Tuesday, June 10, 2014

With Mushrooms, It's All About the Hunt

When the caller ID on my phone says Jack Czarnecki, I don't wait for the second ring before I pick up. When he says to show up at his home in Dundee at 7 a.m. the next morning, I don't whine about having to leave our place at six in order to get there on time.

One of many mountain backroads.

When the mushrooms are calling from the places known among mushroom cognoscenti as The Green Gate or The Ditch in the Three Sisters Wilderness, part of the Deschutes National Forest in the Cascade mountains of Central Oregon, Jack will be there to answer. He and a couple of friends will climb into the Subaru wagon, dubbed the Trufflemobile, with its customized shelves to hold the baskets he hopes to fill. Then he'll drive for hours on winding tracks through the mountains to hunt them—it's called "hunting," not "picking," for a reason, he says—in the locations he's been checking for years.

Butter boletes, Boletus regius.

Some are little backwoods campgrounds—our prey, the boletes, particularly love to cluster around the outhouses, he notes—and others are simply stops on the single-lane, rock-strewn Forest Service roads, places that have proved their worth over the years. New spots, like one we happened upon on this trip, are found by "road hunting," creeping along in the car scanning likely-looking banks or pine groves for signs of mycelial activity. It could be a bump in the needle-strewn duff, or a dark crack in the dirt or even a suspicious rock, but each one will be stopped for, evaluated and poked to see if it relinquishes a prize.

Side benefits? Beautiful woods.

The hunting this spring has been sparse, and compared with previous trips there was very little fungal activity in the form of other mushroom species, not even "blow-outs" or old, decomposed patches. Even the much-grumbled-about "commercials," the mushroom hunters who swarm over the mountains and eke out a living selling their harvests to middle men who in turn sell to chefs and markets all over the country, have all but (temporarily) given up the area to pursue more plentiful "flushes" of mushrooms elsewhere.

After several hours of hiking up and down steep banks and through shaded groves we managed to find a couple of porcinis and a decent basket of the red-capped butter boletes, but the season hasn't yet revealed its full potential, if it ever will. But a chance to spend a day in the woods with Jack and his friends, with gorgeous weather and stunning views of my beloved Cascades? Priceless.

Read about previous mushrooming trips with Jack.

For more information on the commercial mushroom business, read Langdon Cook's excellent book, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America.

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