First-Time Forager’s Hunt For Mushrooms In Alaska’s Urban Wilderness

(Photo by Dave Waldron)
(Photo by Dave Waldron)

Today we’re hunting for mushrooms. Now you may have heard radio stories about mushroom foragers or mushroom experts, but Heidi Drygas is neither of those. Drygas writes the food blog Chena Girl Cooks, and she’s harvested just about everything Alaska has to offer, but mushrooms have always been the last thing on her list.

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(Photo by Dave Waldron)
(Photo by Dave Waldron)

“I think a lot of people are afraid of it, for obvious reasons,” she said. “Because if you don’t do it right you can die.”

Drygas has finally decided to give mushroom foraging a try, and she’s settled on a ski trail in the South Anchorage area for her location. As this is her first official hunt she is narrowing her search to a very common, very safe mushroom.

“We’re just going to try and find a very plentiful mushroom in Alaska called ‘boletes,’” she said. “They are the easiest to identify as far as I’m concerned.”

Boletes are large and brown, with a domed cap. The mushroom guides that Drygas has brought along say that under the cap, you should see a coral-like texture. If you see a gilled accordion-like texture underneath, you probably shouldn’t eat it.

Check out Heidi’s ‘Chena Girl Cooks’ blog.

“Oh look at this! Is this not the cutest mushroom you ever saw?” she said. “But…oh look it has gills, so we can’t eat it. But it’s like the perfect mushroom.”

Once we venture off the main trail we find an abundance of mushrooms, but none that we think we can eat.

(Photo by Dave Waldron)
(Photo by Dave Waldron)

“It’s like a boom for mushrooms, but for edible ones it’s kind of slim pickings,” Drygas said.

We manage to find a single bolete, but it looks like something’s been chewing on it. Also, it’s rotting. After about 30 minutes with an empty basket I’m thinking the only mushrooms we’ll be eating will be from a grocery store. And then…

Heidi: “There is a pretty little bolete. Isn’t that perfect?”

Dave: “It’s plump, and it hasn’t been eaten by an animal….no gills.”

Heidi: “We don’t have to go to CARRS and find mushrooms! No grocery store trip for us.”

Picking mushrooms is totally like fishing. You snag a great one, and you’re pumped, but then 30 minutes later you’re complaining how dead it is. That is, until you find a mother load.

“They’re everywhere!” Drygas said. “Let’s identify what these are…”

These don’t look boletes, but we’re hoping they’re at least edible.

“That looks like a false chanterelle, which sounds like it’s not edible…edibility unknown,” she said. “That’s exactly what that looks like.”

Find a variety of Heidi’s recipes on Town Square 49.

And flipping through Drygas’ mushroom guides, we notice a lot of these mushrooms have some serious ambiguity.

“A lot of these say ‘edible with caution.’ That does not inspire confidence,” she said. “‘Edible, but you might feel really bad afterwards.’”

And that might be yet another reason why a lot of people are too freaked out to pick mushrooms. Still, we decide if we limit ourselves to just boletes, we’re going to end this trip with a single mushroom. So we track down one other fairly common, mostly edible mushroom.

“So, this one is smooth. This is the gemmed puffball,” Drygas said. “I think that’s what these are; they look like them don’t they? It says ‘edible for most people.’”

(Photo by Dave Waldron)
(Photo by Dave Waldron)

It’s starting to get dark outside, but we do a small bounty we can be proud of. And besides…

“It’s way more fun than going to the grocery store,” Drygas said. “It’s in your backyard, it’s down the trail. You can see things growing in the middle of the woods and the parking lot.”

When I ask Drygas if she’ll be coming back for more mushrooms, she guarantees it. She says a handful of mushrooms isn’t bad for a first-timer, but she’s already hungry for more.

Heidi: “I think it’s kind of an art, a craft. To know ‘I see a covering and the spruce trees are just so’ and know that you are going to find mushrooms there. And there are definitely people that can do that.”

Dave: “And you’re going to be one of those people some day.”

Heidi: “Well, just give me a few seasons.”