By day they're unseen, slipping quietly and secretly into the forests of far northern Klamath County.

CRESCENT LAKE — By day they're unseen, slipping quietly and secretly into the forests of far northern Klamath County.

If their searches are successful, they appear at night, carting baskets of freshly picked matsutake mushrooms for buyers in booths at Crescent Lake Junction and Chemult.

Early in the picking season, which began in late August, the matsutakes weren't plentiful, but with the mushrooms selling at $25 to $30 a pound, pickers were pocketing enough money to leave with smiles.

Since then, however, prices have dipped, some nights as low as $7 a pound for the top grades. Depending on the overseas demand — most are sold to Japan — prices vary, in recent nights climbing between $13 and $15 a pound. Buyers say the prices have been kept low because of high volumes of matsutakes being harvested in Canada. Still, on an average night, an estimated 5,500 pounds of matsutakes are being sold at buying stations in Chemult and Crescent Lake Junction.

Despite the relatively low prices, Tami Kerr, special forest product coordinator for the Deschutes National Forest's Crescent Ranger District, said the number of searchers is high, probably because of the economy.

"It's a pretty busy year. This is the fullest our camp has been in seven or eight years," Kerr said, referring to the seasonal matsutake pickers' campground south of Crescent Lake.

"There are a lot of people here. It's being driven by the economy. It's definitely not the mushrooms," Kerr said.

Mushroom pickers have been frustrated by the weather. Dry, warm weather is great for hikers, campers and other forest users, but not for mushroom pickers. They hope for rain, higher humidity and below freezing nights that help grow the matsutakes.

"We need that freeze. We're keeping our fingers crossed," said Joy Thaivisack, who's spending his 19th matsutake season at Crescent Lake. He picked the first two years, and since then has worked as a buyer.

Thaivisack has been around long enough that he remembers 1993, when he paid up to $640 a pound for top-grade matsutakes.

"We spent a million dollars because of the prices," he recalled. "I like to see the triple digit figures."

Kou Cho and Yao Lee, who make annual fall visits to the Crescent Lake Junction area from Sacramento, pick for the exercise and the money. So far, they're getting lots of exercise.

"There are no mushrooms," Cho said.

Like others — and estimates of the number of pickers varies from 800 to 1,200 — Cho and Lee wish for rain. Although thunderstorms have periodically soaked nearby areas, the usual prime picking areas remain dry.

As Kerr explained, "We've had about 15 minutes of rain total since the first of June." In the past few days, a forest fire on the Willamette National Forest has blown dense smoke into the region, creating a bleak atmosphere.

Still, Thaivisack remains optimistic.

"It's coming alive," he said of the harvest. "We should be in the peak in the next week or 10 days."

Crescent Lake Junction takes on an international flair when matsutake mushroom pickers make their way to far northern Klamath County.

Joy Thaivisack, who has spent the past 19 seasons at the Crescent Lake area, says the majority of pickers are Asian-Americans "because mushroom (picking) has always been part of our culture."

In Japan, where he estimates 65 to 70 percent of matsutakes are sent and sold, Thaivisack says the hard-to-find mushrooms are a symbol of good luck.

"Brides and grooms wait until this time of year for matsutakes because they are good luck," he said.

During the picking season, he and other buyers use cell phones to stay in communication with managers coordinating overseas sales.

Thaivisack says different buyers work for companies with different markets, which is why prices for mushrooms vary at the booths.

Prices have stayed relatively low — compared to 1993 when a pound fetched upward of $640 a pound because they are commercially harvested in China, the No. 1 producer of matsutakes, and because Japan has developed a cultivated species of mushroom that serves as an alternative to matsutakes.

"It looks different, but the taste is the same," Thaivisack says.

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Information from: Herald and News, http:www.heraldandnews.com