Ken Gill and Dominique Collet looked over the Kenai River, shoes planted among fallen autumn leaves. The glistening waters attract most visitors, but the pair were discussing the type of fungus growing on a tree that leaned over the water. Gill and Collet threw Latin terms back and forth, then turned around, and headed further into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Gill and Collet, leaders of the South Central Alaskan Mycological Society, were gathering edible mushrooms. Collet, originally from Belgium, came to Alaska to study natural history. He is working on a book about mushroom gathering in the area.
The mushroom society is hosting Mushroom Mania, a fungi fair, at the Kenai River Center on Funny River Road today and Saturday. The society will host mushroom gathering "forays" from 10 a.m. to noon today, a lecture on the business side of fungi culturing at 1 p.m., a species identification seminar from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and a cooking demo, which hinges on a successful foray. On Saturday the group will identify and display their mushrooms from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., go on another foray at 10 a.m., host a paper making class from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and hear a second lecture on local fungi by Collet.
Gill began cultivating mushrooms on his free time, but intellectual curiosity led him to pick mushrooms in the wild. He considers mushroom gathering a healthy activity that nets venturers free food.
"It's like a treasure hunt," he said.
The wild fungi can be substituted for their store-bought counterparts in any recipe. The pair said that they make salads, cream of mushroom soup or sauteed mushrooms with their harvests. Gill believes that the wild ones have more flavor than those found in grocery stores. He said that mushrooms can also produce homemade paper, or produce dyes of various color.
Even though this is the twilight of the mushroom season, mushrooms are still growing in the refuge. Anyone interested in starting should buy a foraging book, join a local club, or simply find a friend who is more familiar with the topic.
Collet said that it's best to gather mushrooms after a long period of rainfall.
Collet said that prospective gathers should check a forest's first line of spruce. Mushrooms typically grow at the base of these trees. The fungus connect to the tree roots to get sugar, and wires its parent tree additional nutrients from the ground.
He compared the mushroom to an apple on a tree. The visible fungus is the fruit that spreads spores. Gill said that the brains of the mushroom are underground.
"It's all over the forest," Collet said. "It's the mold in the ground."
Many naturally occurring mushrooms are non-toxic, but not all of them are worth eating either.
Gill said that heavy rains spurred a bumper crop of gypsy mushrooms this season. The prized mushrooms are identifiable by the vent-like gills underneath their brown caps. As the mushroom matures, the cap spreads out until it looks like a flying saucer. Collet said that older gypsies turn a dark brown. Picking mushrooms with tan caps and pale stems will yield the best flavor, in his opinion.
King boletes, another favorite, grow in the Kenai area too. Collet said that these mushrooms are identified by their spongy caps.
Hawk wing mushrooms have teeth-like nubs underneath their caps. The flat fungus is a solid pick during its youth, Gill said, but grows bitter with age.
The pair found rusulla and lactarius mushrooms last Monday afternoon as well. Brittle stems characterize these species, Collet said. Most native mushrooms have fibers running through their stems. White juice oozes from lactarius' when something punctures their cap or the gills underneath. The juice, called latex, has a spicy taste. Shrimp russula are edible, but the majority of these species are mildly toxic or don't suit Collet's pallet.
It's tempting to eat a mushroom picked in the wild, but Collet recommends washing them first. He said that the high concentrations of stomach turning chemicals in wild shrooms can put a damper on a foray.
Even the most experienced gatherers can't positively identify every mushroom by eye. Foragers can lay the mushroom on a piece of paper for an hour to get a spore print, Gill said, which narrows it down. Several species present in the refuge contain deadly toxins, according to the pair.
"If there's even the slightest question about the species, don't do it," warned Collet.
He recommended pulling the base of the mushroom out to check for a sac, indicative of the amanita musca.
The biologist hovered over a brightly colored example of the amanita. Collet kneeled down over the moss covered dip in the ground.
The amanita is not only mildly toxic, but also collected by Siberian shaman for its hallucinogenic properties. He has never tried the mushroom himself, but has been told it induces a feeling of flight.
Collet gazed at the bottoms of the treetops.
"When people think of Alaska they think of big things like bears, but there are lots of small things too," he said.
Tony Cella can be reached at email@example.com.
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