Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mushroom hunting: Love at first sight

If you believe the old saw that men are hunters and women are gatherers, then all is not right in my household, and not just for the obvious reason that I love hunting.

See, Boyfriend loves foraging, and he has noticed that I ... uh ... don't. If he didn't need me to take photos on his foraging trips, I might never accompany him on them at all. It's not that I hate foraging; I just don't love it.

When we went mushroom hunting last weekend, I went along to take photos as usual, but something funny happened: I fell in love with it. It turns out that the quest for a mere fungus - a stationary object! - actually tickles some of the same synapses that hunting does. Who knew? Read more...
Our guide on this trip was Fat of the Landauthor/blogger Langdon Cook, who took us to some of his spots on the east side of the Cascades in Washington state.

Before this trip, I would've called what we were about to do "foraging," but Lang kept referring to it as "mushroom hunting." I didn't know why, but I was about to find out.

Lang hauled us out to some National Forest land in his well-worn Volkswagen Westfalia and went barreling down a dirt road until he found a spot that 1) felt mushroomy and 2) didn't have other mushroom hunters there.

He could somehow tell the difference between mushroom hunters' cars and ordinary hikers' or campers' cars. I didn't quite get it, but I could relate: When you're pulling into a National Wildlife Refuge to go duck hunting, you can definitely tell the difference between hunters' cars and birders'. Birders tend to drive Subarus and Volvos, and tend to wear clothing from REI; hunters favor Ford F150s and wear clothing from Cabela's.

The etiquette was similar: If mushroom hunters were already there, it wasn't cool to barge in on their space. It was also important, once we got out to forage, to do our best NOT to look like mushroom hunters, so as to avoid tipping off competitors that we might be in a good spot. My camera was actually an excellent decoy - "Uh, yeah, nature photography, that's what we're doing here." Heh heh heh.

Starting to get why I liked it?

We had two targets on this trip: spring porcini and morels. At our first stop, Lang excused himself to take a quick survey of our area, then came back and said this was a good spot. He walked us over toward a tree and said, "Holly, do you see anything here?"

I scanned the pine needle-covered ground and spotted two porcini right away. Too easy! Lang showed us how to gently dig around their edges and where on the base to cut them, ensuring that any remaining nubs might have a chance to grow. Then he showed us how to cut away the dirtiest parts of the base, which is part of the "field dressing" process.

Then we spread out in the forest looking for mushrooms. They weren't all as easy as the first two, for sure - you have to develop an eye for the habitat they prefer, as well as for the telltale shape and color easily overlooked by the novice. For example, if you saw this photo anywhere but in this blog post, would you have any clue that you were looking at three porcini?

It seems obvious to me now, but if you're not wearing your mushroom vision, you'd never see those. Oh, in case you missed them, here they are:

Yep, they're the same color as the leaves on the ground.

So I really began to appreciate the whole watchfulness thing, the way you have to relax your vision and look for patterns that feel mushroomy. It's exactly how I feel when I'm out pig hunting, scanning vast open hillsides and looking for that odd little shape that just might be a bedded-down pig. This was way more fun than picking berries, for sure.

When that area was hunted out, Lang took us up the road to another spot where most of our foraging would be done from a path. Why? Morels like disturbed ground, so trails are actually great places to look. And this trail in particular was loaded with a kind of tree that porcini tend to associate with - and no, I can't tell you what kind of tree.

We headed up the trail and I always found myself lagging. Lang's mushroom eye is so good that he can speed along and either spot them or determine a spot isn't so good, but I preferred to linger in one spot a bit longer. I remembered an article from about a study of foragers from a rural village in Mexico. "Using GPS and activity monitors, the researchers found that men were less efficient--they traveled farther, went higher, and exerted more effort than women for the same amount of mushrooms."

"Lang, have you noticed a difference in how women hunt for mushrooms versus men?"

He had. My dawdling method was not uncommon among women, and he recalled one mushroom hunting trip in which a woman who hung back from the more widely-ranging men and hit a real mother lode of mushrooms.

When we decided to turn around and head back to the van, I warned the guys to go in front of me, because I liked going slowly.

I ambled back, and found some porcini here and there, and then I noticed a deer trail going straight up the mountainside. I hadn't seen it coming from the other direction, but from this direction, it was more obvious than a two-bit hooker on the nice side of town.

