I will always remember the first time I went mushroom hunting in earnest, because it was one of the more exhilirating experiences in my adult life. It also set the foundation for my passion for mycology, which is an intellectual pursuit that’s carried me in a current of enthusiasm and curiosity about nature that gives me an enduring appreciation for being alive. I thank my lucky stars that I had the good fortune to live in Pacific Northwest during the middle portion of my 20s, because if I had resided in a more mycophobic (mushroom-fearing) part of the United States, I may never have stumbled upon the delight of fungi and mushroom hunting. I am also profoundly thankful for golden chanterelles, because they’re the most approachable of the wild mushrooms in North America, and without the confidence that I gained from learning about how to find and enjoy golden chanterelles, I may have found mycology to be too daunting.
Before I went out on my golden chanterelle mushroom hunting expedition, I didn’t really have any clue why I was so darn excited about the whole thing. However, it took just one short afternoon in the woods hunting golden chanterelles to realize that this was something that I wanted to do for relaxation and sheer childish pleasure for the rest of my days. So, here’s the story of how this “mushroom hunting thing” came to be in my life.
If your purpose on this blog is more practical and you’re in search of information about wild mushroom hunting, I encourage you to look at a few of the posts I’ve written about how to identify chanterelle mushrooms, where and when they grow, chanterelle lookalikes, and allied species in the genus Craterellus.
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
My First Golden Chanterelle Hunting Escapade
The first mushroom I hunted was the Northwest golden chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus). It was the only wild mushroom besides morels that I’d ever seen in the markets, although at $15.99 a pound I never purchased them. However, I knew they were tasty, and surmised that they’d be easy to spot given their appearance. Trumpet-shaped, tawny golden and netted with forked, wrinkly gills, the chanterelle is hard to mistake for something else, and they are striking against the backdrop of the intense greens and grays of the Pacific coastal forest.
I knew a guy named Bill in Olympia who hunted them commercially, a friend from the East Side Club, one of the local pubs. He was an affable young hippie with great yarns and terrible halitosis. One night in early October, he sauntered into the pub and over to my table, a pint in one hand and a tattered brown bag full of something in his other paw. He placed the pale, fizzy pint on the table and plopped the bag on my head. It was heavy, cool, slightly damp, and tough to balance on my skull, but I held still and glowered at him as he swung himself onto the bench across from me and gulped his IPA with relish.
I saw his eyes twinkle over the top of the beer glass; he was clearly amused about my sudden plight. “Don’t worry, they won’t explode or poop on you,” he joked. I stifled a nervous chuckle, trying my best to hold perfectly still. The rest of the table had a nice wheeze at my expense, and I tittered cautiously, determined to keep whatever-it-was from falling off my noggin. A few beats later, and I realized that this would go on for as long as I was physically capable of maintaining unless I took action. I threw the stink eye at Bill and carefully lifted the damp paper bag off my head. I then unrolled the top of the bag and peered inside.
Josh, sitting to my left, craned his neck over my shoulder and proclaimed, “Holy shit! Those look awesome!”
“Yeah, I picked about 2 dozen pounds just today,” Bill bragged. “Lots more where that came from. You can hang onto them if you want, I have too many to sell.”
Side Note: When you’re successful in your wild mushroom hunting efforts, it’s pretty thrilling to share some of the catch with your non-mushroomy friends. I have yet to meet a mushroom hunter — commercial or recreational — who is tight-fisted about gifting mushrooms, particularly golden chanterelles, to their loved ones and friends. Many of the finest treats I’ve enjoyed came from someone else’s basket, and each time I roll back into civilization with a smile on my face, I enjoy passing sandwich bags full of fun to a few folks who feel fungi are felicitous fruits of fecund fabulousness.
Side Side Note: Sorry for that preposterous alliteration. I just couldn’t help myself.
Back at the East Side Club in Olympia, I was intensely curious about the bag of marvelous things that had so recently been on my head. It was brimming over with Pacific Northwest golden chanterelles, yellow-gold-orange, wrinkled, and fruity-fragrant. “Wow! I can really keep these? How do I cook them?”
Bill held forth at some length.
Armed with new knowledge of dry sautes, golden chanterelle omelettes, wild mushroom orzo and creamy mushroom pasta sauces, Cantharellus formosus seduced my taste buds for the next week and a half, and I decided that this particular wild food was really my jam. So when it came time to select a candidate for my first wild mushroom hunting forays, the choice to go after golden chanterelles seemed obvious.
On December 5, 2008, I went mushroom hunting for the first time (well, it wasn’t the absolute first time, I had been out after morels in the summer of 2001, but I was sort of a tag-along in that instance and didn’t really get what the fuss was all about). It was a cold and drizzly Oregon day, but I was determined to try out this mushroom hunting thing, so I pulled on a wide-brimmed hat to keep the rain off my glasses and away we went. A friend named Mike came with me, and even though we were wet behind the ears mushrooms-wise, we were very excited.
