because we were so heavy—and the water started to rise again. I reached in, bicep-deep, and crammed the plug back in. We continued bailing. 

Craig stayed just ahead of us. Half a mile from shore, I noticed our soggy life vests shifting back and forth between the gunwales—the simplest of safety precautions forgotten when action ruled the moment. That oversight brought a sense of vulnerability. The lake felt suddenly deeper. We pulled the soggy vests on and zipped them up—and followed Craig through the rough water home.

The most strangely comforting thing we learned was that our boat actually floated when almost completely full of water. Still, a five-gallon bucket would now supplement the small bailer we carried. Sure, it would be used for toting bottles of beer to a picnic or collecting sand or driftwood, but its real purpose would be for emergency bailing. 

We dried morels that summer and stored them in glass jars. Those little wrinkled nuggets were mementos of good times in the outdoors and taste beyond our worthiness. But each jarful held a memory: watching the water, like a slow tsunami inside the boat, shifting sternward; then the relief I felt as it stopped, inches short of joining the surface of a long, deep lake. 


Comments are closed.