At the end of Arlberg Avenue in Girdwood behind Alyeska Resort, 14-year-old forager Gabriel Wingard led a group of children and their parents through the forest on the hunt for fungi, finding carnivorous mushrooms and slime mold named wolf’s milk along the way.
The West High ninth grader is a returning mycologist at this year’s Cordova and Girdwood Fungus Fairs. He splits his time between Girdwood and Anchorage and leads children’s fungi forays for those interested in learning about mushrooms in the state.
“I’m trying to get (the kids) interested in it, but it’s also a way to encourage them in case they’re ever in a bad situation,” he said. “It would be helpful to know, ‘Hey, I can eat this.’ But the main point is letting them have fun with it.”
Each forager gets a bingo card to fill out with what they find. Some bingo squares ask for mushrooms with gills. Others were looking for specific colors.
Gabriel said he particularly enjoys finding hedgehog and bolete mushrooms, though he also likes seeking out “this yellow jelly fungus that grows on dead tree branches.”
“The hedgehogs look like little clouds when you find them — bright, orange clouds — so they’re really distinctive,” he said. “But there’s a lot less of the boletes out there, and it’s fun cause it’s more of a challenge.”
Boletes are edible, but Gabriel doesn’t forage for the purpose of eating them. He just likes being outside.
“I’m not the best at growing mushrooms,” he said. “I do prefer going out and finding them.”
“I think it’s similar to being a bird watcher,” said Gabriel’s mom, Jennifer Wingard. “When you see some really cool birds, your first question isn’t ‘Can I eat it?’ or ‘Is it good with a cabernet, sauvignon blanc?’ ”
Gabriel was inspired to dive into the world of fungi after watching the movie “Know Your Mushrooms” when he was 3, he said.
“My dad got him the book ‘Mushrooms Demystified’ by David Arora. It’s bigger than a Bible ... he started sleeping with that instead of his teddy bear,” his mother said.
Since then, he helped found the Turnagain Arm Mycological Society, a club that hosts foraging events throughout the year and organizes some of the state’s fungus fairs. He also stays busy, reading up on fungi and applying it to his day-to-day life. He once did a school project on how mushrooms have more potassium than bananas.
Gabriel is now co-president of the mycological society alongside Kate Mohatt, an ecologist for the Chugach National Forest who estimates that there are anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 species of mushroom in the state.
“Quite a few haven’t been discovered yet,” Mohatt said.
Mohatt she said she met Gabriel in 2013 or 2014.
“Gabriel is really, really into it,” Mohatt said. “He came to fungus fair very religiously.”
There’s one type of mushroom, the lion’s mane, that Gabriel found only once in Alaska. He hopes to someday locate another.
“The first time I found it, it was growing right across the street from the building they were hosting the fungus fair in,” Gabriel said. “I walked in holding it and asked, ‘What is this?’ — right in the middle of two people debating whether or not it grew in Alaska.”
“Most (mushrooms) don’t grow in Alaska,” he said. “You can’t find them.”