GIRDWOOD -- To visit a mushroom harvesting spot outside of Girdwood last week, I had to promise Chugach National Forest mushroom expert Kate Mohatt I would take the coordinates of our location with me to my grave.
"Your slips sink my ship," she told me as I followed her down the mossy trail with her basket and mushroom knife.
Girdwood sits in a rainy sweet spot where the boreal forest of Southcentral meets the rainforests of coastal Alaska. That makes it excellent for fungi -- that's pronounced Fun-JEYE. Mushroom hunters know it. And they are probably mad I just told you about it. (Anchorage is great for mushroom hunting too.)
Alaska's mushroom people are zealots, Mohatt said. More territorial than berry-pickers or fishermen. Take this story: When Mohatt first came to Girdwood and started organizing the Fungus Fair, an event that draws about 800 people during a weekend to listen to mushroom lectures and take forays into the woods, there was some grumbling from the locals. Her posters were torn down around town.
Then, she was hunting some giant boletes, big yellow spongy mushrooms that turn blue where they are handled, when she discovered someone has sent her messages scratched in the fungi flesh. "Down with Mohatt," they said. "No more fungus fairs." Mohatt is very cautious now about protecting locals' spots. Her mushroom nemesis eventually confessed and apologized, she said.
We threaded through the trees until we saw what she was looking for. Fungi shaped like huge chicken's combs hung from the bark of a dying tree. It was the color of orange Tic Tacs.
She sliced off a nub and handed it to me. It was firm and damp and smelled like earth. The mushroom was called "chicken of the woods," she said. It wasn't too flavorful but it would go great in a stir-fry.
Mushroom people break down into three camps, she told me. There are the academics, many of whom don't eat mushrooms at all. Then there is the "Can I eat it?" crowd, serious mushroom hunters who want meaty boletes, ethereal-looking white angel's wings, and the Holy Grail of Alaska mushroom hunting, the rare, beautiful blue chanterelle. And then there is the "Can I trip on it?" crowd, looking for hallucinogenics. Those people are the ones most likely to get themselves into trouble.
Mohatt, 33, used to pick mushrooms off her pizza growing up, but got obsessed with mushroom identification as a teenager. Her interest in fungi is foremost academic, though she's cooked and eaten lots of wild mushrooms, once even throwing lemony tasting mushrooms into a lemon pie. (It was a little weird, she said, but it worked.)
Once you're in the forest with Mohatt for a little while, you start seeing mushrooms everywhere.
Fungi are essential to forest survival, she told me. Many fungi have a companion tree species that depends on them. Fungi might gather moisture at the roots or break down decomposing wood. Mushrooms are the fruit of fungi, like apples off a tree, she said. Most often the fungi is underground.
Identifying mushrooms is tricky even for an expert, Mohatt said. There are an estimated 40,000 species and more get discovered all the time.
Mohatt picked a small reddish mushroom off the ground and sliced off a piece of the cap.
"Want to try it?"
I could tell by the look in her eye that it wasn't going to be delicious.
Mushrooms of the same species can vary in color, which is one reason that it's hard to just identify them from a picture. Instead, you have to ID them by smell, taste and the pattern their spores make when you leave a mushroom cap on a piece of paper. I took the mushroom she handed me. Chew it up, she said, then spit it out.
The taste in my mouth started out woody and then went habanero-hot. I spit it out. My tongue burned. The mushroom was called a "red hot milky cap," she said. If ingested, it causes gastrointestinal distress.
"But, you'll be fine."
Mohatt tastes non-edible mushrooms all the time for identification purposes and has never been sick.
Lots of times when people eat wild mushrooms and get ill, she said, they are not being poisoned, they just allergic or having difficulty digesting it. Morel mushrooms, which grow in burn areas the spring, are edible but cause reactions in a surprising number of people, she said.
Only a handful of people die each year from mushroom poisoning in the U.S.
The most poisonous mushroom in Alaska is the galerina, a small, brown mushroom with gills under the cap. Some people pick it and eat it think it will cause hallucinations.
"It causes liver failure," she said. "And a long, torturous death."
Cooking mushrooms makes many species less toxic (but not the galerina), she said. Even commercial mushrooms have some carcinogenic qualities, but they disappear with cooking.
In Japan, people will parboil and eat the poisonous amanita mushroom. That's the red one with the white spots that looks like it came out of a Super Mario game. When eaten it can cause a feeling similar to being drunk. Siberian shamen would eat it and its chemicals would concentrate in their urine, she told me. Drinking the urine was said to cause delirium. There's also myth that Santa Claus' reindeer ate amanitas and then developed the ability to fly.
"That's why Santa Claus is red and white," Mohatt said.
(There's a fact for your next party conversation.)
We didn't see anyone for almost two hours along our trail. Then we ran into a grandmother and her granddaughters with their baskets. We were pleasant to each other as we passed but I noticed they stood still until we were out of sight, careful not to reveal which way they were headed.
Julia O'Malley writes a regular opinion column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.
The 2013 Fungus Fair begins Aug. 30. For more information, visit: www.fungusfair.com.
More columns by Julia O'Malley