The rain has come. Most of us grimace and grit our teeth at the first few showers of the year, preparing to hunker down inside our rain gear and under umbrellas for the next few months. The first weeks are the hardest, we slip into the early stages of recovery – anger and denial, refusing to venture out, to give in to soggy pants legs and cold hands. We brace ourselves for the time change and the short, gray days of winter. We might cancel the first hike of the season due to rain and stay home instead to make cookies or contemplate taking up an indoor hobby, perhaps some kind of craft. We might as well, we think, just wait for the ski season.
In reality, we should be celebrating. These first warm rains bring the mushrooms.
The ease and abundance of Pacific Northwest fall mushroom hunting is more than enough reason to buck up against the rains early in the season. In a good year, one that is warm and wet and the rains arrive in the weeks before Halloween, even inexperienced and accidental hunters can come home with armloads of edible wild mushrooms in just a couple of hours. A good year makes a walk in the woods something more akin to a treasure hunt than a hike; adults turn into giddy school kids, squealing with glee when they find an untouched patch of matsutakes, carefully stacking them into baskets to keep them safe. A good year gives us reason to get outside during the shoulder season.
This is a good year.
The best early indication of a good season are the mushroom camps. Wild mushrooms are exactly that, wild. They hide dormant under the duff for most of the year, waiting for just the right conditions before pushing through the surface. Most species are persnickety, requiring a specific combination of elevation, light and growing surface, making them difficult and expensive to cultivate. Somebody has to go out and find them. That’s where the mushroom camps come in. Mushroom camps are tiny village camps, some improvised, others hosted by local ski resorts – or even the Forest Service – that pop up in areas with abundant mushrooms. They teem with rubber-boot clad hobbyists, enthusiastic foodies, migrant workers with five gallon buckets strapped across their shoulders and buyers with pickup trucks. In a bad year, you would hardly even know the camps exist. In a good year, the buyers sit in dense clusters along the highway waiting for even casual hunters to unload some of their bounty. This year, there are large, hand-printed signs heralding camps and mushroom hunting hikes and tours.
The best part of this is that, if you’re new to mushroom hunting, you get a great sense of where to start looking. There is a long-standing tradition of secrecy among even the most casual of mushroom hunters that rivals the magicians code. “Thou shalt not reveal your hunting grounds.” It’s both necessary and irritating. Reliable patches make for easy hunting and will provide you with more than one bloom – if you’re the only one that knows about it. In a bad year, no one will tell you where to find mushrooms. But this is a good year and, in good years, people feel generous. The abundance allows them to hand out info on hunting grounds that may only produce a few mushrooms in a regular year, but make for decent hunting when conditions are right. Good years are for learning, watching how others hunt, finding your own grounds and getting out with people who know what they’re doing.
The season is on. Buck up, dig out your rain coat and grab a basket. There’s reason yet to get outside.
Mushroom Hunting Basics:
Buy a good mushroom field guide, and read through it before setting out. My favorite is All That the Rain Promises, and More… by David Arora.
Find out what kind of mushrooms you’re looking for before you set out, and choose your destination based on their habitat needs.
Go with someone more experienced with you. Not all mushrooms are safe to eat – make sure you know what you are looking for.
Check the regulations. Some kinds of mushrooms require permits to harvest.
Be low impact. Always harvest with a knife and replace the duff cover.
Don’t over-harvest. Take only what you will use and plan on coming back for a second round.
Double check. Lay your mushrooms out at home and double check your identification. If you have any doubt, throw it out.
Reduce waste. In good years its easy to harvest more than you can eat. Share with friends, dehydrate or saute and freeze your extra harvest to eat throughout the winter.