There's a charred gray tree branch sticking straight out of the ground in a clearing a couple of miles down a paved Forest Service road from the Deschutes National Forest's Camp Sherman campground. I left it there two weeks ago so I could mark what I thought was a large patch of edible brown mushrooms I came across during my first six-hour trip into the woods as a duly licensed mushroom hunter.
But now that I've had time to think about it, I'm convinced those brown mushrooms were nothing special, or to use an unscientific term in the mushroom picker vocabulary, “generic brown mushrooms” that would neither have killed me nor rewarded my palate with an experience worthy of the time and effort I'd spend collecting them, taking them home and throwing them in a pan with some butter and oil.
My first mushroom-hunting trip, almost six weeks in the making, yielded only a handful of bolete and morel mushrooms that I split with my guides, Julie and Jim Hamilton from the Central Oregon Mushroom Club. And while those mushrooms were better than nothing, they were nothing near the 2½ pounds I needed to make a nice dinner for my wife.
“There's just nothing growing out there,” said Wild Mountain Stand owner Ky Karnecki, who sold me enough mushrooms at his Sisters farm stand to make up for what I needed. “This has to be one of the worst mushroom seasons I've seen in the past 30 years.”
I'd been in town for less than six months when I started hearing people tell stories about how they pulled over to the side of a forest road, took a couple of steps and found themselves ankle-deep in a patch of morel mushrooms that carpeted the area as far as the eye could see. Such stories — though wildly exaggerated, I'm sure — sparked a desire to get out into the woods and see what I could turn up.
But I knew I needed help both to find the best places to go looking for mushrooms and to make sure I didn't eat anything poisonous. A quick Google search led me to the Central Oregon Mushroom Club, a group of amateur mushroom hunters who get together on the fourth Wednesday of each month at the Rosie Bareis Community Campus in Bend (See “If you go”).
But there was one problem — there were no mushrooms. Several planned mushroom-hunting outings with club members got canceled for lack of fungi. Explanations were many: The weather was too cold for mushrooms, it was too hot, there wasn't enough rain, there wasn't enough lightning, it was too damp, it was too dry. I thought I'd never find any mushrooms this spring and almost scrapped my plans to go looking for them.
“It's slim pickings out there,” Julie Hamilton said. “But we aren't giving up and we'll keep going out there until we find some.”
Two weeks later, it had rained, there was some lightning and the temperatures had warmed up. Hamilton also had some free time in her schedule and was ready to take me to a few of her favorite mushroom hunting spots in the Camp Sherman/Metolius River Basin area, provided I didn't tell anyone specifically where the mushrooms were.
She also told me to pack a bag with the necessary mushroom-hunting supplies: water, lunch and snacks; comfortable warm clothing; a paper bag or a basket to carry the mushrooms we harvested; a pocketknife I could use to cut their stems, and a paintbrush to clear any dirt or debris from the mushrooms.
She then stopped by the U.S. Forest Service's Sisters Ranger District office, where I picked up a free forest products permit, which lets people collect up to 2 gallons of mushrooms for personal use each day for 10 days, and a map showing which parts of the forest were off-limits to mushroom picking and which ones promised at least some type of results. (These permits do not apply to matsutakes, a sought-after type of wild mushroom known for its distinct fragrance that comes with its own set of rules and regulations.)
Because of the season, we focused our efforts on finding morels, long, cylindrical mushrooms with wrinkled tops known for their rich, earthy and creamy taste; and boletes, which can be identified by a wide white stalk, flat, brown hamburger bun-shaped caps and vertical tubes where their gills would be. You may know this second type of mushroom by its Italian name: porcini.
Once we got to our first hunting spot, I spent about 15 minutes wandering through the forest with the Hamiltons before we went in different directions looking for the elevated clusters of leaves and shockingly out-of-place color patterns that mark the presence of wild mushrooms. That's when I came across the clearing with the brown mushroom clusters.
But unfortunately I'd forgotten a few of the physical characteristics that separate boletes from wild mushrooms that could kill me or at least cause my kidneys to fail, and figured it was time to rejoin the Hamiltons, who had the mushroom guidebooks. So I left the tree branch in the ground to mark my spot in hopes I could find the clearing and, if they were edible, throw the mushrooms I'd discovered in my bag.
But the branch quickly blended in to the dense pine and fir trees as I searched for my companions, and I quickly lost it.
None of us were having much luck in our search, so we decided it was time to head back to the car and drive someplace else. We had just gotten back to the vehicle when Julie Hamilton saw a chipmunk dart across the road. She said it was nibbling on something before it took off, and dashed across the road to see what it was.
“We've got a bolete,” she said, signalling that she found a slightly chewed mushroom that could be salvaged with a little bit of knife work. She held it up in her hand and said there had to be more mushrooms like it out there.
Buoyed by this success, we continued scanning the forest floor and came across not one but two morel mushrooms popping up out of the ground a few yards away from that first bolete. A few minutes later, Jim Hamilton found another bolete.
Finding these mushrooms was invigorating, but the excitement quickly waned after other stops proved fruitless and it started raining, if not snowing, as we continued the drive through the woods.
When the Hamiltons learned I hadn't been in town long enough to see the Metolius River's headwaters, our mushroom-hunting trip became a sightseeing one and we visited that portion of the forest and a historical marker showing the site of an old tollbooth on the Old Santiam Wagon Road.
Halfway through this tour, my wife called and told me she was picking out a nice bottle of Oregon pinot noir to drink with the fabulous mushroom dinner I had promised to make her at the end of my trip. With only three mushrooms in my paper bag, I knew I needed to get some more, and told the Hamiltons we had to stop by Karnecki's stand before it closed.
“There's just nothing growing this season,” said Karnecki, who wasn't surprised by the fact we only found a handful of mushrooms on our trip. “Most of the mushroom pickers have already gone home — that is, except for the ones who can't afford the gas.”