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The sweet taste of 'shroom success

PORT GAMBLE — “When in doubt, throw it out.”

That’s the No. 1 rule of mushroom hunting, according to seasoned hunter Andrew MacMillen and five other ‘shroomsters from the Kitsap Peninsula Mycological Society.

And each would certainly know.

The group headed out for a Tuesday morning hunt last week, traipsing through one of many North End forested areas perfect for the activity, with baskets in hand and “mushroom eyes” peeled, ready to get down to business.

A hobby with little cost, little risk and a bounty of good, old-fashioned fresh air, mushroom hunting combines the exercise of hiking with the thrills of childhood scavenger hunts, and often leaves hobbyists with a trunk load of fungus — the tasty kind — for dinner.

“It’s like a giant Easter egg hunt that you just can’t stop,” said four-year KPMS member and Bainbridge Island resident Cathy Bellefeuille, who joined the group as a way to get both she and her son outdoors. “What else can we do that costs so little and brings that much joy?”

Knee-high in forest ferns, the six hunters searched beneath brush, around trees and along fallen logs. As is the case in many wooded areas around the North End, including near Hansville, Kingston and Indianola, their efforts were soon rewarded.

Baskets were brimming after less than two hours, mainly with Chanterelles — a popular edible mushroom — along with various others, each given due attention to ascertain its type. And identifying those wild morsels proved to be a big part of the fun.

“Sometimes the way you identify something is by the spore print,” said society member Debbie Moran, who discovered one of the first Elfin Saddle mushrooms of the day. She and her husband, Ted, began scouring for ‘shrooms after he discovered the hobby while out hunting for elk.

MacMillen, hailing from Poulsbo, said each mushroom holds several key characteristics by which it can be identified, but the surest way to discover a one’s name, and its edibility, is to ask another hunter. While most are actually not poisonous, those that are can be deadly, and the risk simply isn’t worth it.

“The best I.D. is somebody else who knows it,” he said, adding even after close to 20 years, he still occasionally runs across a mushroom he can’t identify. “Experience is the best key.”

The Chanterelle season begins as early as August, and wraps up in just a few weeks, but like their characteristics, each mushroom has its own growing months, allowing hunters to enjoy the hobby almost year-round. MacMillen said deep winter and summer tend to be slow hunting months, the rest find forests full. Bellefeuille said the key to mushroom hunting is both looking and slowing down, as many fail to realize the treasures over which they’re tromping.

“It’s been really wonderful because there is so much knowledge,” she said of the society, which has taught her how to identify the fungi based partly on where each grows, whether it be on wood, soil, moss or manure. “They all have different relationships... They actually do have a function in the world.”

For Silverdale resident Alta Shigeta, the hobby does more than provide an enjoyable delicacy.

“This is my exercise,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t like to exercise, so this is it.”

New KPMS member Rosemary Courtright recently picked up the activity, and said for her it was not only a way to identify mushrooms growing near her own home, but a way to meet others and get to know her surrounding environment. And she’s discovered that along with learning to correctly identify mushrooms, hunting etiquette is an important skill as well.

“You have to learn the technique,” she said. “There’s a right way of going about things.”

MacMillen said he often will take just half to two-thirds of mushroom patches he discovers. Hunters carry the fungi in baskets to allow spores to fall and spread, replenishing the area. Plastic bags often leave mushrooms gooey.

Other necessary tools for the hunt include a whistle, compass, knife, brush, identification guide and rain gear. A radio and binoculars can be helpful as well.

The Kitsap Peninsula Mycological Society meets at 7:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month (except June and July) at the I.O.O.F Hall at 100 S. Dora in Bremerton. Classes for beginners and experienced mushroom hunters, field guides, overnight trips and the opportunity to learn from those who have hunted local edible mushrooms for years are available. For more information, visit http://home.wavecable.com/~mycolowell.

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