I looked up that hill and decided I needed to go up there. It seemed inexplicably right. So I did. So much for just men ranging far and wide!

My boots dug into the duff and low tree branches slapped me as I burrowed through deer-sized passages. Finally I came up to a deer bed, and in it I found one solitary fawn leg - must've been a tiny baby that got himself et - and a single morel.

Reward! My gut had told me to go up this path, and I got what I was looking for. I kept moving up and found a few more before I decided I should get back, lest the guys think I'd fallen off a cliff someplace.

When I did, I found the cutest scene: They'd decorated a full basket of mushrooms with some edible wild violets that would become part of our salad that night, and they were sitting there drinking beer:

Awwww, isn't that cute?

I told them I'd gone up a deer trail, and Lang said it was a good move, because morels love deer trails. Could this mean I maybe had a knack for this? Fuel that fire, baby!

Back at camp, we had the most amazing camp dinner ever, featuring tons of the mushrooms we'd collected that day:


The next morning, we hit a couple more spots near our camp before heading out to a new location, where the first thing we saw was a family panning for gold, the head of the family sporting a .22 semiautomatic in a holster, fingering the clip in his hand.

He was totally friendly, gun notwithstanding. Lang told him we were mushrooming, and he told us that if we headed up the dirt road behind him for about three quarters of a mile, we should find a bunch of morels.

We followed that road, climbing over trees that had blown down across it, and began spotting morels here and there on the side. At one point Lang went ahead, and Boyfriend decided to chill in one spot for a while, taking it easy on that Achilles tendon he'd ruptured in December. And me, I spotted an elk trail and decided going up would be the smartest thing I could do.

It was downright eerie, how certain I was about the spots I needed to hit. I'd look up the hill and think to myself, "Hmmmm. There," and every single time I'd find morels in that spot. Often, but not always, they were elk beds, covered in a fringy moss, bathed in just a little more sunshine than the rest of the forest floor.

Euphoria flooded my brain. Is there anything so sweet in this world as following your gut and getting it right?

If I were a little more mystical, I'd say the mushrooms were talking to me. But because I live with my feet planted firmly on the ground, I'd have to say that mushroom hunting just happens to play to one of my strong suits: my ability to detect and make sense of patterns.

And while having a good eye in hunting is really helpful, in mushroom hunting, it is everything. Once you find mushrooms, there's no shooting or tracking - those babies are yours. And they're really valuable - if you wanted to buy them, you'd have to pay $30 a pound.

After a while, I heard Boyfriend calling me, and began making my way back down the mountain. This would be the end of our trip.

But it would not be our last mushroom-hunting trip. On the long drive back to Sacramento, Boyfriend and I plotted our next moves. Normally our calendar is planned around wild game hunting seasons, but now we had a new season to consider.

Back home, we still might be able to find morels at the highest elevations, before the summer heat really sets in. And fall porcini season is just around the corner.

NOTE: Not all mushrooms in this slideshow are considered edible, and one is quite deadly. There's a reason we stuck to morels and porcini - can you spot the fatal amanita here? If you're interested in seeing what became of the mushrooms we collected, keep an eye on Boyfriend's blog - he'll be posting about the dishes he's made soon.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Anonymous said...

I love it! I also hunted for Morels this spring and noticed that when my husband joined me on day two that he covered much more ground with less return. Soooo, much fun! We also found leeks on these trips.

Very cool that you followed your instincts. Last fall in Ontario a game trail called to me and when I broke out on top of ledge I thought it would be the prefect place to find a shed. I said, "Antler, antler, antler." like Dorothy wishing for home and there it was! A beautiful, heavy, eight point shed!

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

I hear you, Holly! A local friend of mine is quite the mushroom hunter and I enjoy going out with him. Spotting mushrooms often does take a hunter's eye.

And some people, like you, really do seem to have a knack for it. Another friend and his two young sons accompanied us once and it was uncanny how the older of the two boys would suddenly turn, head over a little rise, and go like an arrow to a particular mushroom.

Years before I hunted deer or edible mushrooms, I found a similar satisfaction in spotting certain medicinal mushrooms that Catherine was learning to use. I was doing forestry and logging work at the time, giving me lots of time in the woods and great opportunities to spot the fungi I sought.

