As part three of this ongoing series, I want to do something that I, at least, have not seen written yet – a discussion of what it is that mushroom hunters do, once they are in the woods, and hard at work finding the object of their desire. By that I mean the nitty-gritty stuff – the specific “how to” that in every case I know of, is simply left to the doer. A good deal of what I cover here may perhaps be characterized as the skills needed by the mushroom picker, but the development of those skills may be faster if the learner has had a few clues along the way – and that will be my goal here.
OK, so you’re driving slowly along a new forest road, searching out new spots – a mushroom picker’s “spots” are those places where you’ve been lucky enough to find a good production of those mushrooms that appear year after year in the same location – but even a good picker has to be in those spots at just the right time, and unfortunately, some types of mushrooms may just take a year – even two or three – off, so the challenge comes down to knowing when to check those spots – a knowledge that comes only with time. For a new picker, it’s almost entirely luck!
So, you’re riding along, looking for an area that promises a few things: accessibility and the potential for finding mushrooms. You’d like to be able to get into and around the area easily, and you’d like it to be the type of environment that is conducive to mushrooms. As you drive slowly along, you pass steep hills, often on both sides of the road. I simply ignore such terrain. Young bucks may get out and investigate such areas, because, I suppose their thinking is, “Hey, if there’s mushrooms there, I can handle the terrain; if not, then it’s not worth the investment in energy.” This raises a question of interest to ‘shroomers, “Is it worthwhile looking for mushrooms as you’re driving or standing at the top of a steep hill?” Short answer – “Hell yes!”
Some myco-freaks have perfected such skills – they develop the ability to identify their favorite mushrooms by only the most most fleeting and partial glance of them out of their vehicle window – and you will easily pick the freaks out by the speed (no more than 10 mph) of their 15+ year old car as they survey their kingdom. They have “imprints” in their brain that enable them to see things that, to the rest of us, are invisible. Am I suggesting that we skip this activity? Not at all – the sooner we start, the sooner we hone the skill – but recognize that, up front, luck will be our best friend.
You eventually get to an area of relatively flat ground, but the edge of the forest is so thick that you search in vain for a break in the barrier. Yes, the hedgerows along many forest roads are super-thick, because these edges are often wetter (with deep road side drainage) and sunnier than the forest interior. But even so, I’d like to have a dime for every time I thought the hedgerow was impenetrable, only to find that barrier was only 5 feet deep – once you worked your way in, the whole environment changed for the better. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on only stopping and checking the most obvious areas – these spots may look great, and in fact, they may truly BE great, but they’ll also be so popular as to be seriously over-picked on a continual basis. So, there’s something to be said for finding the places that may be disguised as inaccessible, but which prove to be hidden gems.
OK, you’ve made it into the woods, and the terrain is nicely open – you start looking. To the right is a moss covered floor, but a lot of under-story shrubs. To the left you see a tight mass of ferns on the floor – which way to go? For me, it’s not even a question – I’ve learned to avoid ferns and love moss! Now, you enter an area where there are a great many downed trees – how to find your way through them, or around them? You’ll learn eventually that you should always be looking ahead as you work your way along – this practice is meant to avoid working yourself into dead-ends, of which there are many, and also to locate other mushrooms in this mycelium (most often, when you find one, they’ll be others there too). In other words, always be aware of your surroundings, and where you are in the big picture view.
Now for some seemingly conflicting advice – as you work yourself along, the tendency is to always look for and take the easiest route through. I would encourage you to avoid developing this habit – why? Because almost all of your competition will be covering the easiest path too – if you too take the easiest route, you too will miss all those mushrooms in the most inaccessible spots. In fact, if you are forced to do your looking in popular areas, this strategy is the key to success, and the only way to go. Please don’t confuse these two suggestions – the first is a long range view, while the second is local and immediate. Trust me, once you have a chance to get out there a few times, you’ll see the difference.
Here’s another tip for easier forest navigation – my bucket becomes my best friend. I never go into the woods without my five gallon plastic bucket. Not only is this my choice for carrying my mushroom finds (drill some holes in the bottom half for ventilation), it soon becomes a tool to assist in getting through tight places. There will be many times when the only way through the tightness is to get down on your hands and knees and crawl – but your bucket will keep you from having to get that low – simply push your bucket through ahead of you, and move through as if it were a walker. To make this a more natural process, I don’t carry my bucket by its handle – just too many places to get hung up that way – but by its top edge. This keeps the bucket at the ready in narrow, tight spots. Yes, you’re right – not all areas are this overgrown, but enough are that this will be a common procedure.
I think the single skill that separates pro pickers from novices is an ability to identify hidden mushrooms. Matsutakes and chanterelles often grow to maturity under the surface of the forest floor – sometimes, it seems as if they are growing at the bottom of a moss covered hole! This fact creates what are commonly called, “mushhumps”, or bumps that could be moss or needle covered “anything”. Somehow, experienced pickers can identify a mushhump when others cannot – even so, if you would like to develop this skill too, all you need to do is each time you find a chanterelle or matsutake, start probing any nearby bumps to see if they might actually be mushrooms. And once you find a few, you’re on your way to learning the difference between mushhumps and just bumps.
And finally, I’d suggest you practice field cleaning of your mushrooms – that way, your job when you get home, is greatly reduced – and I can assure you, after a full day in the woods, the last thing you’ll want to do, when you get home, is to clean your dirty mushrooms. For field cleaning, you’ll need a knife and a dry washcloth – the knife is used to cut off the root, trim the damaged edges, and scrape loose dirt off – then use the cloth to clean off anything not already removed. This process works best when your mushrooms are few and far between – when you hit the mother lode, and you don’t have the time to slow down for field cleaning, then just make sure you are only picking the cleanest ‘shrooms there. But you’ll also find that with an open bucket, just walking through the woods will deposit an unbelievable amount of debris into your bucket – this can make your cleaning seem a waste of time! If you want to assure that this doesn’t happen, a sheet of split plastic over the top of your bucket, secured with a bungee cord, will do the trick.
Now, your last challenge is to find your way out of the woods, but that’s another post.