In the late fall, when the spectacular colors of the sugar maples were at their peak, I went on a exploration hike of the Cobequid Hills. During this meandering hike with no real purpose, I stumbled across a large Chaga conk on a mature yellow birch tree. Having some experience with brewing tea from the mushroom (purchased from the Moncton Market) but no experience harvesting, I took a little piece and promised to make it back to the distance ridge before the snow hit.
In the meantime, I have been doing some research into Chaga online, talking to others who have used/harvested while experimenting with my own ways to prepare. I am in no way an expert and I encourage everyone to do their own research and form their own opinions when harvesting or using. I am just an adventurous gal who loves to hike, forage and share her experiences.
Here is a few things I discovered about harvesting Chaga from yellow birch:
Research was in-between my characteristically hectic schedule, the days inching towards the negative temperatures of an Atlantic Canadian winter and the snow hit. My time on the trails was becoming less and less, not just because of the seasonal changes.
Frank and I have been house bound, cooped up with the cat for too many days until one day in January, when there was a reprieve from the negative temperatures, the snow melted and I had the day off. I threw the kettle in my pack, filled my pockets with Frank treats and set out to find that Chaga tree.
Frank led the way through the spruce trees, following the little creek behind the house, criss crossing to chase the squirrels that chirped at her for breaking their solitude. The ferns were flattened, the stream frozen and the damage from the recent wind storm evident. Along the way, I spotted an Orange Jelly (Darcrymyces palamatus) mushroom and a crisply, ringed bracket fungus that I could not identify.
Miss Frank had disappeared, and I was absorbed in filming a frozen waterfall when I heard her growling and yelping just over the hill. She found a porcupine den, thankfully she was smart enough not to go in, but after some coaxing (treats) she was back on her way, looking for less dangerous woodland critters. I could not see the porcupine, but I heard rustling inside the dug out, so I knew somebody was home. I stood quietly listening to the animal sounds before I took a hint from Frank and moseyed.
As I turned to head back into the ravine, I was struck by the view this porcupine was fortunate to enjoy. The steep incline looked over a meandering stream, nestled in a rich green valley. A view not many people have seen, an area reserved for this porcupine alone. Although still obviously winter, I tried to imagine what the thick canopy of leaves would look like from this vantage point and how cool their shade would be on a hot July afternoon. I thanked the porcupine for letting me be here and started down toward Frankie, who had made the descent in no time and as on her own again.
We traveled like this for some time, before settling for tea at the confluence of two streams, near a large mossy rock. We snuggled in a blanket while the kettle heated and listened to the trickle of water still flowing despite the ice dams. There was no doubt it was still winter despite the bright, warmth emanating from the February sun; deep in wood, next a frozen stream there was no confusion.
We drank our tea and nibbled on sandwich and almonds. Frank was restless and out of liver treat so I plotted our next move, realizing that I would probably not find that particular Chaga tree during this adventure. The temperature was dropping, and the sun was sitting low in the late afternoon sky.
We embarked up a steep ridge, zig zagging as we climbed. I looked out at the valley, scanning the trees now on the other side of ‘Porcupine Ridge’ a mirrored view from our earlier find. Frank was gone, bouncing through the underbrush on her own hunt. I stood, breathing deeply trying to connect myself to this spot, to make a connection that I could come back to if I needed to ground myself during the upcoming frenzy of projects and deadlines.
I asked myself a wealth of questions just then, mostly coming back to my recent prolonged absent from myself and the things that make me the best version of me possible. How quickly we let the stress of life, outside influences change our priorities. Finding the balance within ourselves and the world around us is a relationship that is not just achieved, it needs to be re-evaluated and re-adjusted, changing as the world around you changes.
The realization that I have not been checking in with myself over the last few months was staggering, I have always been in tune with what I needed to thrive. Not only has the season changed, affecting my life routine, but my day to day life has drastically changed as well. The last 8 months have a been whirlwind of decisions and changes without much room to look around, to put down roots.
I marinated on this thought as I continued, my eyes darting to something colorful up ahead, just a same slice of purple stood out to me. Another bracket fungi, a rich deep royal color that stood out from its brethren. I studied it for awhile, contemplated taking it home before remembering why I was here in the first place.
