Mushroom forays saved by last-minute rains

12-year-old mushroom prodigy leads excursion through Nirvana Park

Sarah Kathrein searches for mushrooms near the Haystack Trail. (Aug. 31, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Sarah Kathrein searches for mushrooms near the Haystack Trail. (Aug. 31, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

When Ken Hodges takes a group foraging for mushrooms along the Pipeline Lakes Trail, they usually return with baskets full of yellow chanterelles. This year, however, they found only one. The unseasonably dry weather that has depleted Cordova’s reservoirs also threatened to turn the town’s 2019 Fungus Festival into a futile hunt for mushrooms that never had a chance to grow.

“Going along the Pipeline Lakes Trail today, there’s some puddles I’ve never seen dry before,” Hodges said.

Dry weather had also forced the cancellation of mushroom events in Palmer, he said.

However, showers that fell shortly after Fungus Festival kicked off on Aug. 29 helped revive mushroom growth just in time for forays. Forest Service ecologist Kate Mohatt said her Fungus Festival group found far more mushrooms along Haystack Trail than she’d expected. Without the rain that had fallen during the previous two days, the foray might have been a failure, she said.

One upside of the drought is that it helps draw attention to small fungi normally overlooked in favor of larger and more colorful species, Mohatt said. During a recent foray, Mohatt collected an unassuming but rare mushroom previously found only around Girdwood and in Western Russia.

“Since we were down to scraps, we’ve been collecting everything,” Mohatt said.

Other Fungus Festival excursions turned up scanty, but adequate, harvests of mushrooms. An Aug. 31 children’s foray through Nirvana Park was led by Gabriel Wingard, the 12-year-old co-president of the Turnagain Arm Mycological Society.

Wingard’s interest in mushrooms germinated after he attended the Girdwood Fungus Fair at age 3. Since then, he’s spent as much time scouring the woods for fungus as his school schedule allows.

Wingard recalls one incident in which he fell into a river, only to notice an oyster mushroom growing from a nearby log. Wingard, of course, harvested the mushroom before getting out of the water.

“You need to be optimistic and not give up just because you can’t see ‘em, and look places where you don’t normally look,” Wingard said. “To me, mushrooms are interesting because there’s always more. No one knows how many there are, because there will always be places where we haven’t looked.”

Not to be outdone by his elders, Wingard spent the foray patrolling Nirvana Park, making sure other children didn’t wander out of bounds.

“The most challenging thing is leading some of the kid forays, because, the younger the kid, the harder it is to get them to listen,” Wingard opined. “You have to end up going and finding them, which is definitely a pain.”

Forays turned up more than 29 species of mushroom and fungus, ranging from the nutty-flavored edible hedgehog mushroom to the deadly Cortinarius gentilis. Finds were logged on iNaturalist, an online service for tracking and identifying species. The iNaturalist page for the 2019 Cordova Fungus Festival can be viewed at inaturalist.org/projects/cordova-fungus-festival.

When not trekking through Chugach National Forest, Fungus Festival attendees learned from chef Chad Hyatt how to prepare and preserve the mushrooms they’d collected. At a series of cooking demonstrations, Hyatt created a mushroom hummus and a blueberry-and-porcini ice cream. Other choice dishes served at the festival included cream donuts made with candy cap, a variety of mushroom tasting strongly of maple syrup.

The climactic Aug. 31 Wild Harvest Feast combined Alaskan and world cuisine. Chef Lindsay Kucera’s menu featured rice noodle salad with a Thai peanut dressing, as well as a curry made with foraged Alaskan greens like chickweed and nasturtium.

The Net Loft hosted a series of workshops in which participants crafted mushrooms out of raw wool and learned how to turn mushrooms into dye. The Forest Service also delivered a “Fungus 101” lecture on mushroom identification and classification. A final post-festival crafting workshop will be held at the Net Loft on Sunday, Sept. 8.