The Pacific Northwest is prime mushroom foraging country. But for the uninitiated, foraging for mushrooms can be intimidating: After all, one doesn't want to pick a 'shroom that could cause a stomach ache or, worse, prove fatal.
It can help to fall back on an expert forager's experience. Mushroom foraging tours are a perfect opportunity to learn the ropes of mushroom hunting — and that's exactly what's on offer from Brinnon-based Hood Canal Adventures.
Hood Canal Adventures was started by Christina Maloney in 2008 as a kayak rental company. As the company has grown, it's branched out to facilitate other activities, such as guided mushroom and edible plant foraging tours. Now that Fall is upon us and the weather has taken a turn for the rainy, it's the perfect time to strap on a pair of boots and head into the woods on the hunt for delectable fungal delicacies, such as the golden chanterelle.
Jerry Novak, who leads Hood Canal Adventures' mushroom and edible plant foraging tours, says close to 20,000 mushroom species have been identified, and more than 2,000 of them are located in the Pacific Northwest — more than any other region in the world. “As far as fungus goes, we’re a blast as far as different species and abundance,” he says. “If you have a natural bent and you’re interested in mushrooms, this is the place to be.”
Novak has always felt a kinship with nature. As young as 5, he would sneak off into the hills of southern California. “The forest and nature … it pulls me,” he says. “I’m attracted to it.”
All his life, people had told him mushrooms were poisonous and not to eat them. So he didn’t. That changed when he was 15, after a friend invited him to go mushroom picking with him and his dad. They ended up hunting for chanterelle mushrooms off the coast of Washington.
“They were such a strange mushroom, you know?” Novak says. “They weren’t your typical grocery store button mushrooms.”
Novak's work over the years has indulged his affinity for nature, whether working for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife or at Woodland Park Zoo. But his personal experiences have also shaped his interest in foraging.
Several years ago, Novak was stranded in the mountains just west of Stevens Pass. He'd gone there in search of solitude — and he found it. His truck stopped running — there was some kind of mechanical issue, perhaps a dead battery — and, because he’d hurt his knee and couldn’t hike out, he ended up stranded on top of the mountain for six weeks with only a week's worth of food.
“I was calm about the whole thing,” he recalls. “I realized, I’m not going to starve. It takes a long time to starve. But it was really interesting. I learned a lot about myself and even more about nature. And that actually drove me to learn more about edibles after that.”
Novak got connected with Hood Canal Adventures because Maloney had heard about him and asked if he’d be interested in leading tours. “I thought, gosh, I hadn’t thought about getting back into it, but why not?” he says.
At a tour earlier this month, Novak was accompanied by Cam Pennell, an ecology student at the Evergreen State College and a self-described mushroom-phile. It was his first time helping to lead a tour. At Evergreen, Pennell took a class called “Fungal Kingdom,” and he’s used the skills learned in that class to do taxonomies of lichens, mushrooms, bryophytes (mosses), and vascular plants. This summer, he completed an internship with the Washington State Department of Transportation to do wetland monitoring.
“That was a really cool opportunity to see what it would be like to work in the field I’ve been studying,” he says. “And I feel like this [tour] is the same kind of opportunity, where if you don’t practice it, you lose it, and getting to go out in the field and share my passion for learning about fungi with other people is the best, and I’m super into that.”
Sometimes, the best way to learn a new skill is by learning from those more experienced than you. At a mushroom foraging tour on the Duckabush River Trail, Novak and Pennell shared their experience with attendees, offering tips for finding appetizing varieties like chanterelles, and helping participants identify specimens they found during the hunt.
One of the most important aspects of mushroom foraging is positive identification to ensure one only picks and eats varieties that are safe to eat. As the Association of Foragers puts it in its Principles of Practice, “it is essential to be 100% confident of identification before eating any species. If we are not sure ourselves, we are not afraid to admit it honestly and err on the side of safety.”
“There’s a saying we all go by: ‘When in doubt, throw it out,’” Novak says. “And that’s, like, any doubt.”
Some species, such as the golden or yellow chanterelle, are easily identifiable, he says; they have physical features that stand out, and they can’t be confused with toxic or lethal specimens.
“Most mushrooms will not kill you, even the inedible ones,” Novak says. “Most of the inedible ones simply don’t taste good, and many of the ones that are not good for you will simply give you gastric upset and make you sick physically as far as your gastric system, but they’re not going to kill you.”
Still, Novak says there are at least three species in the area that will destroy the liver and kidneys; typically, it’s too late to do anything to save someone even before symptoms develop. “There’s plenty of choices out there, so … there’s really no risk if you’re looking for the easy ones,” he says.
Identifying mushrooms can go beyond mere looks, and include things like the texture or spore pattern of mushrooms. Although books and photographs can be important tools for identifying mushrooms, guided tours give people an opportunity to explore more holistic identification methods.
“I have keyed out several species myself over time, but they were very easy species to key out as far as a book, as far as spore prints and the description … but there is no better way than to have somebody saying, ‘This is this mushroom, and … this is what this mushroom looks like in our area.’ … A shrimp mushroom can look purply or brown here, but in many places it’s red. So it’s still a shrimp mushroom, but it’s got a different look to it as far as color. But the texture’s the same, everything else about it is the same. So never just depend on one defining feature.”
Christina Maloney started Hood Canal Adventures in Brinnon in 2008. With a 12-year background as a marine biologist, her passion for marine ecology seemed like a natural fit for guided kayaking tours. She doesn’t take people out just to sight-see; she teaches them about the animals and ecology they see.
The business has had a storefront in Brinnon for the past two years which has given it greater visibility and the opportunity to branch out into other activities, including the mushroom and edible plant foraging tours.
Maloney says the direction of the business is determined by her customers. For example, the company started offering kayak crabbing after some tour participants showed up a few years ago with crabbing pots.
"Now we do that," Maloney says. "We rent out crab pots and cookers and tell people where to go, show them how to do it, and that's wildly popular. You can just get all this input from your customers and design your business like that. You can't lose if you do it that way."
Hood Canal Adventures' basecamp store/office is located at 306146 Hwy. 101 N., Brinnon, WA 98320.