I KEPT MY eyes to the ground, riveted to every brown lump I saw. A lot of brown lumps show up in a forest.
I was there to mushroom hunt for the elusive porcini. Only it didn’t seem like mushroom hunting was hard.
My mushroom guide, Seattle Times news producer Matt Ironside, warned us that we had a 50-50 chance of finding mushrooms. We were going to a new spot I can’t reveal, because mushroom hunting is secretive like that.
But within the first 10 minutes of entering the woods near Lake Wenatchee, bingo! We found two good porcinis waiting for us. This was gonna be easy.
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I thought mushroom hunting would be a perfect pastime. You run around in the woods, and you collect and eat delicious mushrooms. I had always been afraid I would poison myself, but Matt, who has been hunting since he was 5, is still alive. I put my trust in him.
Mushroom hunting is an art form. Hunters are reluctant to reveal their best spots, though they know that some mushrooms, like porcinis, are tricky because they don’t always come back in the same place.
Matt shared the dangers of mushroom hunting, including ticks and cougars. In the spring, Washington also boasts rattlesnakes. I started to question how much I like mushrooms.
Though we were looking for porcinis, which come out in spring and fall, he told us to keep an eye out for morels, a spring mushroom that is especially hard to spot. They look exactly like pine cones. You try looking for one in the forest.
After our early success, our group of four circled out to look for more. I hunted alone, creeping through the woods, staring at the underbrush and thinking a little too much about rattlesnakes. Matt said hunting was half knowledge, half intuition. My intuition and the porcinis (and thankfully, the rattlers) were not in sync.
You don’t hike quickly while mushroom hunting; Matt compared it to tai chi. You slither around maple vines, jump over logs and duck under tree branches. With my untrained eye, I moved slowly, but Matt glided quickly through the forest. He can tell right away if we’re in a good area; he is constantly assessing microclimates. Porcinis like drainages and rivers, and sandy soil. If there’s snow, it’s too cold. If there are no flowers, we’re too high in elevation.
We didn’t find any more porcinis near our first score, so we moved on. After driving around looking for a mushroom spot, we stopped for lunch.
I am easily motivated by food, and the cool thing about mushroom hunting is that if you travel with the right people, you can feast in the middle. Matt brought some porcinis from last year — he typically dries his porcinis for three years — and we hunted while he made roadside porcini risotto with spinach from his garden. The food was glorious; we found zero mushrooms.
We returned to the hunt. We found a spot near a river, and I found a lot of pine cones. We called it a day.
I tracked us at about 3,000 steps that day, not much more than a neighborhood walk. The hiking was neither hard nor intense, yet the day was satisfying. I’ve had friends go on hunts that left them sore from the elevation gain.
With mushroom hunting, you don’t know if you’ll move a lot, score mushrooms or both or none. It doesn’t matter. I returned home with one porcini, cooked it for dinner, and that felt just right.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bettina Hansen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.