Morel Story – Shawn Ryan and Cathy Wood and Friends
About a year ago I went up to the Yukon with David Arora, author of Mushrooms Demystified, to take a look at what was predicted to be one of the biggest morel mushroom season since the commercial pick began. The piece about the hunt for morels is out now in the New York Times style magazine.
In closing the story the research desk at the magazine had a couple dozen questions, which sent me back to my notes. For friends who may be reading this once-every-four-months blog, here is a longer excerpt that might entertain you.
[from JUNE 19, 2005]
Back at Cathy and Shawn’s – Cathy has made dinner for us (that’s me, David Arora, and two photographers from the Times), six crew members, and Ryan, the chopper pilot. None of them are over 30 except Shawn and Cathy. Ryan is 29 and has been flying for six years. He flies all kinds of jobs – river rescues, fire fighting, tourism, exploration. The helicopter is terrible temptation out here in the bush. It brings a godlike mastery over the terrain, but it is very expensive, and a few false trips can ruin the economics of any job. The minimum cost for a small helicopter is about $1200 per hour.
Once, in trying to beat the crowd to a fire, Shawn and another crew leader made a deal to cut an ATV trail, promising that neither would jump the gun and pick ahead of the other. But cutting the trial was slow, and cooperation broke down. Two pickers ran ahead of the rest of the crew. They came back to report to their buyer that the mushrooms were beyond abundant, and the buyer abandoned the treaty and rented a helicopter. Shawn’s group shared in the overexcitement, and rented a chopper, too – a big one that could hold 14 people. Once in the bush, they realized that the pickers had only scouted the edge of the burn – there was nothing at all in the middle. They flew in a big camping set up, but given the paucity of mushrooms they couldn’t afford to have the helicopter come back and bring them out. So they had to walk out the whole way carrying camp supplies for fourteen on their backs.
I get bits and pieces of Shawn’s history. His father was a miner in Timmins, Ontario, didn’t want Shawn to work in the mine, encouraged him to go into the exploration side. At fifteen, Shawn got interested in trapping, snaring foxes, martins, mink. But he was poaching on another trapper’s line, and eventually he was caught. “He said, you’re the worst poacher I’ve ever seen, you’ve been causing me a big pain in the neck, and now you have two choices. I can turn you into the authorities, or you can work for me. The other guys were on him – oh, you hired a poacher. But they were jealous because a lot of people had been wanting to trap with him, learn what he knew, because he was an expert, old time trapper. But I’m the one who got to do it, spent four years with him, learned everything. I was very lucky, I was able to do that in high school.”
Cathy: “It didn’t make him popular.”
Shawn: “I’d skin until 2 in the morning and then go into school. Once I got a sand hill crane caught in the trap, it was dead when I found it. It has this big, long beak that I thought would make a good spear point, so I put it in the freezer. My mom reaches into the freezer and finds a bird’s head in there.”
Shawn got into canoeing and after high school he became a river guide, he has traveled most of the major rivers in Ontario. He threw that up, however, when he felt that the rivers were getting too crowded – more and more frequently he would see another person. Then he started walking trips through northern Ontario, crossing vast stretches of remote territory.
For nine months in 1985-1986, he lived in a native village, called Winisk, on the edge of James Bay. A the time he was a student of the culture of the first nations. His personality at the time was characterized by enormous resilience and an apocalyptic bent. He went to Winisk to find one of the last surviving masters of native crafts and learn the secrets of his arts – hunting, traveling through the land, medicine, building. He never established the full apprenticeship he wished for, but he lived in the village and learned bits of knowledge from various people. He left in February. In May, the Winisk river flooded, and all the buildings in the town were washed out into the Bay, where they slowly drifted apart. Late in the day, somebody in an another village realized they hadn’t heard from them in a long time, and tried to raise them by phone. Then they sent somebody to look and, when they saw what happened, organized a rescue. Most of the villagers survived.
After his time in Winisk Shawn moved to Fort Albany, where he worked as a teacher in a school for native kids remanded there by the court because of their bad activities. He was supposed to teach them native crafts, help get them in touch with their culture. So he showed up at a meeting of provincial authorities. They were shocked to see him. They had been trying to get somebody from the school to appear before them for months, but nobody every showed up. They had lots of questions to ask, but Shawn couldn’t answer them. He had simply come to discuss his proposal to teach a gun safety class to the kids.
“Ya mean there’s guns up there?” he remembers the guy saying.
“Sure, there’s guns,” Shawn replies. Guns are basic to native culture, they never go anywhere in the bush without their guns.
“Well, how many guns?” asks the provincial authority.
“Oh, I don’t know, about four, more or less,” says Shawn.
“Under whose control are they?” At first the question baffles Shawn, then he understands it.
“Oh, no, no,” he says. “I meant four per person – a shotgun, a 22, maybe something with a scope.”
Shawn laughs loudly at the misunderstanding, and his laugh is unique – a clear sound that comes from his chest short, very loud bursts. You can hear his laugh around the corner of the house, whenever a group of people are talking. Many things strike him as funny, including financial and logistical problems that suddenly arise and threaten to swamp him. And, naturally, a constant source of humor is the cold. “You can hear your breath freeze,” says Shawn. “When it first happens you just can’t believe it.” On cold days in the Yukon, the vapor in a person’s breath actually creates a cloud of white ice crystals in front of their face, that knock against each other and fall to the ground, making a little crackle.
“Over the winter,” Cathy says, “our door wouldn’t close, and I remember thinking, we could die if the door falls off.”
Shawn has camped in the winter many times. “You leave your tent, you get thirty yards away, and even in your snow suit you are starting to get cold. You look back at your tent and think – this is the closest thing I will experience to being in space.
Along with the cold, people like telling stories about bears, and about guns. Shawn’s crew recently had to shoot two bears who insisted on continuing to visit one of their camps in the woods. Now the camp is surrounded by an electric bear fence, but the fence seems to be malfunctioning. The bear has been coming around and putting his paw through the fence. Most people carry bear spray, but guns are preferred. The native people in the Hudson Bay area, says Shawn, don’t go to the next town without being armed. Shawn was once sledding through northern Ontario and was stopped by a ranger. The ranger said, “you can’t have that gun here. Don’t you know this is a park?” To which Shawn answered, “Yeah, don’t you know the name of the park? It is called polar bear national park!” He claims to have been allowed to keep his gun.
The terrible cold accounts, perhaps, for a peculiar Dawson style of storytelling, which is distinctly Canadian, but with a twist. It is Canadian in combining exaggeration with understatement. The twist is that the most exaggerated content might even be true. No adjectives can do justice to the truth of a series of -50 degree days, when even the word day is a courtesy, given that the sun may not appear at all. “We lose the sun on December 15,” says Cathy, “and it hits our house again on January 15th.”
I talk with Cheyenne about how she dresses to wait for the bus in the morning in winter, because they keep the school open almost every day, in defiance of the cold. She tells me about her snow suit, her hat, her mask, through which nothing peeks out but her eyes.
“Don’t your eyes get cold?” I ask.
“On when my eyelashes freeze,” she replies, showing me a look of the widest innocence.