“I’m thinking the chanterelles are probably up, now that we’ve had our first good rains,” said The Resident Carpenter, tentatively, “Would you be too disappointed if we went mushroom hunting in the mountains instead of Oktoberfest?”
We’d planned to spend Saturday at the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest (though it might be more accurate to call it Septemberfest). Nathan’s European relatives apparently own a giant beer garden in Munich, so he’s always wanted to try Oktoberfest.
At Mt. Angel, Nate would experience Oktoberfest in all its beery glory. I love German food, and since beer tastes like an intriguing mixture of soap, turpentine, and llama spit, frothed in a blender, I’d happily play designated driver. Was he really asking me to give up weinerschnitzel for ‘shrooming in the Oregon forests?
“Start the car while I change clothes,” I ordered. Ten minutes later we were heading for the mountains.
We’d already scouted likely mushroom spots the week before, in the Tillamook State Forest. Sammy Sasquatch the Suburban negotiated the not-roads beautifully, albeit with dings and scratches from the overeager vegetation.
“Mountain pinstriping,” Nathan called it.
Our previous mushrooming adventures had turned up plenty of INedible mushrooms so I wasn’t exactly holding my breath at our prospects. I should have had more faith in The Resident Carpenter.
Here’s how you ‘shroom, RC-style: You drive down the woods-encrusted highway until the trees just barely part, revealing a small dirt road.
Well, not exactly a road, per se; more like a slightly less-forested path. You drive along it until it either dead-ends or something blocks your way, such as the fallen tree in this video. Then you either get out and explore on foot, or you try another road.
You drive slowly down the path, eyes peeled, looking for the not-incredibly-telltale signs of mycelia fruiting. Chanterelles are a gorgeous saffron yellow, and if you arrive at just the right early autumnal moment, they’ll shine like beacons through the brown and green of the forest floor. Try it a week later, and the chanterelles will compete for your attention with leaves turned gold, red, and orange.
You keep doing that, turning off one path and then another. When you spot that telltale golden glow, you yell, “THERE!!!!”
The RC stops the Suburban and leaps from the car, taking off into the forest. I grab my trekking poles and camera, and follow. “FOUND ONE!!” and soon we’re grunnying in the loamy forest floor, excavating mushrooms.
We did that a lot. Chanterelles quickly filled up my French market basket. Twice. Nathan estimated we found between 20 and 25 POUNDS of those deliciously fungal nuggets of joy.
It was hard work, but I was too riveted to the scenery to notice. We climbed over nurse logs sprouting new trees from the decaying wood, traced small creeks back to waterfalls, listened as chipmunks, hawks, frogs, and squirrels warned us off their nests.
Moss and fern covered everything, bathing the forest in an emerald glow. The sun broke through at intervals, sending shafts of light like some wizardly beacon. It was enchanting.
Occasionally I noticed piles of what looked like blackened, decayed dates, plopped down by the side of the road. I pointed one out to Nathan. “So that’s what, bear poop?” I joked.
“You’re right!” said The RC approvingly, apparently impressed by my scatalogical insight. He poked at the pile, turned over a bright red lump. “See the undigested meat?”
Meat? Uhm…whatever happened to bears eating honey and berries? “Are you sure a bear did that?” I asked doubtfully, “I mean, bears are BIG. My cats make bigger…”
“Well, they don’t just sit down and do all their business at once, they kind of do it as they go along,” he explained, “It’s like bears have permanent IBS.”
See? This is why you hang out with The Resident Carpenter, to hear those once-in-a-lifetime explanations of stuff you never, ever thought would come up in a conversation.
“Cynthia! You’ve gotta see this! Holy goodness, there are a LOT of chanterelles up here!”
I looked up to where Nathan was crouching, way up the side of the mountain above the road. The Leg does NOT like to climb, and has trouble getting out of clingy vine traps or recovering when an unstable log rolls away. That makes steep slopes difficult if not impossible for me to navigate; six weeks ago I wouldn’t even have tried.
Now? “I’m coming!” I said, and I did. It wasn’t easy–the trekking poles helped a lot–but I made it up the hill to The RC and his ‘shrooms.
A chanterelle is the fruiting body (kinda like a flower) of fungal mycelia buried in the earth. When conditions are right, it pushes up through the loam, either shoving overhead obstacles out of the way or growing around them. The top of the ‘shroom looks a lot like a fallen gladiola blossom when fully mature, but the smaller ones are simply bright yellow dots in the soil.
You carefully CAREFULLY embrace the stem of the chanterelle with your fingers, cradling it in your hand, and lift, hoping you get the mushroom out clean. Then you stick it in your basket and go back for its brothers and sisters.
We did that a lot. The RC blazed trails for me, moving unstable rocks and branches out of the way, pointing out easier routes to the ‘shrooms. When we’d cleaned out all the edible mushrooms, we’d get back to the car and start the process all over again.
Our basket filled, we cast desperately around for a second container. (Note to self: Bring extra containers next time). Finally, we poured the contents onto the RC’s winter scarf. “That’s a good 15 pounds of restaurant-quality chanterelles, right there,” he exulted.
How the heck are two people going to eat 15 POUNDS of mushrooms before they spoil? Maybe I can drag the metal clay dehydrator out of the studio and dry a whole bunch? Maybe we’ll have mushroom pizza and soup for the next month?
“Good, the basket’s empty. Let’s get more!” Nathan said.
More? (This apparently, is a thing with ‘shroomers: When you find a good spot, you don’t stop until you’ve got them all).
I was tired, so I climbed into the car. “You go on, I’ll just rest here a sec.”
“OK. That’s a bear den over there (our second), so I’m taking the rifle,” he said, “If the bear comes while I’m gone, just roll up the windows and honk the horn.”
Wait–what? A BEAR??? My tiredness vanished; I had visions of the bear seeking new meat–me–to not-digest.
“Hang on, I’m coming, too!”
This time the chanterelles were growing ON the path (which made picking easy), and even more headed into the woods. A few were moldy–we discarded those, which seemed a bit odd since fungus IS mold–but these were the biggest, most glorious chanterelles of the entire trip.
I wondered why bear poop wasn’t full of mushrooms. Obviously, bears have no taste.
We followed the narrowest road of all for about a mile, stopping frequently to harvest ‘shrooms, until it dead-ended at a mossy canyon. The sides of the cliff, covered in moss, went nearly straight up; below us, giant nurse logs had fallen down the canyon into the stream at the bottom, building up a thick carpet of moss.
Climbing down was beyond my poor leg’s capabilities, but someone had wedged two logs over the steepest drop as a sort of backwoods bridge. “No. Do NOT step on those logs,” The RC warned. So I stayed up top, taking pictures, while Nathan explored. And found ANOTHER bear den.
I’m finding I prefer to be at the tippy-top of the food chain, so I made my way back to the car. Nathan continued finding mushrooms so finally, the basket full again, we headed for home.
Cleaning chanterelles is a messy business: You cut off the bulbous stem termination, which is usually hairy with loam and pine needles, rinse off the worst of the dirt in a bowl of cool water, and then get to cleaning and pulling apart your chanterelles.
We got through about half our stash, fried up our first batch simply, with just fresh butter, salt, and pepper. I volunteered lemon, and got a reproving glance from The Resident Carpenter.
“These are so fresh, you don’t need anything else.” We grilled up some steak, topped it with ‘shrooms, and went straight to comestible heaven.
We still have about 22 pounds to clean and prepare. Fortunately, neighbors and friends are compassionately stepping up to relieve us of part of this burden.
And no, we never saw the bear. Whew.