This fall, become a friend of fungi
Drip, drip, drop. It begins – the Northwest’s all-too-familiar rain that starts in the fall and seems to go on forever.
Our wild and scenic landscape, which radiates in all directions from Mt. Baker’s volcanic crest north to the Nooksack and south to the Skagit River, has no rivals in our fairest weather months. But what remains for us when our sunshine is but a single ray and our vistas are shrouded in clouds?
Wait! Before you retreat inside and shut out the wet world for a season, I urge you to
reconsider. Don’t be afraid to get drenched! Go beyond fair weather adventure and, instead, learn about our landscape in a new light – through the life of the ever present, often forgotten fungi.
Our world is filled with fungi. Fungi, or mushrooms as they are usually called, help us to better understand our world because they entice us to go outside and learn about one of the most essential organisms in any ecosystem – the decomposers. Decomposers are crucial creatures that help break down dead material and recycle key nutrients and minerals to the soil so that new life may occur.
The study of fungi is called mycology. Unlike plants, fungi lack seeds, leaves, stems or roots to grow and make food. Some fungi have stalks and caps, while others look more like a mound of Jell-O or coral on an ocean floor. To eat, fungi absorb minerals and nutrients from surrounding decaying material, such as wood or soil, through tiny hair-like strands called mycelium. To reproduce, fungi spread small spores via wind and water, each spore containing a single cell capable of generating a new organism.
The joy of fall fungi identification comes from searching for the fruiting body of the organism. Brightly colored caps extending out from a bed of fir needles. Soft, fluorescent jellies emerging from nurse logs. Shelf-growths protruding from standing dead trees. Puffballs huddled together alongside a trail. These are a few examples of the fruiting bodies we look for in our wet world.
Finding Mushrooms. How does one train a fungi-focused brain? Fungi often associate with the darker functions of the forest, so you’ll need to go low and get dirty.
Searching for mushrooms is like your childhood treasure hunt. It requires a sense of adventure and a specific set of tools. In place of a map, you must carry a field guide. My personal favorites are “Mushrooms of North America” by Kent and Vera McKnight, and David Arora’s “All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms.” Field guides are your friends because they provide helpful pictures and descriptions of most fungi, as well as the unique ecological niches where each organism can be found.
A journal can be used to record your observations of each fungi’s size, shape, color, texture, odor, surrounding environment, and daily temperature and weather conditions. I bring my Rite in the Rain notebook on adventures like this because it is waterproof and provides me ample space to draw, write and ask questions. If your field guide can’t assist you in the discovery of your fungi, your journal surely will upon your return to a warm, dry home.
Unlike a treasure hunt, the greatest fun in fungi searching is to witness each organism in its own unique world and leave it for others to enjoy. If you decide to pick a mushroom – as many do to better identify through a spore print at home – make sure to read up on the rules and regulations of the land you are on before harvesting.
The Puget Sound Mycological Society, based in Seattle, provides a helpful introduction to harvesting mushrooms in Washington (psms.org). To harvest, cut the mushroom at the base of its stalk, leaving a bit of it behind, and store in a wax or paper bag or shallow wooden basket. Make sure to never mix fungi before you have identified them! Once at home, you can extract a spore print by placing the mushroom cap gill-side down on a piece of paper and cover with a plastic top overnight to extract the color of spores useful in identifying the mushroom.
Where to go. Fall is fantastic to learn the basics of fungi in the field. During winter and summer, fungi spores lay dormant, awaiting the moment when they can respond to welcomed rain by pushing up quietly through moistened soil. In fall, the trails in our Mt. Baker neighborhood are less crowded, leaving more room for locals to wander.
This area abounds with on-trail and off-trail exploration for all hiking levels and fungi searching abilities. My personal exploratory favorites include strolling through the interurban trails of Arroyo Park in Bellingham, wandering along the Nooksack River just east of Glacier at Horseshoe Bend, or trekking lightly anywhere off Bacon Creek Road #1062 just east of Marblemount on the North Cascades Highway. So long as there is wet weather, there are bound to be fungi awaiting your eye, no matter which path you take.
Be sure to check the weather and trail conditions of the area you are adventuring in. Washington State Parks, the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department, the Mt. Baker Ranger District, and North Cascades National Park Service Complex are a few places to check on current conditions and closures.
Also, before you park, make sure you have the right pass. A $30 annual Discover Pass can be used at any Washington State Park, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife or Washington Department of Natural Resources access points and wildlife areas.
For access to the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest trails, you’ll need a $30 annual Northwest Forest Pass, acknowledged at Forest Service operated recreation sites in Washington and Oregon.
If you are more of an omnivore and seek out fungi fun in both state and federally operated lands, consider the $80/year Interagency Pass, honored nationwide at any Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation or U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife site.
Drip, drop, drop. Ah, it begins. Imagine yourself searching for the slimiest, smelliest and most secretive of organisms. This fall, celebrate the greatest and most exotic fun our Mt. Baker home has to offer – embrace the rain, venture to the dark side, and befriend a fungi. X
Kelsi Franzen is an avid outdoorswoman who enjoys recreating in and educating others about the environment through her work as a project associate at Triangle Associates, Inc. in Seattle and as a program coordinator for University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Girls on Ice Program.
|PARKS AND SERVICES RESOURCES
If you’re on the hunt for local fungi, start here. These resources can provide mushroom harvesting rules and regulations as well as specific trail conditions.
Bellingham Parks and Recreation
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
Monday thru Friday
Glacier Public Service Center
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily
(limited schedule from October through May)
Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest/Mt. Baker Ranger District
360/856-5700, ext. 515
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,
Monday thru Friday
North Cascades National
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily
Wilderness Information Center
Hours: Vary per season
(closed mid-October to early May)