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A day in the life of a wild mushroom forager: hunting for chanterelles in Pe Ell, WA

A bouquet of chanterelles foraged in the forest outside of Chehalis (Rachel Belle photo)

Tuesday morning I woke up at 6:30 a.m. By 7:30 a.m. I had Seattle forager and author Langdon Cook in my car. He’s the author of the new book
The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America.

We headed south on I-5 for Pe Ell, outside of Chehalis, to pick up Doug Carnell who has been a commercial wild mushrooms picker for 30 years. Doug lives in a tiny, half-finished cabin in the middle of nowhere. He has no indoor plumbing, no kitchen, no fridge, but he has a big garden and he knows where to forage.

“I call it the adult Easter egg hunt, that’s my term for it,” laughs Doug, decked out in a Seahawks hoodie. “I devolve into that caveman that’s gotta find my foraging for the day or my wife will conk me in the head with the club and drag me around in front of my friends.”

Doug got in the car and we took off for one of his secret chanterelle patches. Armed with Doug’s golden rule of foraging, “Don’t eat anything you aren’t sure of!” we headed into the woods in search of chanterelles, the coveted golden colored mushrooms that are stirred into risottos, scattered atop goat cheese pizzas and bob in creamy herb flecked soups in fine restaurants.

“So we’re in some second growth Doug Fir woods here,” Langdon describes our forest surroundings. “There’s a lot of moss and sword fern and salal and Oregon grape. It’s very green in here.”

Then the forest opens up, revealing big, yellow flower-like chanterelles, bright as sunshine, on the green forest carpet.

“Pull that guy out,” Langdon instructs me, both of us crouched on the ground amid the mushrooms. “Grasp him at the bottom of the stem and just gently pull him out. There ya go. Now nip off the dirty end there with your knife.”

Langdon has been recreationally foraging in the Pacific Northwest for two decades. He says it can be a year round hobby.

“The season kicks off in the spring, it’s morel time. Then the spring porcini. Then of course you’ve got all your wild greens in the spring. You’ve got nettles, fiddleheads, watercress, dandelions. Then as you get into summer, we’re talking lobster mushrooms, the early chanterelles. Then the fall species. You know, the chanterelles will keep popping. Then you’ve got matsutake, the fall porcini. Then as we get colder, hedgehogs, yellowfoot. And then there’s the winter pick, go down to southwestern Oregon or northern California for that. Pick hedgehogs, yellowfoot and the best of all: black trumpet.”

Professional hunters like Doug have to pick about 100 pounds a day, in secret, hidden patches to make enough money to survive. They move throughout the year, from northern California up into Oregon, Washington, B.C. and then over to Montana, camping in the woods and following the crop.

“These are really special ingredients,” says Langdon. “To a certain degree they deserve those price tags. Remember somebody has to go find these things and haul then out of the woods or dig them up. That’s part of the cost there.”

Now Doug can sell chanterelles to a distributor for only about a dollar a pound, but back in 1993:

“There was a gold rush, one time, of mushrooms and it was the matsutakes. We were driving 170 miles in each direction into California and they were going as high as $500 a pound,” reminisces Doug. “It was a miniature gold rush, it was insane.”

Being out in the woods and on this treasure hunt for delicacies made for an amazing day. If you’d like to do it too:

“The best advice I can give to a would-be forager is to take a class, join a mycological society for mushrooms or a botanical society for plants,” advises Langdon. “Go on a plant walk, take classes, learn from an expert. The forager’s golden rule is you never ever eat something from the woods that you can’t identity without 100 percent certainty.”

Doug has been foraging for mushrooms for 30 years, but Tuesday he was prancing around the woods like it was his first time, whooping with excitement when he came across a patch of beautiful mushrooms.

“This is what I just love about the woods is the beautiful artwork that you get. It comes out of nowhere and then it’s gone into nowhere and you’re the only recipient. It’s pretty cool.”

If you’re interested in foraging classes with Langdon, click here or check out The Puget Sound Mycological Society.

And check out Langdon’s book The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America , featuring foraging adventures with Doug and other backwoods foragers in the Pacific Northwest.

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