'Funky' weather brings late harvest


November 27, 2019

Rachel Kukull

Kukull's husband, chef Travis Kukull, whipped the fresh chanterelles into a Bolognese sauce and served them with pasta for dinner Monday night.

Although she didn't expect to need them, it was out of habit that Rachel Kukull carried foraging tools while hiking through Chilkat State Park on Monday, Nov 18. The custom paid off when she spotted on the forest floor a flash of gold that made her scream.

"Six chanterelles in November!" Kukull exclaimed, still shocked days later. "Finding one of them was like a unicorn, to find six was outrageous."

The forager, with more than 10 years of experience in Washington and Alaska identifying and collecting mushrooms to cook into various stews, pastas, and powders, said she's never seen a chanterelle this late in the season.

Chanterelles - the yellow-gold-funnel shaped mushroom with pronounced gills often visible under the cap-are most commonly found in Southeast Alaska from around July to October, when consistently frozen ground makes mushroom growth nearly impossible.

"Considering the date on the calendar, it is late," said another local forager, Sabine Churchill. "Considering the weather, it's not abnormal. We have really funky weather every year so you can't really compare it."

While October temperatures were slightly below average this year, November so far has been "significantly above normal," according to meteorologist Jim Green. In town, temperature ranked the third warmest of the same 52-day period for the past 20 years. The airport ranked the 12th warmest of 68 years; Customs the seventh warmest out of 30 years.

Green said that snowfall has been somewhat low in town this year, and really low in the upper valley, but he cautions against drawing too much of an interference from that. "November

is typically the transition time, so there are plenty of years with a similar sequence to this year in town," he said. At the border, this year marks the least amount of snowfall on record since Oct. 1 in the past 31 years - only 1.7 inches. In town, there's been 5.2 inches in the same time frame.

"On snowfall, we're pulling a D," Green said. "On temperature, a B plus, if warmer is a better grade."

Other seasoned foragers say, while late mushroom fruits are atypical, they're not unheard of. Tony Strong, a lifelong forager in the Chilkat Valley, said he's never found chanterelles in November - though not for lack of trying.

"It's uncommon, but it has happened," said Judy Jacobson, longtime resident forager who has authored four books on mushrooms in Alaska. "I have found them in November, but they're usually frozen," she said. Jacobson said that mushrooms require lots of rain, followed by a couple of days of sunshine to allow time to fruit. "They usually come out in the fall when they take advantage of the trees putting all their nutrients back into their roots," she said. As for chanterelles, Jacobson said it really varies. "I generally see them July through October."

The Chilkat Valley saw a dry October, but started to catch up to normal levels in the second week of November, records show. In the 52-day precipitation period, it's rained 13.39 inches in town, which is about 10th wettest of the last 20 years.

A warm November has also kept blueberries on the bush for longer than what residents consider "normal," according to Sue Libenson and Bill Holton.

The two were ascending Mount Ripinsky on the Piedad side when they found berries below tree line. Holton said the berries were mushy from frost, but still edible.

"We were not setting out to pick berries, but we ended up with enough berries to make a pie (three) weeks ago," Libenson said.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Anthony Crupi, too, vouched for the late harvest that kept bears on the mountains, instead of fishing for salmon on the rivers. "I think it's a combination of failed pink salmon returns and a particularly warm dry summer so, it was cooler at higher elevations and there were abundant berry resources for (bears) to consume," he said.

Green said despite a "warm, wet mode" for the last 10 days, we are likely to see a temperature drop to bring November's average down in the remaining days of the month. "Get those mushrooms now, or it may be too late soon," he said.

Does cold equal more snow?

If November had been colder, would the Chilkat Valley have seen as much snow as it did rain? Green says it's "not so simple as translating the rain to snow with a formula," though if you had to, 10-to-1 is a conservative one. "That would amount to 134 inches or more of snowfall which could mean 30 to 50 inches on the ground," Green said.

However, if the temperature were colder, it would also mean less moisture in the air, which Green said would contribute to less precipitation overall. "The reasons are that colder air can't carry as much moisture and getting cold air into the region usually requires bringing in air from a dryer source area, (i.e. the interior)," he said. "Getting a lot of snow is a delicate balance of air masses and temperatures."

For example, the maximum amount of snowfall in Haines recorded from October through Nov. 21 is 65.6 inches in 1975. That same year ranked close to the lowest in 70 years of records for overall precipitation at 67th. Green also noted that some high-snow years also have a lot of precipitation, concluding that "the question is highly hypothetical."


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