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’Shrooming in the high country

Each August, when the weather tends to be warm and rainy, dozens of varieties of wild mushrooms begin to appear in local yards and in the surrounding countryside.

These are unique from the mushrooms found in local markets. A wild mushroom must be collected “from the wild” and cannot be cultivated on a mushroom farm. Therefore, mushrooms such as tender chanterelles or robust boletes are seldom found fresh in stores. They may be purchased in dried/dehydrated form, but mushroom aficionados will tell you they just don’t taste the same as fresh ones.

Mushroom sightings elicit a variety of human responses. First, there are those who greet mushrooms with suspicion and loathing, having heard stories for years about deadly poisonous varieties. Next are people who react with strong curiosity about which mushrooms are edible and which are best left alone. Then there are the photographers, who react with delight and anticipation about what they might capture on film. Finally, there is that increasing group of individuals who approach mushroom season with growing excitement; they begin salivating early in the summer in anticipation of the delights they might find.

Among this latter group are two knowledgeable local mushroom hunters, Jim Carson and Ron Chacey. They have been bitten hard by the mushrooming bug. They have studied the species extensively, have gathered countless edible mushrooms and have willingly shared their knowledge with interested individuals and groups for years.

Jim became interested in mushrooms when he came to the area with a friend. Jim and his wife, Jean, were introduced to mushrooms by this friend, and the interest was strengthened and reinforced when Jim met local rancher and mushroom lover, Betty Feazel.

Ron was a mushroom hunter for many years before he and his wife, Windsor, moved to Pagosa Springs. He became deeply interested here because of the large number of easily identifiable mushrooms. Locally, he has found and eaten 16 varieties. He says there are additional edible varieties here, but he has not studied them enough to positively identify or collect them. He further says that he knows the mushrooms he picks, but he and Jim both warn that the general population needs to be very cautious about what they pick. There are countless “look-alikes” out there. Both Ron and Jim are excellent resources for anyone wishing to learn more about mushrooming, and both are willing to share their experiences and expertise.

Their advice regarding preparation and precautions involves a lot of common sense. One nice thing about mushroom hunting, Jim says, is that no expensive clothing or equipment is required. He first recommends comfortable walking shoes with good traction. Furthermore, he suggests that bags for carrying mushrooms be made of canvas, mesh or brown paper. Sun block, drinking water, a sturdy knife and a soft mushroom brush are the only necessary items you need to carry.

Ron further recommends a washcloth for cleaning dirt from the mushrooms before placing them in the bag. He carries a canvas bag with a shoulder strap so he is not burdened with carrying the bag by hand. Both men suggest carrying small bags within the larger one so the harvested species of mushrooms can be separated. Ron’s knife is tethered to his bag so he does not lose or forget it when he cuts a mushroom. There are undoubtedly lots of lost or forgotten knives scattered where mushroom seekers have dropped them.

This is an activity that can easily be enjoyed by a couple or a group. Mushrooms are often difficult to see, and with several pairs of eyes scouting a particular area, chances for a successful hunt increase. This leads to another piece of equipment that can be helpful — a simple whistle. If hunting with a group, signals can be agreed upon at the outset of the foray. One blast might mean “I’m over here.” This is a good signal if you have kept your eyes focused on the ground for so long that you no longer know where you are. Two blasts could mean “I heard you.” Three blasts could mean “I’ve found a mushroom. Come look.” Your group or partner can agree upon your own signals.

A little knowledge can be dangerous, and this is so true for mushroom hunters. Jim and Ron offer some simple yet vital precautions. These include, but are not limited to:

• Know all the characteristics of the mushrooms you are seeking. Be aware of any and all look-alike species that might be confused with the ones you want to eat.

• Carry at least one mushroom guidebook and more if possible. An additional “guide” to have along, if at all possible, is the two-legged kind, experienced in the hunt.

• Eat only a small amount at first. You could be allergic to an edible species, one that might have no adverse effect on others. Mushroom allergies are not that different from peanut or shellfish allergies.

• Do not eat mushrooms raw. All mushrooms have a certain amount of toxicity, some more than others. Cooking takes care of this issue. This is especially true of wild mushrooms.

• Insects or insect holes in mushrooms are not harmful. If you accidentally bite into one, it is harmless, though perhaps not too pleasant. Do not be afraid of edible varieties that have holes.

• Clean the mushrooms thoroughly before you place them in the bag. If you don’t, you will find that the dirt seems to multiply and attach itself to other mushrooms, thus making more work for you when you arrive home.

• Do not simply pull up mushrooms by their roots. You have a knife to cut the mushroom at the root or to gently dig it out of the ground. You wouldn’t cut an entire limb to pick an apple, for example, so give the mushrooms that same consideration.

• Whenever in doubt about the safety of a mushroom, leave it alone until you can ask an expert, or until you learn to properly use the field guides and understand all the unique characteristics of each mushroom. This is also true of mushrooms that are old, do not smell quite right, or are doubtful looking. You would not knowingly eat a rotten tomato or strawberry, would you?

• Watch for potential hazards. These could include snakes, bears, steep slopes, exposed tree roots, holes, lightning, or rapidly building clouds.

Some of the most common and popular edible mushrooms found locally are Puffballs (from 7,000 to roughly 9,000 feet elevation) and the Boletus Edulis (king boletes), Morchella (morels) and Cantharellus Cibarius (chanterelles) which are found at higher elevations, such as toward the top of Wolf Creek Pass.

Several Colorado communities host mushroom festivals each year. Festivals this month include ones in Creede, Crested Butte, Telluride and Buena Vista. If you are interested in a mushroom foray that is relatively close to home, the Creede festival might be a good one for you. The contact number is (800) 327-2102.

For more information, the Web address for the Colorado Mycological Society is www.cmsweb.org.

Mushroom field guides are available locally, at festivals, at most book stores, and online. These are some recommendations from our local hunters.

• Guide to Mushrooms, by Simon and Schuster, Edited by G. H. Lincoff.

• A Field Guide to Western Mushrooms, by Alexander Smith.

• Mushrooms of North America, by Orson Miller, Jr. (a very detailed research-oriented publication).

• Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains, by Vera Stucky Evenson, published in cooperation with Denver Botanical Gardens and Denver Museum of Natural History.

If you ever find yourself in a mushroom poisoning situation, proper treatment depends largely on rapid identification of the type of poison. Important information to provide includes a sample of the offending mushroom, the location where the mushroom was found, and most importantly, the time lapse between eating the mushroom and first noticing symptoms. For your reference, but hopefully never for your need, is the phone number for Rocky Mountain Poison Control, (800) 222-1222.

A mushroom hunt or “foray” is not a guarantee that you will find mushrooms. Nor is it an effort to gather them in over abundance. It is a chance to visit an environment that is expected to produce mushrooms, an opportunity to observe them in their natural habitats, a chance to identify them through a hands-on experience, and a time to learn to use appropriate human or written resources for identification. The hunt can be an enjoyable social event and a time of good fellowship with people who share an interest in this particular feature of our outdoors. It is a lifelong learning experience. Right now is a perfect time of year for you to get started.