There are several different types of mushroom hunters. Some pick for a living, some for sport or the table, some simply because they get great satisfaction from getting out in the woods and having an excuse to stroll in a leisurely fashion, rather than hiking as fast as possible, thereby missing all the cool features of the landscape. However, one thing that mushroomers tend to share is their passion for the hunt, and mycophiles love to share their big fish (or, more often, big trouble) stories.
A Brief Miscellany of Mushroom Patch Misadventures
“One time, I found so many morels I had to take off my pants and make them into a bag so I could tote them all home!”
“Last weekend, I saw some shaggy manes in someone’s lawn, right next to their rose bushes. They were just opening up and I knew they’d go bad by the end of the day, so I decided it was
worth it to rummage through my neighbor’s bushes to save the mushrooms! Too bad she saw me through the window and chased me off. One thing’s sure, I won’t get invited to Dixie and Earl’s next barbecue!”
“I don’t know what this is…it stains mulberry-red when cut. I think I’m going to put it in soup.”
“I was out in Colorado collecting porcini, and decided to take a short cut through an unpaved pass to save myself about 100 miles on the freeway. I did it because I was worried that my buddy Norm would zoom me; he left the Bay Area about 7 hours behind me but Norm’s a beast, and so while I stopped at an Econolodge after 12 hours on the road, I got a call from Norm in the early morning that he simply pushed through the night and was already at our rendezvous point. He was also cranky, so I decided it was well worth the risk to traverse the pass so I could link up with him as quickly as I could. The locals called it String Bean Pass, but even calling it a ‘pass’ is a serious overstatement. Really, String Bean is a single lane, total washboard, with a precipitous drop off the whole way across the 6000’ crest. My van’s a two wheel drive, and I’m not good at heights. It took me more than 3 hours to get through that 5.5 miles of mountain, and I was on the edge of a heart attack the entire time, I assure you. Never, ever again. Not even for porcini. Not even if Norm threatens to pick every single one in North America.”
“I thought I saw a patch of chanterelles down that hill, and decided to go down and investigate, even though these old knees don’t really like going off-trail anymore. Anyhow, sure enough, a few steps down the slope I stepped in a pile of pine needles and lost my footing! I fell ass over teakettle all the way down the hill…so lucky I didn’t break anything…anyhow, as I shook my head and started to pick myself up, I noticed that I’d fallen right into a huge patch of Boletus mirabilis, the Admirable Bolete. They were the only good edibles I found the whole foray! Oh, and the so-called chanterelle patch was just some old, yellow madrone leaves. Sneaky bastards!”
“When I was hunting bioluminescent fungi in Brazil, I had to go out at night. I am afraid of jaguars, and the rainforest at night is a creepy, intensely wild place…but when you see these beautiful glowing mushrooms, and you pull one of these things up and look at the green-glowing gills, I’d say it’s truly a religious experience. It makes my work as a mushroom photographer so rewarding, and it’s such a completion to know that these things are OUT THERE, and then to FIND them…it’s like a fabulous easter egg hunt for people who really like to live on the edge of life.”
Given these sorts of anecdotes, it’s only a matter of time before one starts to wonder just where the breaking point lies with mushroom hunters. When is the terrain too rugged, the weather too bad, the road too windy, the local predators too imposing? When does risk outweigh the thrill of the hunt?
Although I am sure I could conduct a poll to answer this question and I would get all sorts of data about which species is worth the most crazed behavior (I strongly suspect that Morchella esculenta—blonde, thick walled natural morels— or Boletus rex veris— the spring king porcini— would win), but that’s not how my brain works. I rely instead on this story, which I use like a parable to define the limits of mushroom-inspired courage and nerve.
Oregon Mushroom Hunter Spills the Beans About Bigfoot
Joe Spivack is a diehard mushroomer from Eugene, Oregon. He is one of the instructors of “How to Identify 100 Mushrooms,” a very popular course offered by Lane Community College that has been running for 20 years or more. Joe and his wife mapped the chanterelle patches on the Bureau of Land Management properties near their home before they signed papers on the place. They have a load of shiitake logs, trade mushrooms for their CSA membership, and tinker with medicinal tinctures made from the many beneficial fungi that grow wild in central Oregon.
Joe also fed me a sample of the weirdest mushroom I’ve ever eaten: a two foot long tongue of yellowish, black tufted fungus called the Greening Goat’s Foot, or Albatrellus ellisii (Ellis’s Polypore is another common name for this weirdo).
