Who are these foreign pickers in our forest? Why are there so many of them? Why do they search in such large groups? These and many other questions were on my mind in 1995 as I began collecting data at Chemult Study site.
I had some experience with Asians in 1992 in the Illinois Valley. It was a bumper year for matsi and the forest was full of pickers. Since I am the caretaker of 400-acre private property, I was relieved I would have the area to myself. I was in for a big surprise.
I found nobody respected the No Trespassing, Keep Out, or Private Property signs posted. Most of the season I was forced to stay within 100 yards of the private road going through the property. Every time a car was heard, run to the road, get in my car and find out if they were stopping to pick. Sometimes I would find cars parked on the property with pickers already gone. I'd have to chase them down and ask them to leave. It was distressing, but since I was caretaker, it was my job to keep everyone out at all times.
Asian pickers were the largest percentage of trespassers, nearly 50 to 1. However, they were the most cooperative and polite.
My wife was picking not far from the house, when she spotted two Asians. They had stepped onto a skid road she was walking. This was near the end of the season, so she'd had enough of trespassers. She ordered them to stop, set their things down, and walk to her. She scolded them severely, told them to get their things, and get in the car. She drove them to the house and called the sheriff. While waiting, we questioned them. They were very cooperative. A buyer in town dropped them off and told them to pick on the property. It was obvious they had no idea where they were. We asked the sheriff to take them to their camp.
All contacts with Asian pickers that year ended with similar results. It turns out they didn't know what the signs meant. They also had no concept of places they couldn't pick. In their countries, the public is allowed to pick on private lands, without a permit. The following year the local district taught Asians what signs meant. No Asian has trespassed since.
This was my experience as I began collecting data, Chemult 1995.
The season of 1995 Chemult began late August. I was to manage the harvest method study as well as manage the first commercial harvest in the study area. I already knew unauthorized pickers often picked the study site, so the first task was to re establish study border markers. With this completed, the volunteer pickers, and myself felt no one could enter without knowing they were in the study area.
I began establishing first patches to be monitored in late August. It soon became apparent a good season was coming. A good season meant lots of pickers. I expected to have lots of unauthorized pickers to deal with. Unauthorized picking was addressed in several ways, what ever the situation called for. Primary objective to limit time loss, and keep data. Data being mushrooms picked in the study not counted.
Authorized pickers were to approach, ask if they new they were in the study area, and asked to leave. In some cases Forest Service officials were called, a warning citation was issued. Most just ran as fast as they could, out of the study. My personal favorite was to wait behind a tree while as many as ten in a line would approach. Then spring out yelling WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THE STUDY AREA!!!!!!!! It was like dropping a bomb. You could hear people falling, buckets rolling, and brush rustling in all directions, away from your position. I recall one occasion when they all ran but one. He just stood there looking around, wondering where all his friends went in such a hurry. I questioned him and found he was new at picking, had seen the signs, but was with experienced pickers who knew what they were doing. Later I saw all of them at the buying station. They were embarrassed, and apologized.
Data collection was going great, unauthorized picking was near zero, and the season was nearing an end. I was grateful we had made it this far without any real confrontations. Of course the worst possible situation happens.
About 1:00 in the afternoon I got word an Asian had fired a weapon at, or near one of the authorized commercial picker. I was concerned because the authorized commercial picking group was asked not to carry firearms. All complied but one. He was the one involved in the incident.
I returned to the onsite camp to find the authorized picker visibly shaken. He reported finding three Asian pickers in a study plot, inside the study area. This was an area authorized pickers were prohibited to pick. He advised the Asian picker he was in an off limits area and would have to leave. The Asian pointed the firearm at him and replied, " You leave". Two of them started leaving when the one with the firearm fired into the air and said, "I said you leave". The authorized picker returned to camp.
I obtained a description of the Asian and headed out to find him. On the way I reported the incident to the Forest Service via radio. I took my time hoping to find him still in the area. No luck, so I went to the place I new they had parked their car. There I found many Asia groups. The Asian in question wasn't among them. I chatted with this group and that, but spent most of the time talking to one family. Mother, daughter, and two young boys. The daughter’s husband was still out picking. During our conversation I found out Asian families are very close and often pick together. Thus the large groups we see. Many come from country living and have foraged for income and food all their lives. That's why so many. The Forest Service LEO arrived and was able to find the Asian picker while I was chatting.