Onward we trucked, along the ridge line winding on a well traveled deer trail when I spotted it! The golden ringed cone still prominent on a old yellow birch tree which was weathered but secure on the slanted ground. Before we harvested I stopped to give thanks, not just for the Chaga I was about to harvest but for the experience of the day, the reflections the outdoors provided. I wrapped in a towel, nestled the conk in my pack and set off for home thinking along the way about how to use the realizations discovered from afternoon.
As I started back to the house, the sun nearing setting, I thought about this blog and what it would mean to me, what direction I would take it and weather or not I would be able to give it the attention it would deserve. Not to mention the needling thoughts related to any creative endeavor; Will I be good at this? What experiences or thoughts do I have that will benefit readers or enrich other peoples lives? Do I have the time to attempt something I’ve always had an interest in?
It was this last statement that struck me. Boiled down, do I have the time do something for me that will enrich my life and benefit my well-being? That question sat with me as Frank and I made our way home.
I still sat with that question as I went about processing my foraged Chaga. First, I weighed it, wet it came in at 6 pounds! Second, I used a hammer and chisel to break it up into smaller pieces. I chipped away at the ‘woody’ pieces still attached but I left the ‘charred’ outside since I think it adds flavour. I lined some baking sheets with parchment paper and laid the pieces a few inches apart from each other to dry.
As I turned the pieces (every few days) and rotated to prevent mold, I continued to think about that lasting question until I didn’t think about it anymore, until I moved onto something else, forgetting about the need I uncovered that day. A week turned into a month and it wasn’t until I met with a friend for dinner that I realized how far off track I gone again.
We walked through a light snow in Downtown Moncton, NB to a local favourite (and mine) St. James Gate. The restaurant is set in the style of an old estate library with a cozy fire place and thick wooden pub style tables. The place was almost empty when we had arrived, and we sipped our beer while we waited for a burger that comes but once a year. I enjoyed a Blueberry ale from a local brewery, The Pump House, and she a Stella Artios. Both of us order the ‘Reuben burger’, an amazing beef patty topped with shaved meat and coleslaw and split our undeniable favourite truffle fries.
As we sipped and chatted the place started to fill up, the weather report worsened, and we were deep in conversation. Just returning from a vacation down south she had plenty to catch me up on. Umbrella drinks, sun drenched day and solitude. I listened intently, watching behind her as the snow flakes thickened and wind blew harder. If I imagined the scene just right, the warmth of the fire could be sunlight?
When the conversation turned to me, I froze, I had nothing to contribute to our ‘catsup’ conversation. Since last I saw her, I had not seemly accomplished or experienced any of the things I had set out to do. The first and most importantly, spend time on myself doing things that help me better a person. We are all guilty of spending so much of our energy and time on others, or things we cannot control. I struggle with the work/life balance more than most and it was an intention of mine for New Year to hit those trails, find some mushrooms, spend more time with the dog and BLOG about it!
Was I doomed to be that person who just couldn’t find the time to do the things that make her who she is? I was taken back to that day in the woods and my determination as I marched around the deer trails, mushroom identification book in hand. I felt fraudulent. How could I attempt an outdoor blog when I was so clearly out of sync?
And in that moment, I finally made the decision. Over my delicious burger in that downtown restaurant, far from the ‘Porcupine Ridge’ birch stand in the Cobequid mountain range, nearly a month since I first set out that day I knew I wanted to do this, regardless of all reason my self-doubt was throwing at me as reasons not too. I realized that having a purpose for my experiences would help lead me down the path of change that I sought.
Too many blueberry ales later, we braved the intensifying storm for home. Me with a mission, to prove to myself that I can overcome whatever self doubt I was feeling and give this an honest try. I could only guess at her mission, but I take comfort in her ability to handle whatever life may give her; strong women empower themselves and others.
The next day I filled a pot with water, setting the heat on high. I let the water boil for a few minutes before lowering the temperate to simmer. I dropped a thumb sized chunk of my now dried Chaga in the pot, put the lid on it to steep for two hours and turned on my laptop to start a new journey.
“Nothing will work unless you do” Maya Angelou