As we arrived for a bike ride in Estacada, Oregon, we couldn’t help but notice the big banner across one of the downtown streets: “Festival of the Fungus.” Having never heard of a fungus festival, our curiosity was peaked. Especially after a stop in Mossy Rock, the nature shop colorfully decorated with a mural depicting every possible way you could enjoy a trail in the area, from camping to whitewater rafting to birding. We’d stumbled across an Oregon trail town.
In the window of Mossy Rock, a garden of glass mushrooms sprouted, a cornucopia of sizes and colors. Photos and photo cards of mushrooms filled the walls. In browsing for a book on local botany, I came across the broadest selection of books of mushrooms I’d ever seen. Proprietor Marilyn O’Grady – who moved to this former logging town to work for Audubon, and then opened the nature shop with her husband more than a dozen years ago – practically beamed as she pointed out botanical art by friends and family. “My husband is out photographing mushrooms right now,” she said.
Photographing is one thing. But you do not just walk into the woods and start plucking mushrooms. First, many are poisonous, and it’s critical to know the difference. Second, you need a permit. And so we went to the Clackamas River Ranger District just up the road to sign up for our free use Mushroom Permit from the US Forest Service. The ranger solemnly handed us a photocopied map of where we could and couldn’t go. The permit has 23 conditions, ranging from harvest limits (1 gallon per person per day) to holding the USFS harmless if your mushrooms kill you.
We wouldn’t dare go mushroom hunting without a guide. The trip we’d signed up for included one: Tours With Steve. A seasoned explorer, forestry grad, and horticulturist, Steve Schmidt has an obvious passion for his favorite subject matter. We met him behind Mossy Rock to follow him up into the mountains to where the mushrooms grow. Mt. St. Helens was visible in the distance as pavement turned to gravel and the dense coniferous forest swallowed us.
In a clearing, our group split in two after Steve provided an introduction to mushrooms, filled with new to us facts. For instance, there is a vast below-ground network of threadlike mycelium from which mushrooms emerge, and the mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of it. A student of mycelium, Steve suggested that it senses movement in the forest, from a fall of a leaf to a footfall. My long held assumption that mushrooms provided no nutrients to a meal was overturned. “They’re packed with protein,” Steve said, and gave an example of Russian peasants supplementing their diets with mushrooms eaten on meatless Fridays.
We first walked with naturalist Diana Reeck, a retired nursery owner who patiently answered our “what’s that?” questions as we strolled down a forest road, of everything from the towering Douglas firs, weeping spruce, and western hemlock to the tiny club-moss and frog’s-belly lichen. She showed us an unappealing but edible slimy, milky lacera, and mustard-colored deadly poisonous mushrooms right by our van, as well as dozens of others. She pointed out the difference of pores vs gills on a mushroom, and how the “false chanterelle” or aurantiaca had a hollow core.
Before her colleague Leah Bendlin led us into the woods to do actual foraging, a safety check was in order. We wore bright orange and yellow – the better to spot each other, and for hunters to see us – and carried whistles. She also instituted a “whoop whoop” call for the group to answer. As we quickly found out, diving into the dense underbrush of this coniferous forest, we could lose sight of each other just a few feet away. She pointed to where the sun was and noted we’d need the sun to our backs to emerge on the road again. Mushroom hunters get lost a lot, the USFS ranger had told us, and one had just been found after five days in the woods.
We stuck close to Leah, clambering over logs and pushing through dense brush. Sometimes she’d point out the clusters of chanterelles, and sometimes we found them ourselves. We showed her many other smaller and more delicate mushrooms, but none were worthy of the bucket, and a few were poisonous.
I stopped to remove my fleece, and in bushwhacking, realized I’d left my camera on a stump. In a panic, I mentally retraced the route I’d taken and managed to find it. Soon after, John found Leah’s radio, which snagged on a log. Pushing through this dry trackless thicket was way harder than hiking Big Cypress. “I’ll pay for my mushrooms next time,” he said, hurting but grinning.
The bushwhacking eased up as the forest became less dense and we could see the road we’d come in on. We paralleled it and were rewarded with some fine finds. It didn’t take long to max out our limit – assuming it was volume, not weight – and walk back up the road, grateful it wasn’t rainy, wet, or slippery out.
While eating lunch at Granny’s afterwards and talking about our foraging, the man at the next table – who was taking his grandson out for a birthday milkshake -put forth the main reason you don’t want to head off on your own without knowing what you’re doing. “I wouldn’t do that. My mom went to school with a lady whose mother was sick for three weeks after eating a mushroom!”
Our expert-blessed mushrooms passed muster that evening. After all, with chanterelles selling for $15/lb and our permit allowing personal use only, what else would we do but eat them? At the Resort at the Mountain, the chef at Altitude prepared them three ways: pickled, sautéed, and simmered in a Marsala sauce. We enjoyed them all, but the Marsala won hands down
The Festival of the Fungus happens November 4 in Estacada. Find out more at http://estacadafungusassociation.org