The deal of the century

Commodity trading on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island
chicken of the woods mushroom
Photo: Chris Hunt

Coffman Cove, Alaska, is a funky little place. Situated on the east coast of Prince of Wales Island, it boasts a robust marina, a little market where an angler might be able to slide in and grab a few beers and an $8 bag of chips before heading out fishing for the day … and a bar.

And, it’s home to no small amount of irony. So long as the bar is open, the gas pump works.

So there we sat, our rented Yukon sitting in the parking lot and brimming with a full tank of $4.50-a-gallon unleaded, three dirtbag fly fishers bellied up to the bar among a crowd of locals and recreational saltwater anglers. It’s the kind of bar where there really are no strangers — everybody is on a common mission and the stories center on that mission.

We were the oddballs in the crowd. We hadn’t stepped foot on a boat all week — biblical rain pelted the region for days on end, and while we’d wet a line here and there, our biggest success stories were usually found among the moss and peat of the forest floor. We were mushroom foragers, and we’d had unbelievable good luck, plucking delicate chanterelles from the loam and shaving off shelves of chicken of the woods for the grill and the sauté pan.

We harvested just enough fish to enjoy each evening, but none of us had put any away for the trip home. And time was short — the next morning, we were headed to the ferry back to Ketchikan and the airport … and eventually to our far-flung hometowns in the lower 48. And it looked like we might be heading back sans fish.

That’s when my buddy Mark heard someone down the bar start talking about mushrooms. And, in particular, he picked up the phrase, “chicken of the woods.”

Chicken of the woods is a prominent shelf mushroom. It’s fairly common in the rainforest, where it grows bright orange out of dead and dying trees, collecting moisture from the canopy. It gets big and it gets big fast. It’s fibrous and fleshy, and it’s easy to save and keep. It can be dried and it can even be frozen. And, yes, it really does taste like chicken. It is the simplest definition of the oft-repeated mantra, “from death comes life.”

“We have some chicken of the woods,” Mark piped in. “And we can get more.”

A clearly tipsy gentleman sloshing a whiskey and Coke perked up. And he was among many in the “clearly tipsy category.” Boats were moored for the day. The drinking was under way.

“You have chicken of the woods?” he asked. Mark nodded, and introduced me and our other fishing buddy, Sam, to the man holding the drink.

The guy’s name was Darrell, and he and his wife, Cot, have a summer place along the rocky shoreline of Coffman Cove. The couple visits every year, choosing the southeast Alaskan summer over the broiling hot summers of the Central Valley of California. Darrell and Cot, thanks to some friends of theirs, got their first taste of chicken of the woods and they were eager for more.

“Can you get me some?”

Mark started to answer, but I stepped in, sensing an opportunity.

“I think we can strike a bargain,” I said. “We have something you want … I don’t suppose you have any halibut?”

Darrell grinned and nodded.

“I have a freezer full of halibut,” he said.

After some good-natured haggling, we agreed to make a mushroom run (before we were among the throng of the “clearly tipsy”). Darrell said he’d meet the three of us back at his place.

Earlier in the week, as we drove down one of the many gravel roads on the island to one fishing destination or the next, Mark and Sam both noticed a tree off into the woods that was coated in bright orange, absolutely perfect chicken of the woods. I hit the brakes, having sampled this durable fungi in the past and knowing that any dish we would create back at the rented cabin would be amplified by its versatility. We shaved off just a few of the uppermost shelves, and, over the course of a few days, we enjoyed the mushroom as a side dish to the fish we’d been fortunate enough to harvest. One night, Mark even put a shelf of it on the grill. The result was excellent.

Fortunately, the shrooms were close to town. We grabbed three grocery bags and drove into the woods, hoping against hope that nobody else had noticed the flaming orange fungus growing out of the trunk of a dead fir tree. In the fading light (and, honestly, the light is never good beneath the canopy of the rainforest), we spotted the tree and were relieved to see the mushrooms intact. In minutes flat, we’d filled the bags with fleshy slabs of delicious mushrooms, and we were on our way back to town to make the deal of the century.

Mushrooms for halibut. Straight across.

But it got more complicated than that. In a good way.

We found Darrell and Cot’s place, and before we could start any hard-charging negotiations, Darrell had drinks in our hands and we were admiring the view across Dog Creek Bay from the couple’s dining room window. Walnut and almond farmers from the Central Valley, the couple is really at home along the rainy coast of Prince of Wales, the third-largest island in the U.S., behind Kodiak and the big Island of Hawaii. There, they’ve managed to build an admirable compound — a well-appointed home, guest quarters for visiting friends and family and a garage to house a couple of Jeeps and a nice fishing boat (the vehicle presumably used to gather the halibut we were hoping to get our hands on).

In all, we spent the better part of an hour with the pair of Californians-turned-Alaskans, and when the time came, the swap was simple. Darrell took us out to the garage, opened the freezer door and simply said, “Fill up the cooler with what you think is fair.”

And, of course, because of the hospitality and the newly minted friendship, we didn’t eagerly dive into the halibut stash, but instead left the freezer with slightly less fish than when we found it.

Darrell and Cot got enough mushrooms to “put away” for a while — a text message from Darrell confirmed that, yes, the fungi was solid in the freezer, and that he, like us, was pleased with the bargain. I reminded Cot that it’s best in moderation. Too much can be a bit tough on the digestive system.

“It’ll make you a little farty if you go too big,” I said, remembering the first time I paired dusky rockfish with chicken of the woods some years back. Delicious, but delicious in reasonable doses.

And the halibut? It was safely tucked into checked bags and toted home, arriving still frozen. It rests in three freezers, one in California, one in Idaho and one in Virginia. And our new friends have a few more weeks in Coffman Cove before they, too, head south, presumably with their mushrooms.

I know that when Mark, Sam and I pull the fish from the freezer and start cooking, we’ll tip a glass to Darrell and Cot. Here’s to the deal of the century.