I think the case can be made that, year in, year out, the Pacific Northwest is the absolute treasure trove of wild mushrooms in the U.S. Having said that, I also believe that unless a mushroom hunter has some knowledge of how, when, and where to look, that mushroom hunter may very well disagree. In my own case, I became a mushroom hunter totally on my own. I had no mushroom buddy to show me the ropes, no one told me where to look, and the only help of any kind I had, was a mushroom picture book, which I know now was practically no help at all.
Although my memory of that early experience is now weak, I do remember two things very well – I can remember that it took me about 5 or 6 ventures into the wood before I finally found an edible mushroom. And I’ll always remember that first day as I drove down a forest road, looked into a deep, dark and moist, needle covered floor, and parked the car to investigate. As I entered the forest, I had the sense of being drawn into a sanctuary – quiet, soft, and as clean as nature gets naturally. I swear, that place was a total brownout – there was not one green thing growing on that forest floor! But the thing I remember most was the smell – a sensory invasion that buried itself deep, ready to be drawn out again over and over at the slightest opportunity! If I never found another mushroom, that first day made me a forest explorer for life!
So, if you are thinking you’d like to find some wild mushrooms, how can you prepare yourself? I’d like to do a series of articles on that subject. Let’s start by making a checklist of things you should have with you when you go into the woods. First thoughts should be for safety, and there are a few basic safety tools that you should have with you when you go out.
* A compass – even if you think you know the area, it’s just too easy to get turned around in the woods, and a compass can be very helpful to find your way out again. Make sure you know how to use the compass also. Also a good idea to practice what you are learning.
* Good shoes – and by that, I mean sturdy, good shoes! You’ll be climbing over fallen trees, up over-grown hills, taking steps into places unseen, and slipping and sliding everywhere. Don’t wear sneaks – hightop, waterproof hiking shoes with good tread are a good choice.
* A forest map – if you can, get a trail map of your chosen area. If not, at least get a map that shows the forest roads, and charts the terrain (a topographical map). This can give you a pretty good idea of what to expect before you even get there – and it’ll sure help you find your way out, once you’re back in your vehicle and headed back out again. These maps can be found at offices of state and national forests, parks, reserves, and from forest or fire districts – also check with your county recreation/parks office;
* A whistle – in the worst case, you may still not be able to find your way out of the woods, and a night spent in the dark, trying to stay warm may be your only option. In this case, use that whistle to let others know you are lost, and where you are – three short blasts every two or three minutes is the standard signal for being “lost”.
* A backpack – your backpack is your emergency kit, it’s the ultimate safety consideration. Consider the following contents, most of which you can pack ahead of time, so you can just grab the pack when it’s time to go.
- a zip bag with lunch and snacks – I keep 5/6 energy bars in there at all times;
- a knife;
- a zip bag with lighter, waterproof matches/kindling (dryer lint is great);
- a small first-aid kit;
- a big piece of aluminum foil to use as a reflector;
- an orange garbage bag to use as a signal flag;
- a big plastic garbage bag or two to use as a poncho/blanket/ground sheet;
- a warm pull-over skull cap (70% of body heat loss is thru the head!);
- an extra pair of warm, dry socks – wet socks=cold discomfort;
- a flashlight (optional);
- bug repellent (optional)
It’s not hard to overkill on this kind of preparation, and we are, of course, not planning to get lost – but some discretion and forethought can help prevent a ton of discomfort later. Having said that, there are a few very optional items that some would consider silly, while others would consider them essentials, so let me note those.
* A GPS unit – I have one, and use it often. But you need to know that a forest environment is often not conducent to getting a good signal – having said that, I’ve never experienced an inability to get at least one satellite signal, and that’s still helpful.
* OTOH, I have never found a forest where my cell phone would work – but I would not be surprised to know that there were some – somewhere!
* And now for my own personal tool choice for avoiding getting lost in the woods, a pet dog. I have yet to take my current dog out with me, but she’s still a puppy. But my last dog was a forest veteran, and had an amazing talent re knowing how to backtrack on her own trail. She would always run ahead of me, but every minute or so, she’d check back on me, as if to say, “what’s keeping you?”. With her with me, I never had even a remote thought that I might ever be lost. And even if worst case were to occur, a dog companion for a night in the woods can’t be beat – do you know how warm a dog actually is?