Editor’s note: If you own a Trek, Gary Fisher or LeMond bicycle, chances are a former motorcycle racer and tuner from Santa Cruz, California had design input on the tires and components on that bike. Not only is Keith Bontrager a whiz with engineering, he’s also an expert on mushroom hunting. We asked him for some advice on proper foraging tips to find tasty fungus for the kitchen.
By Keith Bontrager
I don’t have to tell you that there are a lot of good reasons to ride your bicycle: transportation, sport, fitness, head clearing, looking stylish, an adrenalin fix, pub crawls, whatever. They’re all good. One of my favorites is finding dinner.
The thought that comes immediately to most people when I mention wild mushrooms is “you’re insane” (and that’s certainly true in some respects) – there is some edge to this sort of thing. But with a little care you never need to put yourself in jeopardy. Here are some solid rules:
- If you know an experienced collector, try to go for a few forays with them. Get them to point out as many species as possible, edible or toxic. Local mushroom clubs often have beginners’ forays, and these are a great way to get started.
- Get a field guide. These are very valuable and will teach you how to key out mushrooms properly.
- Take your time. Enjoy the woods and the strange life forms you’re going to be seeing.
- Learn to identify the rat poison toxic species first. This is not difficult.
- Don’t eat anything you can’t ID confidently. The mushroom club is a great resource for backing up your early IDs. Once you get the hang of it you’ll be okay on your own.
- Hunting mushrooms is really hunting for mushroom habitat. The individual species grow in specific habitats. Mycorrhizal fungi connect to the roots of certain trees – find the trees and you (might) find the mushrooms.
There are quite a few species of urban mushrooms too. A friend spotted a good sized patch of chanterelles growing on a lawn in Maryland. My daughter found a very large morel growing in a patch of ivy along her driveway. My best score this year was a patch of parasols along a mountain road nearby.
Saprophytic mushrooms grow on decaying matter – you’ll find oyster mushrooms growing from dead trees. Once you’ve had some success and “get your eyes on” you’ll start recognizing spots where there are good odds of finding mushrooms. Once you find a potential spot the rest is a matter of timing. It’s often very easy here. There will be prime edibles growing right along the edge of a trail or path, a consequence of being in California instead of Italy, or France, or Russia, or almost anywhere else where foraging is part of their food culture.
I’ve even found big Shaggy Manes along a dirt road on a race course in Arizona (though I waited until the race was over to go back for them).
From the first big rains in the fall until late spring there are wild mushrooms growing everywhere. In November porcini (little pigs!) are popping up under oak and pine. Then the saffron milk caps and chanterelles come up until Christmas. Chanterelles and porcini make another appearance in spring, and in between there are oyster mushrooms, a few agaricus species and a shrimp russula here and there. There are enough that you won’t ever have to risk IDing an amanita, though that’s part of the game as you get further along.
And if you’re willing to travel a bit morels and spring boletes are a quick spin from a lot of campgrounds in the Sierras. Scouting out patches and collecting mushrooms on a bike gives me a reason to get out on my bike, and a big advantage over the other strolling hunters – I can cover serious territory.
This can be a hazardous activity though. “Getting your eyes on” is a fungophile’s term for the pattern recognition that you develop as you get experience. Your brain starts to search for the right patterns – a disturbance in the humus, or a patch of color, the clues that lead you to mushrooms. Once you start to do this you will start seeing mushrooms everywhere. It’s very cool. And it’s also difficult to stop, and that can lead to some very interesting excursions off the trail or path. I try to watch for mushrooms on climbs only, never while descending. That doesn’t always work.
- “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada” (2009) ISBN 978-1-55643-795-3 (1-55643-795-1)
- “Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-kitchen Guide” (1992) ISBN 978-0-292-72080-0
- “Mushrooms of Northeastern North America” (1997) ISBN 0-8156-0388-6
- “All That the Rain Promises, and More” (1991) ISBN 0-89815-388-3
- “Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi” (1986) ISBN 0-89815-169-4
- “100 Edible Mushrooms: With Tested Recipes” (2007) ISBN 0-472-03126-0
- “North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi” (2006) ISBN 0-7627-3109-5
- “How to Identify Edible Mushrooms” (2007) ISBN 0-00-725961-1
- “Mushrooming Without Fear” (2007) ISBN 1-60239-160-2
- “The Mushroom Rainbow: Only the most delicious or deadly mushrooms sorted by color” (2011) ISBN 978-0-9869409-0-3 (0986940909)
This piece originally appeared in Bicycle Times #30. To make sure you never miss a story and to help keep the magazine rolling, purchase a subscription here.