Last week, overnight, my yard suddenly became full of mushrooms. And I mean full. When I stepped out of the house one afternoon and saw the little white spores peeking their heads out of every crevice, stretching up towards the overcast sky in adorably arranged trios and pairs, I felt like I was walking through a story book. It was the perfect fall scene—I was completely surrounded by fallen leaves, softly drizzling rain, and a smattering of speckled fungi. But, while I appreciated the aesthetic, the mushrooms’ sudden appearance was somewhat jarring. I couldn’t help but wonder where they’d all come from, how they’d popped into existence so fast. I was fascinated by these mysterious organisms, and in that moment I became determined to find out more.
Luckily, I had a readily available resource. Elliot Nopp (12), mushroom hunter extraordinaire, had long been urging me to join him on a foraging trip, and, finally, I agreed. As a complete mushroom beginner, I had almost no idea what to expect. I pictured entire fields of chanterelles, delicious lobster mushrooms growing by the dozen, all of them ripe for the picking. With these images dancing through my head, I grabbed my little sister, masked up, and drove out to the Gorge, eager for the mushrooming to begin.
Turns out, mushroom hunting was almost nothing like I’d expected. After a rocky start with a closed trailhead, we found a nice little spot and started hiking. But we didn’t happen upon any mushroom meccas. Instead, the process was slow, and somewhat random. Every time we saw a mushroom we’d stop, grab it, and stick it in the basket with the others. Since we were planning to identify them at home later, none of us were even sure if any of them would be edible in the end. Even so, we walked for a few hours, just hiking and talking, all of us keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of shrooms, and ended up with a pretty big haul. The basket rode home in the backseat, bouncing along, full to the brim with mystery mushrooms.
Later, I dumped it out on our kitchen table, pulled out my guidebook, and got to work seeing what I could learn about our finds. I snapped, sniffed, and examined closely, and was able to label a few—a milky cap, an elfin-saddle, and, most excitingly, a shrimp russula, which was described in the book as “delicious” and which my dad (bravely) cooked up and ate for breakfast the following morning. The rest of our hard-fought discoveries, at this point little more than a sticky, slimy pile of mess, ended up in the compost bin, but I still felt accomplished.
We may not have found much of anything we could eat, but according to Nopp, that’s actually kind of the norm. “Well, ideally I find a few mushrooms to eat,” he told me, “but it’s also nice to just get out in the woods and go for a hike.” Although he’s earned somewhat of a reputation for being a mushroom fanatic, Nopp stressed in our interview that he’s really just an enthusiast, and “not an expert.” Mushrooming is more of a hobby, something he finds interesting, and a way for him to spend time outside in nature. Same goes for Miro Enriquez (12), another Franklin mushroom fan, whose entire room is covered in mushroom images and paraphernalia. “I’ve always thought mushrooms were really cute, which was my initial motivation for being interested in them at all,” she said, gesturing towards a picture of a red-and-white-spotted toadstool on her wall. “But I also think they’re super fascinating organisms.” Enriquez has delved into the foraging world herself, mainly as research for a documentary piece she created in her Video Production class last year. While she’s been out hunting a couple of times, she’s always been too nervous to eat anything she found, even when assisted by a guide. “Since so many mushrooms have lookalikes, it’s a dangerous hobby to have,” she explained. “If you really want to forage, there’s definitely some risk. You have to know what you’re doing.”
And it’s definitely true that there are dangers to mushroom hunting. It’s vital that you don’t eat a mushroom unless you’re extremely confident that you know what it is, since some varieties are fairly poisonous. Even though, according to Nopp, most mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest will at worst cause a little gastrointestinal distress, it’s much better to err on the side of caution when dealing with them. “I would say only eat ones that either don’t have a lookalike, or whose lookalikes are easy to tell apart and aren’t very poisonous,” Nopp suggested. Both Nopp and Enriquez also recommended that any novice foragers bring a guidebook with them (All That the Rain Promises and More, by David Arora, is a fan favorite). This is an essential resource that can help you use the mushroom’s characteristics, like color, shape, and structure, to determine what species of fungus it is, and whether or not it’s safe to consume. It’s also extremely fun to use, and made me feel like a mushroom detective!
Even though my mushroom outing wasn’t very fruitful in terms of providing dinner, it was still a great experience. If nothing else, it was a lovely, peaceful hike that got me out in nature and helped me safely hang out with friends in a time where opportunities for doing so are limited. In the end, I found myself worrying less about discovering a slew of delicious mushrooms, and focusing instead on the journey itself, which I took as a valuable reminder that not everything I do has to be productive. So, if you’re ever seeking a little escape, diving into the world of mushrooming is something I’d highly recommend. With the right guidebook, the right attitude, and the right group of friends, you never know what you could find!