Forest harvest means boletes and hedgehogs for Anchorage mushroom hunters

On the hunt for mushrooms in Alaska’s Chugach National Forest.

Max Walton and Wade Watkins climbed the dense and soggy slopes of Chugach National Forest near Ingram Creek on Tuesday. Though the Anchorage men moved slowly around stumps and through thick brush, conditions were ripe for their fall harvest.

The rainy season means it’s time to look for mushrooms.

“We get all excited whenever it starts raining, because it’s just fun,” Walton said.

Their enthusiasm could be heard in the quiet woods. “Woah, look at this,” one would occasionally call to the other upon an impressive discovery.

Geared up with rain pants, a five-gallon bucket, a small knife and a guidebook, Walton said he was looking primarily for admirable and king bolete mushrooms. He found a few hedgehogs, but it was a little early in the season for those. Walton said he’d pickle some of his mushrooms. Others would be dehydrated and made into sauces. They eat them all year at his house, he said.

Walton said his excitement for mushroom foraging has grown since he first ate a shaggy mane mushroom from his yard about eight years ago. That inspired more learning and searching for them. He said he collects mushrooms at least 10 times a year nowadays.

“You just start checking more of the list and more off the list,” he said. “And then before you know it, you’re out in the woods as much as you possibly can.”

A brochure distributed by the Forest Service’s Alaska Region calls the Chugach and Tongass National Forests “prolific” fruiting grounds for mushrooms. In the woods, mushrooms help cycle nutrients and break down plants, it explains. The overwhelming diversity of mushrooms can make identification difficult, so the free literature includes tips for safety and for harvesting edible species.

Rule number one: “Remember there are no “rules of thumb” when it comes to determining whether a mushroom is poisonous or edible. The only reliable approach is to know EXACTLY what species you have.”

Identifying mushrooms is part of the fun, Walton said. He said he tries to change people’s mind who might be fearful of encountering toxic mushrooms.

“There’s so many big mushrooms out there that are easy to identify, that there’s no reason to bother with the small ones that you can’t,” he said.

Harvesting mushrooms for personal use in Chugach National Forest does not require a permit. Mushrooms can be found throughout Southcentral Alaska. Access to the hills in the area that Walton and Watkins searched this week, about 6 miles north of the Center Ridge parking lot at Turnagain Pass, was made easier recently due to construction of a new bridge.

The bridge, about three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead at Seward Highway Mile 72.5 (often called “Eddie’s” trailhead), crosses Ingram Creek and eliminates the need for hikers and bikers to ford the water.

Walton said the improvements have made the area more popular for mushroom foragers. He discovered some areas that had been picked over. But he said he enjoys going deeper and farther than most to bring home the food he calls delicious. He said he’s also considering going back with his bike to explore more mushroom hunting grounds along the Turnagain Pass Trail.

Later that day, he spotted one of the largest king boletes he had seen, though it was a little past its prime to be collected for food. The season is young, he said, and there’s other species he looks forward to seeking.

“I’ll definitely have to go out again for hedgehogs, because those are one of our favorites,” he said.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.