The Greening Goat’s Foot is delicious and very compatible with all sorts of cooking oils and spices,
like the morel. However, it in some ways trumps the morel because it has a winning texture; since it has no gills but is instead a polypore mushroom,so it’s substantial through and through, since the fertile tissue has the same consistency as the rest of the mushroom. Sometimes, gilled mushrooms are a pain in the bum because the gills don’t grill, saute or roast as well as the rest of the cap, leaving a small patch of mushy-strange that can be a turn-off unless the gills are properly spiced. The Greening Goat’s Foot mushroom has a consistent texture throughout, and its solid, meaty fruiting form is very good if prepared on kebabs or as a grilled meat substitute.
However, most people don’t even think to eat it because it’s hairy, mottled, and stains from yellow to a sickly pickle green when it’s bruised. Not terribly appealing, sure, but it really is an awesome food mushroom. However, if you weren’t diehard about your mushrooms, the chances of sampling it are very slim indeed. I only mention this strange polypore because it illustrates pretty clearly how open-minded Joe is, and just how enthused he is about his wild edibles.
And now that I’ve established a baseline for Joe’s fanaticism, it’s time to hit you with the counterpoint, the fable that I use as an internal measure to determine how far I should be willing to go for mushrooms.
Like many Northwesterners, the Spivacks love their golden chanterelles; they go particularly well with a fall/winter garden of kale, cabbage and carrots. Each August, Joe sneaks off to check in on a series of patches. Between late summer (almost indistinct from early summer, spring, or February given the fickle pushmepullyou between drear and drizzle that makes the Pacific Northwest the verdant, grim heaven on earth that it is) and Halloween, Joe can expect to harvest bucketloads of wrinkle-gilled, fruity chanterelles from the replanted fir stands and alder-salal-huckleberry-ivy scrambles of the Willamette Valley and Coastal Range. Joe’s got a name for each patch: The Pit, The Flat Spot, The Quiet Creek, The Ugly-Assed Alder Grove and several other spots that yield huge bounties of golden chanties every fall (and sometimes a few in the spring as well!). Joe also likes to track the mycelium from year to year: when he goes out after chanterelles on his back 9, he carries a small bundle of plastic flags, along with a map of the property. When he finds blooming chanterelles, he plants a flag and makes a corresponding mark on the map. They’re color coded by season, those marks and flags, so you can look at the map or the land, and see how the mysterious chanterelle mycelium creeps across the landscape year by year.
Like a lot of chanterelle fanboys, Joe knows a good mushroom day when he gets home with kneeling pains— in certain places in the Northwest, the chanterelles roll out like a river of gold, and the dedicated hunter becomes a harvester on hands and knees. On one legendary occasion, Joe and his hunting partner hit a chanterelle Glory Hole (yes, mushroomers actually call good patches glory holes). They busied themselves at once with harvesting their find, fully cognizant of the fact that they would never be capable (or willing) to haul all the chanterelles out of this marvelous patch. Obviously, they didn’t hike much that day, and managed to score about 180 lbs of chanterelles in 2 hours.
But onto the cautionary part of this tale, the make or break of whether or not to stick around long
enough to pick. This is what Joe related to me when I asked him when to call it quits:
This is a really bizarre story. It’s kind of grotesque. I don’t even know if I should tell it.
Once we were out mushroom hunting in this fairly far of spot out in the Coast Range. I was with a good friend John, who I go mushroom hunting with a lot….We found this….feces dump that looked like it was sasquatch. It was this HUGE, perfectly pretzeled, human-looking feces that was about the size of a cow’s feces. It was this huge, log-like tied up thing about 9 inches tall, and it was right next to this pile of chanterelles that we were picking.
…And we were like “OH MY GOD!” It was so scary to us. It’s hard to talk about because you usually don’t think of feces as SCARY so much as gross…but when we saw it, it seemed like it was steaming, and it was so huge…and it didn’t look like something that came out of a bear. It looked like something that came out of a person who was half human…And we were like “Ooooughh, my GOD, what living thing could do that?”
And we actually left the spot. We didn’t want to touch it, and we were like, “Whatever could do that….we better just get outta here.” I am not one bit sorry we decided to beat feet.
So I guess what I’m saying: if you don’t fancy the monsters that live near your mushrooms, it’s best to go home with a small basket than brave unknown perils. This of course is not to say that you shouldn’t snatch a couple shrooms before you dash to safety.