I walked back to camp and drove to secondary camp, where I had just walked to and from. When I arrived I found the family I had talked to, in a panic. The husband had not returned and was lost. I left a light burning all night, called, and blew the horn now and then all night. They found him the next morning. He had spent the night under a log, freezing, but OK.
The next night I saw the family and asked why he didn't build a fire to stay warm? The wife said they didn't have any matches, so I gave her a lighter. Also told her to watch for the study area markings. If followed, and extended, they lead to the road. She understood, but hoped it would never happen again. Well it did, two days later. This time Mother, daughter, husband and two children under five were lost. Not for long though. Rescuers found them just inside study boundary with a huge fire. All were gathered around and warm. One rescuer said it took longer to subdue the fire than to find them.
I was there when they came out of the woods. The wife ran up to me, put her arms around and said thank you repeatedly. She insisted the lighter had saved their lives.
Many other interesting circumstances happened that season. Getting hit, and almost run over by a van, unintentional. Once I was asked by a rather large Asian if anybody had ever decided to punch me out and run. I simply said no. He asks me again later, but in the end received a warning ticket.
Following seasons had far less unauthorized harvesters in the study. However it wasn't the end of meeting Asian pickers.
That fall David Arora called and asked if I could help out a couple of Asian pickers. I was reluctant at first for several reasons. The owner of the property was not friendly to Asians. This was due his experiences during war. Locals pickers would surely conceder me a traitor, but I needed reliable help. David assured me they knew what they were doing. He explained they had waited for a permit on the Oregon Dunes for years and finally got one. They problem was, they couldn't find any mushrooms. Local pickers were so good, outsiders couldn't compete. This included night hunting. Locals knew where and when mushrooms would emerge, and be there. Knowing this to be true, cause I knew veteran Dunes pickers, and that was the general strategy, vigilance and night picking. I agreed to meet them.
They arrived and were nervous, I was too. I took them into the forest and checked to be sure they knew how to pick. I felt a little silly, showing two experienced pickers how to pick. I could see they were a little confused. Not because they didn't understand, but rather cause they were anxious to pick and wondering why I was wasting time showing how to do something they had done for years. After two days, they had done fair, but I hadn't put them in an area I knew was in heavy production. I did on the third day.
My wife's patches were in need of attention. She is very particular who picks, and how her patches are picked. She instructed our new friends where to pick, and not to pick. She also directed them to patches with babies, now ready. Our friends spent the day picking in her patches. They did very well. She picked the same area the next day and reported they had done an excellent job.
They left after five days, but not without insisting I accept something from them. I had been interested in Morel picking, but didn't know a thing. They offered to teach me next season.
I did pick and camp with them the following season. They took me to their patches, I stayed in there camp, and ate there food. Couldn't spend a dime of my funds. One night they went to sell while I stayed in camp. When they returned, I was surprised I had made so much. Turns out they had added to my basket. I was also surprised to find there is no theft in Asian camps. I was concerned about a video camera I had in the car. After five days of camping, the camera in plain sight, no problem. There was one theft though. Two pickers went home for the weekend. When they returned, they found two sticks of fire wood missing.
I still have contact with our Asian friends. They live in Redmond, Oregon with mother and two children. Mushroom picking is their favorite employment, but the family must eat, so cannery work as far as Alaska it considered.
Other encounters with Asian in following years were full of surprises. I was on a pick for hedge hogs late one season after matsutake was over. I parked my rig, got out, and began getting ready. A van full of Asians passed, then stopped 100 yards down the road. Everybody knows American pickers like their space, so it disturbed me they had stopped. I had heard the stories of Asians following other pickers, and stopping where they saw picker's cars. There were no matsi to pick. In fact, no commercial value at all in the area. I got curious so I approached them to ask if they had stopped cause they saw my car. Their were six, and some had firearms. I am a Vietnam vet, so Asians with guns, should have made me nervous, but it didn't. I ask my question, one of them answered YES. My first thought was, well how would they like it if I got a bunch of my friends, and followed them around? That's the question I asked. I was surprised to hear the reply. They didn't like the idea at all. Guess they didn't realize they were intruding in my space at that time. All apologized and they left. They didn't just move further away, they left the mountain.
Most Asian pickers I have met are sincere about picking, conscientious as to picking method, and knowledgeable to fruiting habits. Those who are not, lack education in understanding American culture, laws, and tradition, language being the major barrier.