We sallied forth into the drippy wet wilds of Tillamook State Forest and wandered about in awe, astonished by the abundance and variety of wild mushrooms festooning the landscape. Tillamook is a piece of the coastal mountain range in Oregon that’s dominated by alder, fir, ferns, silal, and huckleberry, and as such it’s a great place for golden chanterelles and tons of other mushroom species besides. It is a young forest as well— its predecessor burned in the 1920s after several rounds of clear cut logging and other “forest resource management” tomfoolery.
The ecology of Tillamook State Forest seems temporary. Roots don’t settle deep enough and many of the young trees fall into thickets of ground-loving plants, and its creeks are frequently choked with young alders that didn’t make it to full maturity. The whole place feels hurried, desperate to revert the scorched earth and stump-covered hillsides to its preferred vestments of mossy green and loam brown. It’s a pretty place, but it’s a forest that’s been plundered thoroughly over the years, and it’s impossible not to notice that you’re not in some untouched wilderness with centuries-old trees and the patient, unhasty atmosphere of old growth forests.
I walked down the path with Mike, casting eyes from side to side in search of our quarry. The trail we walked was carved along a mountainside that wove and undulated through a series of small gullies and expanses of steep hillside. On our left climbed a steep wall of leafy undergrowth and downed trees, spiky root balls splayed against the horizon like the fingers of a remorseful giant. It was about 2:30 PM by the time we hit the trail, and so even as we set out the shadows and gathering gloom were not far off. Between the shade of nearby peaks and the early Oregon sunset, we didn’t have a lot of time for mushroom hunting and so our pace was brisk.
We were determined that we should find golden chanterelles. We stormed down the trail for a good long while, and found some very lovely (and horrendously unpalatable) Russula emetica on the way, but no chanterelles. Then, I glanced across a small ravine that creased our path, and gasped. The hillside below on both sides was shrouded in afternoon shadows— save for one spot.
The wintery sun splashed the opposing hillside, illuminating a patch of large, prehistoric-looking sword ferns. Nestled underneath the greenery, I spotted three orange mushrooms, each one at least 5 inches tall. Since they were at about the same altitude as I was, I could clearly see their battle-horn shape, grooved wrinkles and waffly margins curling outwards into the sunlight.
I took off into the ravine at once, determined to reach these fantastic chanterelle mushrooms by the shortest route available.
This proved to be a disastrous mistake.
Three steps down the hillside, I realized that the incline was rather sharper than I had thought, and I discovered that my only way to get down the hill was to slide to the bottom on an increasingly wet bum. I thought about turning back, but decided that my shoes were sturdy enough to take it, and that come what may, soggy pants would be a small price to pay for success on my first mushroom hunt.
Six steps into my (literally) precipitous decision, I discovered that the ravine was lined with partially decomposed fir and alder logs. Underneath my feet, like 20 to 25 feet underneath, I heard the trickle of a small stream. The sound of a brook is usually quite peaceful to me, and so I was struck by irony and terror at the same time when I figured out that I was suspended high above solid, bone-crunching ground. And so I paused, listened to the trickle-trickle of that terrifying little stream, looked at the mushrooms that had inflamed me so, and sweat pure lead for a moment. I realized that the humps in the “soil” were in fact logs that I was perched on, precariously suspended between two ends of a gulch.
I heard the “soil” groan under me, and I had to make a quick choice. Either I should beat feet back to where this section of gully started, or I should shimmy none too slowly to the other side. The logs were slick with shaggy moss and infant ferns, and as I glanced over my shoulder I realized that I couldn’t tell where the logs started and the hillside left off. Looking ahead, I realized that the same was the case, except that fungal glory lay at the end of one road and not the other. Given this somewhat unfortunate turn of events, I decided to plunge forward and get my prize before I got swallowed whole by Mother Nature. I have the grace of a brahma-giraffe hybrid, and so I floundered across the gulf, catching my feet between the logs right before I reached the other side. All the while, Mike called useless warnings from the safe side of the embankment, and I frantically tried to play it off like this shit wasn’t downright terrifying.
Tingling with adrenaline and bum most decidedly soaked with grime and topsoil, I reached the three golden chanterelles and gulped air. Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta. The mushrooms were beautiful, even more so up close. I sliced the freshest-looking golden chanterelle, and held it up to my nose and inhaled its rich, fungal fragrance. I also inhaled a few gnats that were loitering around my prize. I carefully brushed the woodland duff off my prize, and realized that in spite of the bugs, I wanted to eat this specimen. It was treasure. I placed it in my basket and collected the other two, then tromped up to the trail to greet Mike, who was somewhat flushed from laughing at my sorry ass.
“I got it!” I exclaimed, showing him my first-ever wild-gathered golden chanterelle.
“Good job, you’re a mushroom hunter!” He replied, a wry smile on his face. “Next time, try to remember that they don’t run away, so you don’t have to hunt them down so quickly.”
We also found some amazing Pholiota mushrooms that day. But that’s another story.