If you ever want to go on a very short hike that lasts a very long time, go mushroom hunting with a mycologist. Peering down at the ground, they’ll stalk slowly over the soft earth, veering off the path into prickly, nettle-strewn, poison-ivyed underbrush, eyes scanning the rivulets and shadows of the ground cover for their quarry. Forget that scenic 2-mile out-and-back — a mycologist will take 2 miles’ worth of steps over the same ground over and over — everything worth seeing is right in front of their noses.
With its relatively mild, famously moist, intensely fertile environs, the Pacific Northwest is the ideal place for fungi of all kinds. Shaggy manes, chanterelles, reishi mushrooms, matsutakes, morels and truffles can all be found here (though the best spots for hunting are often secret, jealously guarded among mycologists).
So it’s fitting that the Seattle area is home to the Puget Sound Mycological Society (PSMS), the country’s biggest organization for mushroom enthusiasts. (Even mushroom evangelist Paul Stamets, the closest thing mycology has to a superstar, is a member.) For a $30 annual fee, PSMS members get access to a thriving community of thousands of enthusiastic mushroom-heads, with monthly meetings (in season) and periodical outings with mycologists dedicated to keeping you from accidentally poisoning yourself.
I went on my first mushroom hunt with PSMS members Paul Hill and Marion Richards, who came prepared with essential mycologist gear: rain jackets, gathering baskets and whistles, which are, according to former PSMS president Kim Traverse, an essential safety tool. (With their eyes often glued to the ground, mycologists can easily get lost or separated.)
Richards also swears by leg gaiters. “There’s stuff you’re going to be crawling through that just shreds your legs,” she says. “We’re not walking along a trail usually, we’re walking through bushes and the undergrowth.”
At first, the task at hand seems impossible. The season starts in late April, when local mycologists begin to looking for verpa bohemica, or “false morels” (though common names for mushrooms are problematic and can sometimes refer to more than one species). Verpa bohemicas are poisonous when raw but theoretically edible when properly cooked, and the society’s first specimens of the year were spotted by member Andrew Sudangnoi, who found them while playing Pokémon Go — a natural offseason activity for a mushroom hunter.
My heart actually leapt when I spotted my first verpa bohemica, a little white alien protuberance. And once I knew what they looked like, I started seeing them everywhere, under piles of wet leaves, behind tree trunks, clustered with their heads together like gossiping neighbors by the side of the road.
This was a uniquely satisfying and surprisingly addictive experience. Foraging for mushrooms and other wild edibles triggers the hunter-gatherer instinct that lies in us all, dampened though it may be by the daily ease of reaching into a freezer case or grocery shelf.
It’s also essential to learn to read the forest: The dampness and temperature of the soil and the presence of other plants (Richards refers to them as “indicator species”) can indicate to a mushroom hunter that conditions are right for what they want to find. Later in the season, avid mushroom hunters have a good chance of finding morels (aka “true” morels).
Despite their high price tag, morels can be found in the humblest of places. “Morels in particular will grow on gravel paths,” says Richards. “They’ll grow on burn sites. They’ll grow in wood chips.”
Without proper guidance, mushroom hunting can be daunting. Many delicious mushroom species look practically identical to toxic varieties, and they may even grow almost on top of each other, so expert identification is essential. During mushroom season (which begins in spring and goes through fall, minus a couple of dry months in the middle of summer) PSMS holds a free public identification clinic every Monday from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington, where experienced members will happily identify anything you may have found. “And if we can’t ID it, we won’t rest until we figure out what it is,” says Traverse, the former PSMS president and a fanatical mushroom hunter (and eater) himself. “That way, if you’ve been hunting over the weekend, you can get immediate identification. It keeps people from poisoning themselves and it keeps people from wasting good edibles.”
Because wild mushrooms are expensive — white truffles can sometimes sell for over $150 per ounce. And PSMS members aren’t just looking for food mushrooms; many of the toxic varieties have, in small doses, medicinal applications, and others can be used to make a full spectrum of textile dyes (a facet of mushroom fancying that several members of PSMS cover with enthusiasm.) So if you find mushrooms — even if just in some shady corner of your yard — it might be worth joining PSMS to know what kind they are.