Wild like a mushroom…

The Crested Butte Wild Mushroom Festival August 23-25

The recent downpours have sent half the population of the valley scurrying into the woods toting baskets and brown paper bags in a secret procession. The deluge of wetness has created a mushroom hunting frenzy that mimics the scene at a free food giveaway
Mushrooms are everywhere—some peeking from under ground cover, others like the King Boletus are larger than life squatting defiantly, anchored by their fat stems.

But it goes beyond even food for some. When the season is upon us, we are all kids on a treasure hunt walking through sloping, deeply peaceful forests and parting tall grasses next to trickling streams. With so much fungi sprouting up, many people have been taken by mushroom lust and are out on their first forage.
This would be a good time to grab someone experienced in the art of identification.
However, just like a fabulous powder day, you have no friends when the woods are deep with mushrooms.
Luckily for both the experienced gatherer and the novice, the Crested Butte Wild Mushroom Festival has shaken itself out of a four-year hiatus. It cranks up this weekend, Friday, August 23 at 5 p.m. with the world-trekking extraordinary mycologist Larry Evans presenting a slide show and then a Q & A session afterwards. This Friday event is free.
Evans will lead morning forays on Saturday, August 24 and Sunday, August 25, both at 8:30 a.m., followed by an afternoon identification workshop.
Learning where and how to find mushrooms is obviously pivotal, especially since no local is going to show you to their secret stash of edibles, so you had better learn what the indicators are to find those precious dumplings.
One of the original organizers of the Crested Butte Wild Mushroom Festival, Roger Kahn, thinks there are more people in the mountains hunting the wild ‘shroom than ever before, and feels the Mushroom Fest helped make people aware and educate them in picking and identification. He believes this could be one of those banner years where we’ll have to invest in additional freezers for the harvest.
Roger and Mac Bailey started the Mushroom Festival in 2002. “It was always a very small operation and I thought that it could be a really fun thing that would bring the kind of tourist who doesn’t normally come here, a new visitor,” Roger says, noting that mushroom season usually fell when town was emptying out during the third and fourth week of August.
“We tried to work it around Telluride festival but ultimately we figured they were the big guys on the block and we were going to do a different kind of festival,” says Roger. “We were different in that, as Larry Evans said his first time here, we put the fun in fungi. We wanted to deal with edibles and foods and less with the scientific aspect. I wasn’t interested in spore counts or distinguishing between gill sets in little brown mushrooms,” he laughs. “None of that interested me because they weren’t edible.”
Roger says the festival was designed to honor the old timers, who taught many of the locals about wild foraging. “They were the first ones to introduce me to mushrooming. They went for chanterelles mostly, and also boletes. We had Betty Spehar as the honorary chairperson of the fest for a couple of years and she came to all the workshops. She actually turned me on to one of her indicator spots where she would collect mushrooms. She was willing to share all that knowledge.”
Roger also has a more compassionate perspective concerning the territorial snarling.
“A few people I know have told me that they were very upset because there were so many people coming in that weren’t even locals,” he discloses.
“I find it ironic when people make those comments because virtually all of us have come in from somewhere else and learned about mushrooms from the old timers, like I did, or from the new-old timers. People came in for the Crested Butte Wild Mushroom Fest and now those people go out and get the mushrooms they learned about. They come back to the area and they gather more than just chanterelles and boletus. I considered it one of the highest honors that a local old timer, a former miner from the old days, told me a lot of things about fishing, hunting, how to get a garden going in the high country and eventually, where to look for mushrooms. When he left to move to a lower altitude he told me exactly where to look for chanterelles here in an area where I had never seen them.”
Roger learned about three or four edible mushrooms from the old timers in town, who inherited the knowledge from their parents and great grandparents back in the old country. “Porcini is porcini—you call them boletus—they’re the same ones you get in Europe. That was part of what families did for food in the old country and the old miners went hunting for mushrooms up here. I just knew that there had to be more edible mushrooms but I didn’t know how to get them so I thought, what if we brought in others who knew about mushrooms?”
And thus, the Crested Butte Wild Mushroom Festival was hatched and Roger now knows about 30 edible wild mushrooms.
In addition to the joy of foraging in paradise for edibles, mushrooms have taken on a more serious role in scientific research and theory about their diverse properties and their ability to save the world.
It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. According to Wikipedia, mycologist Paul Stamets is “active in researching the medicinal properties of mushrooms and is involved in two NIH-funded clinical studies on cancer and HIV treatments using mushrooms as adjunct therapies.”
Stamets is a “strong advocate of preserving biodiversity,” and researches the role of mushrooms for ecological restoration.
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So while you’re savoring that tasty, sautéed fungi, be sure to thank it for all its superpowers.
This year promises to be a banner one as the rains have exploded the mushroom population into a dotted, musky carpet. But don’t be fooled by their intriguing beauty, which will definitely spell disaster if you pick without knowledge. The poisonously beautiful amanita muscaria mushrooms are usually brilliantly red and spotted with white polka dots—and they often live among the deliciously savory boletus, aka porcini. When young, the amanitas can look a lot like boletes.
And as overjoyed as you might be with your 10-pound haul of various fungi, remember: every hour that you picked those mushrooms will take about two hours of cleaning them.
Meanwhile, the scent of chill is in the rain-strewn air. Damp clouds enshroud the mountains—a mere hint of autumn, that’s all. It’s more than the thrill of finding a patch of edibles, or a singularly beautiful mushroom emerging from the wet grass as the sun illuminates its shiny cap. It’s the ancient instinctual survival of hunting and gathering, and perhaps that’s where the territorial issues take root. More so, it’s the solitude of standing alone in the center of a hushed, deep green universe overwhelmed by scents and color—while your eyes are fixated on scouring the ground, take the time to glance up at the world around you and feed your head.

The Crested Butte Wild Mushroom Festival’s website is up and running at crestedbuttemushroomfest.com and on Facebook at the same name. Friday, August 23, at 5 p.m. is the free slide show and Q&A at the town offices at Maroon and 5th. Forays will be at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. The fee is $25 per person per session, and the Saturday and Sunday identification workshops are each $25 per person, per session. Pre registration is highly suggested and payments will be taken at the door or at Friday’s event. The Sunday Brunch & Cooking demonstration with Chef Jason Vernon of Soupçon is almost sold out, pre-registration is required. For more info and a full schedule go to the website or call (970) 275-5774.

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