Fun post!

Josh said...

What a great time!

Some comments:

Uhmm, as a Subaru Forester driver, I take umbrage at the statement, although it's true when you look in the parking lots there. I like being the dude with the little car that can go darn-near anywhere the big ones can, though I have to do it at 25+ mph sometimes, instead of 3. The limited-slip diff. on my Forester is better than the standard 4wd on a typical truck.

As for your trying not to look like mushroom hunters... dude, y'all were in a VW! At that rate, the only thing you can do is question what KIND of mushroom your hunting! : )
By the way, is his VW a 4wd? Those are very cool.

I'm glad to see courtesy in action: Having to avoid looking like hunters, so the slob hunters wouldn't just crowd in, while still being cool with other hunters' space. You all are the good guys, for sure.

Holly Heyser said...

Josh: Of course I wrote that line about distinguishing between hunters and birders having been assumed to be a birder many times that I've pulled into a refuge, simply because I drive a girly SUV (Rav4) and because I'm a woman. I do know a couple hunters with Subarus and they love them. But they're not the norm.

Wendy: Fascinating! I don't think I could say that I got more morels than Lang, but I definitely felt more comfortable puttering about. Until I saw the deer/elk trails. And when puttering, I definitely spotted mushrooms that Lang and Hank had missed.

Tovar, I hope I have the knack! The first thing I thought was "beginner's luck," but after a while, it certainly felt like I was making good choices. We'll see what happens when Hank and I go mushroom hunting without Lang taking us to known hot spots.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record...I drive a Subaru Outback. A truck would be handy but the Subaru has seen it's share of game!!

Holly Heyser said...

LOL. I love my Rav4. Guys at the refuge always wonder how I can fit all my duck gear and decoys in there, but they fit really well. Only downside is there's only room for one passenger when I'm geared up. If I ever get a dog, I'm either going to have to get really creative or hunt solo all the time.

David J Blackburn said...

u right gud. my brother-in-law likes shroom huntin, but just wasn't able to convey the experience like you did. Deer and elk trails, huh?

Holly Heyser said...

Yup! I was pretty excited to learn that trails were a good starting point, because that means you can combine scouting with mushroom hunting. Woot!

Phillip said...

Not sure I'll ever get into it like you guys, but it does sound like a great way to spend a day in the field.

Now if I could find those shrooms and pigs in the same place (and for all I know, I could), it might be more of a temptation.

Oh, and as far as the Subaru... I'll never forget the old guy in our deer club when I was a kid. He had a little Subaru wagon that he would take almost anywhere the rest of the club could take their big trucks. We'd head out in the mornings in something of a caravan, with him in his Subaru and my dad in our old Corolla wagon bringing up the rear. We never got stuck and never missed a hunt.

Holly Heyser said...

Hmmm, given that morels like disturbed ground, I'm thinking pigs would be VERY good for morel hunting.

As for the Subarus, when I wrote this, I of course thought of Crazy Jim pulling into hunting camp at an ungodly hour in his Subaru, then accidentally triggering his car alarm...

SimplyOutdoors said...

Mushroom hunting, especially for Morels, is huge in Michigan. Sadly, though, I've never been. The best time to hunt them around here tends to be during turkey season, and, though I am in the woods, mushrooms are not the thing I'm looking for or concentrating on.

Then, once turkey season is over, and I could actually try to hunt some down, fishing takes over my brain, and mushrooms are a fading memory.

After your experience, though, Holly, and after reading this post, I might have to try and add it to the calendar next year. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Hopefully I'm a natural like you:)

Holly Heyser said...

It's definitely worth a try. And morels are easy to spot - they look NOTHING like the false morel, which is the last photo in the slideshow here. (Apparently, some people eat that mushroom, but Lang said it contains one of the compounds you find in rocket fuel. Mmmmm. Tasty.)

Cork Graham said...

Hey, Holly --
Sure looks like you Hank had a blast with Lang!

...Love how those on your list use any vehicle they can get: reminds me how from the 1980s until I got my first Dodge Ram in 1999, I successfully did all my backcountry hunting, fishing and camping trips in a souped up 1972 VW Bug.

