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N.W.T. communities prepare for possible influx of morel pickers this spring

Morel mushrooms, prized for their taste, texture and high price as a result, are found in areas that recently had forest fires. After last year's fire season, the territorial and community governments are gearing up for a season that might draw pickers north. ( Shawn Ryan - image credit)
Morel mushrooms, prized for their taste, texture and high price as a result, are found in areas that recently had forest fires. After last year's fire season, the territorial and community governments are gearing up for a season that might draw pickers north. ( Shawn Ryan - image credit)

It will soon be harvesting season in the Northwest Territories and after a busy fire season last summer, mushroom pickers will have their eyes on the prize — morels.

The honeycomb looking fungi — prized for their taste, texture and high price as a result — are found in areas that recently had forest fires. With more than 4 million hectares burned in the territory last year, the territorial government and communities are gearing up for a season that might draw pickers north.

For community leaders, that means making a plan.

"One of the things we always do is meet beforehand and try to have a plan in place," said Lloyd Chicot, chief of Kakisa.

Chicot is familiar with morel pickers as Kakisa, a community of about 36, saw more than 300 people set up camp and harvest around the community almost a decade ago after the 2014 wildfire season.

Chief Lloyd Chicot is working on a plan to bring a water treatment plant to Kakisa.
Chief Lloyd Chicot is working on a plan to bring a water treatment plant to Kakisa.

Kakisa chief Lloyd Chicot says that the community will meet closer to the spring to make a plan for the influx of visitors. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

"There was quite a number of people…it was like the gold rush in the Yukon," Chicot said.

During the 2015 morel harvesting season, the territory saw around 3,000 local and visiting harvesters pick an estimated 40,000 pounds of flash dried morels, according to a 2016 report prepared for the government. That report estimates that the 2015 morel harvest in the territory was worth a market value of $15 million.

The Tłı̨chǫ government and N.W.T. department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) confirmed they are expecting pickers to show up this season and are working collaboratively between communities and territorial governments to prepare.

Lessons learned from last season

With the influx of visitors for the 2015 mushroom harvest, Chicot says the community had to set expectations for how to treat the land.

"We explained to them where to go, what not to do and that kind of stuff, so the rules in and around the community were pretty well respected," he said.

Still, Chicot said there were a couple incidents with the surge of harvesters — including stealing food at a barbecue the community hosted.

"It was just the odd one, that you know when you have a barbecue that they are hungry and stealing wieners and stuff, but they were told by other members not to do that stuff," Chicot said.

The Ka’a'gee Tu First Nation in Kakisa, N.W.T., has posted rules for morel mushroom pickers in the area.
The Ka’a'gee Tu First Nation in Kakisa, N.W.T., has posted rules for morel mushroom pickers in the area.

In previous harvesting seasons the Ka’a'gee Tu First Nation in Kakisa, N.W.T., has posted rules for morel mushroom pickers in the area. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

In another instance, Chicot said officials in the community had to call police because of threats between harvesters.

But mostly, Chichot said it was a positive experience where community members met harvesters from across Canada, the U.K. and Australia.

Government working on guides for pickers

The Tłı̨chǫ government confirmed they are also working on plans for the upcoming morel season. Officials from ITI declined an interview but shared an emailed statement saying, the department predicts there will be interest in morel harvesting in the territory this year and that the government plans to action lessons learned from past seasons.

That includes the need for additional staff and community safety needs in the community, according to ITI's email.

Mushroom buyers are setting up shop along the highway.
Mushroom buyers are setting up shop along the highway.

Mushroom buyers have previously set up shop along the side of the road. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"Roadside parking, the proper use of campgrounds and other land, and the ability to recover pickers in the case of fire or disappearance are among the issues being addressed by the working group," the email said.

ITI also said it would be working with Indigenous governments and organizations, municipal governments, as well as other departments within the territorial government.

Chicot said communities should be prepared on what to do if they get an influx of people nearby or in places where wildfires burned last summer. He added that lingering fires in the South Slave region could make it more dangerous for harvesters.

"Even last week we went to Hay River in the evening and you could still see fires flaring up on the side of the road," Chicot siad.