The cold morning air carried the scent of pine and damp earth as Alana McGee ’05 and her dog, Lolo, headed into the forest in the foothills of Washington’s Cascade Mountains. Lolo—a brown and white Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian breed—caught the scent and bolted through the ferns. When Lolo stopped at a Douglas fir and barked, gently pawing at the ground, that was McGee’s cue. She caught up, dug briefly with her garden trowel, and lifted out a ripe black truffle.
“I love the adrenaline rush I get when the dogs find something and watching them use their natural instincts to do what we’ve professionally trained them to do,” said McGee, owner of Toil & Truffle in Seattle. One of just a few such companies in the country, its eight dogs hunt down truffles throughout the United States and Europe. McGee and the dogs specialize in the native Oregon black truffles and also white varieties for the region’s home cooks and restaurants. McGee also offers canine truffle-scent training.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world, particularly animals and their cognitive ability,” said McGee, who was born and raised in Edmonds, Wash.
Her path toward dogs and the fruit of underground fungi began at Colby after she followed her two older brothers to Mayflower Hill and majored in classical civilization–anthropology. “Colby lets you pursue your passions. It was Peter Ditmanson, a professor of East Asian studies, who told me, ‘Do what you like to do and things will fall into place.’”
In her junior year McGee studied in Italy and happened upon the strong earthy flavor of her first truffles. She was fascinated and set out to learn more about the prized fruit of subterranean fungi, a single specimen of which can sell for thousands of dollars. Their scent never faded for McGee, even after she graduated and went on to a variety of jobs, including writing flight-magazine articles in Seattle, reading Disney film scripts in Los Angeles, crushing grapes in California, and—returning to Seattle, managing a shoe boutique. The storytelling, wine science, and business basics all led her to her true calling, she says.
For the past few years, McGee has been collecting data about truffles—from finding more and more of them up and down the West Coast and from others’ discoveries elsewhere in the country. “We’re expanding the knowledge base in an industry that’s only growing,” she said.
McGee is working to spread that knowledge around. She teaches seminars for people (and their dogs) who want to become recreational truffle hunters (Recreational Truffle Dog Training 101) and also trains dogs for professional hunting on truffle plantations.
While McGee keeps learning about truffles, the dogs who track them down are teaching her a few things, too. “Patience and the ability to adapt,” she said. “They’ve made me more aware of my surroundings and how I move in the world. They’ve made me a better person.”