My fondest memory was coming back from Lake Almanor with the largest 3x3 blacktail/mule deer mix I've ever taken. On the drive back to San Francisco, I was in the driver's seat, and he was in a game bag in the passenger seat, his immense antlers having ripped a hole in the ceiling upholstery. The looks as we sped down I5 were priceless. LOL.

Sure wish our season on the northcoast was better: the rain coming and going and really making everything that much less predictable than the normal unpredictability: normally getting porcinis and other goodies during wild pig season, just before the spring turkey opener. My buddies that I get almost guaranteed success with were many times skunked this year....though one buddy up near Clear Lake lucked into a motherlode of morels. He's marked the burn, but we'll see what happens with the rain next year.


Langdon Cook said...

Lovely post, Holly. If memory serves, I hadn't mentioned the elk/deer trail connection with morels; you figured out that piece of the puzzle on your own. Which is one of my favorite things about mushroom hunting--the endless theorizing and problem-solving. Sunday Times crossword meets the woods. It was a pleasure to see you and Hank dial in on the joys of the hunt in an all-new kingdom, fungi. And not everyone is lucky enough to cruise the logging roads in my '88 campervan (known affectionately as The Loaf); some have to settle for our other vehicle, a Subaru Outback... ;)

Holly Heyser said...

Memory serves you - you hadn't mentioned it before that first trip I took up the hill, though I could've inferred as much from the fact that a human trail was a good place to look. In truth, though, I just really wanted to go up that trail.

The Westfalia rocked! And people like you and Josh are going to screw up my Subaru generalizations if you're not careful.

Even so, if you're really lucky, I'll take you out in my duckmobile sometime soon. That would be my Rav4 that spends its winters crusted in mud and blood and feathers, smelling of swamp more and more every day, until the season finally ends and the vacuum cleaner sucks out all the evidence of great hunts and the Rav becomes a normalmobile again and I revert to acting the part of a mild-mannered professor. OK, well most of that was true.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Just to put another nail in the Subaru-image coffin: I do have a pickup truck, but our other car is a Subaru. And, for several of my hunter friends, a Subie is their only set of wheels... ;-)

Chas S. Clifton said...

I'm jealous. Mushroom-hunting here in southern Colorado does not really get rolling until late summer.

By the way, one elk-hunter friend has a Subaru--it's also the kid-mobile--as well as a big ol' pickup truck.

But the latter is mainly for hauling water--he's one of these people living in the country who does not have a well.

Holly Heyser said...

Ooooh, I've hauled water before. Not fun.

But yeah, the mushroom hunting was sweeeet - if I weren't busy traveling right now, I'd be heading up to high elevations of the Sierras to search for more morels. But I'm in Gloucester, Mass., at the moment, so maybe I'll luck into some oyster mushrooms...

Michael said...

Great inspirational story, Thanks! I love mushroom hunting but don't have the time to spend to locate the edible mushrooms. I never liked the secrecy behind it all. Why can't you tell me the tree that those mushrooms like? I wish mushroom hunters where more open to sharing places to help us novices out. I guess there is always whole foods store.

Holly Heyser said...

Hey Michael, mushroom hunters are secretive for the same reason animal hunters are - because giving away too much can mean a good spot is destroyed. But I agree that it can get ridiculous. Lord, I've been chewed out for saying I had a good day of duck hunting at Delevan National Wildlife Refuge - as if every duck hunter in NorCal doesn't already know that's a great place to go.

In this case, our host is pretty generous with information, but that tree info is the one thing he asked us not to share. It's not that hard to figure out, though - if you're out mushroom hunting, whenever you find a bunch, take note of the soil, what's covering the soil (pine needles, leaves, etc.), the trees closest to the mushrooms and pretty soon you'll make the connections yourself. It's actually part of the joy of discovery.

I don't know where you live, but you might be able to find a class/guided tour. I think it's important as a beginner to go out with experts for several reasons:

1. Proper identification to avoid, oh, you know, death.

2. Learning from experts is faster than learning from trial and error.

3. Etiquette. Some of it is common sense - don't crowd the people who get there before you. Don't just pull the mushroom - leave some behind so more might sprout (where applicable). But I'd hate to commit an accidental faux pas.

You ought to be able to find a happy medium between doing a little foraging and turning over your salary at Whole Paycheck.