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Want to try mushroom hunting? Find someone to guide you

Many people are raised to fear toxic wild mushrooms. What if you want to learn how to identify the edible varieties you see in the woods?

Even with a detailed field guide in hand, how can you really be sure what you are picking is safe? According to John Mikesh, cofounder of the Paul Bunyan Mushroom Hunting Club, no field guide compares to hunting next to an experienced mushroom hunter.

“The only way to get started is to join a group. You’ll never be able to identify a mushroom unless you’re with knowledgeable people who have gained the experience,” Mikesh said.

This is because the appearance of mushrooms differ according to age and weather conditions. Even the most detailed mushroom photos can be misleading if they were taken in the most optimal conditions, while in the real world the weather is hot and windy.

“Photos are likely the optimum appearance of that mushroom, how it would appear in perfect conditions,” Mikesh said.

“If it’s not exact, they say ‘no that’s not the mushroom I have,’” said mushroom hunter Kelly Larson.

That’s why Mikesh and Paula Peters founded the Paul Bunyan Mushroom Hunting Club.

They had both attended a meeting of the Minnesota Mycological Society at the Deep Portage Conservation Reserve. They began attending ‘forays,’ or hunts for wild mushrooms. As they learned to identify mushrooms, they realized that they would like to have a mushroom club in northern Minnesota (the Minnesota Mycological Society is based near the Twin Cities).

Over the past 20 years the club has had a variety of members. Some of them have been biologists studying plant fungi, others are just wild food foragers. Whatever the case, they all gather to share their knowledge and expertise.

The group meets for monthly forays. From spring to fall they meet at a prearranged location each month and then drive in a caravan of four wheel drive vehicles to fields or forests where they spread out and collect as much fungi as they can find.

“During that time we pick every mushroom we can find and at the end of the foray we put out tables and spread all the mushrooms out and try to identify them, and pretty much do identify them, using books and our own experience,” Mikesh said.

They use experience and field guides for their identification. They use color, texture, smell and many other indicators to identify the mushrooms.

“There are literally thousands and thousands of varieties of mushrooms in this state alone. For people who want to get involved in this, and want to start picking mushrooms for the table I do recommend getting involved with the Paul Bunyan Mushroom club or the Minnesota Mycological Society and going on these forays,” Larson said. “It really is one of the best ways to learn because you will have experienced people who know a lot more.”

Forays attract between 10-40 members of their 140-member mailing list. Forays are held on Saturdays near Itasca State Park, Chippewa National Forest, the Paul Bunyan Forest, the Deep Portage Conservation Reserve, and the Foothills State Forest, among other locations. The woods near Cut Lake in the Foothills State Forest is their southernmost point.

The group has been focusing on morel mushrooms this spring, though they will expand their searches to include many other varieties of edible fungi once the summer gets underway. Cold, rainy weather has interfered with this year’s mushroom crop, as most species depend on moisture followed by warmth.

“Right now we’re just focusing on our morels. The season is so short for morels and right now the season is so late I’m not sure if they are going to come up this year. Who knows, it’s been so cold and so wet,”

Morels are only the most prominent spring species of mushroom. Later in the summer, the club will expand their searches to include chanterelles, boletes, puffballs, chicken of the woods, and hen of the woods. Each has their own preferred habitat and conditions, and the club pools its knowledge in order to find them.

The Paul Bunyan Mushroom club is one of very few clubs in the state. The Minnesota Mycological Society (MMS) is likely the biggest in the state as well as the second oldest mycological society in the United States. Both Larson and Mikesh have been members of the MMS.

“Harvesting in the north woods is a lot different from harvesting in the southern part of the state, that’s for sure,” Larson said. “For one thing we have a lot more public land access, which in some respects makes mushroom hunting a lot easier. In other respects, because we have such a vast wilderness and so wild, it makes it a little daunting deciding where you’re going to go and make sure you don’t get lost.”

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