Festival celebrates connection between fish, forest, fungus

Chamber estimates $6,000-7,000 spent during Labor Day weekend and Copper River Watershed Project raises $7,000 for programs, education and scholarships

An abundance of fungi made up for stormy weather as more than 300 people gathered for the 2017 Fungus Festival Sept. 1-3, indulging in everything from classes in mushroom education to fungus forays and a wild harvest feast.

There were craft classes, art exhibitions, fungus forays, the Wild Harvest Feast, expert talks presented by mycologists Kitty LaBounty and Rick Van de Poll, children’s activities, recipe swaps and more, all geared to the connection between fish, forest and fungus.

The weather even cooperated at times, clearing up in time for fungi forays throughout the weekend, said Cathy Renfeldt, executive director of the Cordova Chamber of Commerce.

“Most foragers had good luck on the forays,” she said. “Some groups found larger quantities of edibles, while others discovered more varieties of mushroom species to identify. Even seasoned fungus-pluckers found new treasure troves they didn’t know existed.”

In past years, event organizers estimated anywhere from 100 to 200 people took part in the festival, and they were pleased with higher numbers this year.

“Participation was high, mushrooms were plentiful, and the experts – LaBounty and Van de Poll, were phenomenal,” Renfeldt said. “It was a great weekend. I think the new fungus classes, and the Mycology of Mushrooms in Folklore class, added a lot to this year’s festival. New partners also came onboard, which allowed us to offer more art classes, and kids’ activities.”

In addition to registration, the chamber added a promotion as an incentive to buyers spending their money in Cordova throughout the weekend.

Participating businesses handed out one “fungus buck” for every $5 spent at their stores; buyers then filled out their names on the back of the bucks and turned them into Fungus Festival central, at the Cordova Center, to be eligible for prizes at the weekend’s end.

Renfeldt said $2,051 worth of Fungus Bucks were turned in, but she believes that’s a conservative number compared to how much money was spent in Cordova during the Labor Day weekend.

“These bucks don’t take into account lodging, transportation, fuel or the money spent at businesses not participating in the promotion,” she said. “With that in mind, I would guess the actual number is closer to $6,000-$7,000 that was brought into Cordova this weekend.”

Drawing prize winners included Signe Fritsch, for a gift basket containing a mushroom-dyed silk scarf, hand-knitted mushroom, cedar grilling planks, Alaska’s Copper River Delta art book, a hand-painted wine glass, and dried wild chanterelle mushrooms; Barb Bryson, of Valdez, a one-night stay for two with Bear Country Lodge in Cordova; Barb Thompson, of Kodiak, two fat tire bike rentals with Cordova Gear; and Karin Siebenmorgen, an Alaska Glacial Mud gift set.

After BP cut back its charitable giving budget earlier this year, longtime festival partners, including the chamber, U.S. Forest Service, Copper River Watershed Project, Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association and The Net Loft; plus new partners, the Prince William Sound Science Center, The Eyak Corporation and Ilanka Cultural Center, stepped up to make it happen, Renfeldt said.

“We couldn’t have pulled it off without local businesses like Cordova Telephone Cooperative, Cordova Wireless and AC stepping up as high-level sponsors,” she said.

The Wild Harvest Feast, a fundraiser on Sept. 2 featuring guest chef Jeff Qualls, of “rye. craft food and drinks,” a restaurant in McKinney, Texas, raised $7,000 for Copper River Watershed Project’s programs and high school scholarships, said Kristin Carpenter, CRWP’s executive director. Another $1,300 will go to the festival, to help sponsor next year’s event, she said.

Christa Hoover, executive director of the CRPWSMA, said the marketing association is happy to partner with “our local Copper River conservation and advocacy organization on such a great event.”

Dinner guests also viewed a short film produced by CRPWSMA, featuring father/son duo Shawn Gilman and Darin Gilman, portraying how fishing as a career passes from one generation to the next, Carpenter said.

Chef Qualls, accompanied by his wife, Michelle, praised volunteers who helped him prep and execute the dinner.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.

Produce for the meal was sourced from Pyrah’s Pioneer Farm in Palmer.

“We had kohlrabi, carrots, beets, collars greens, strawberries, green tomatoes. We had local people bring us some of the mushrooms, and the salmon was donated by the folks at Copper River Seafoods,” he said.

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She’s been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She’s lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at cgibbens-stimson@thecordovatimes.com or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.