Mushroom hike reveals variety of fungi in North Shore forestA closer look at the forest floor - and even in the trees - can reveal the plethora of fungi living in the woods.
By: Brittany Berrens, Lake County News Chronicle
John Menge stood behind a table full of mushrooms, facing a group of hikers at Gooseberry Falls State Park. Excited park-goers picked through the mushrooms and asked questions about each of the varieties: what’s safe to eat, where to find them, and on and on.
The fungi fanatic had a wide array of mushrooms native to the North Shore. Some were the types of fungi someone might easily ignore while passing through the woods, like the tiny chantruelle mushrooms or the woody shelf-like fungi that grow on trees. Others, like some of the red-topped russula mushrooms, looked like they might come from Alice in Wonderland. And there were the poisonous variety, once used by American Indians in spiritual rituals. These were more than the typical mushrooms found the produce section of the grocery store.
In Menge’s eyes, they’re all important.
He told the group of about 20 hikers why he thought fungi were perhaps the most important things in the world. He backed up his statement by explaining the job fungi do for living organisms, decomposing dead organisms for the creation of new life. He highlighted the role fungi play in everyday items as well. Bread, beer and wine would not exist without fungi.
“Now we’re getting serious,” Menge said.
He gave the group a briefing on the basics of mushroom hunting. There are basic steps to identifying mushrooms, he said. Taking a spore print by stamping the underside of a mushroom cap on a piece of paper will show what color the spores are, one of the first steps to identifying the species. Anatomy is another important step. Identifying if the mushroom has a cap, stem, bulbous base and a skirt under the cap can help mushroom hunters tell whether or not a fungus is poisonous.
While many edible species can be found in the woods along the North Shore, Menge warned that people should never eat a mushroom if they are uncertain about what type of fungus it is. Ingesting a cubic centimeter of the amanita variety of mushroom could kill someone who weighs 130 pounds, as was discovered by American Indians.
After the discussion, hikers were ready to hit the trails with Menge in search of fungi. Not five minutes on the hike, a hiker spotted some lobster mushrooms, which they cut in half and inspected.
The lobster mushroom grows by decomposing another fungus. Though lobster mushrooms are edible and are one of Menge’s favorite mushrooms to cook, if the mushroom is picked before it has finished its decomposition process, the inside is slimy and mushy. Not exactly the texture you’d like when eating a mushroom, Menge said. This one was just about perfect.
A few minutes’ hike further down the trail revealed more of the lobster mushrooms, as well as some from the russula variety and shelf mushrooms growing on trees.
The mushroom hike didn’t go without a false alarm. Growing near the trail in some dead leaves was the Indian Pipe, also known as a corpse plant. The translucent plant looks similar to a mushroom with a long, skinny stem and white cap, but is actually a plant. Its opaque appearance is due to the lack of chlorophyll in the plant. Menge said it is commonly mistaken for a fungus. It is similar to a fungus because it does not produce its own food. Rather, it feeds off decaying plant matter and extracts nutrients from the soil via root-like threads, much like a fungus would.
Not all the fungi on the mushroom walk could be seen from above-ground. Menge was prepared for this. Toward the end of the hike, he stopped beneath a tree and pulled two trowels from his backpack. He gave them to two kids on the walk and told them to start digging. It was time to start looking for truffles. With just a few minutes of digging, small truffles were unearthed.
Before anyone got too excited, Menge explained that these weren’t the famed truffles that sell for hundreds of dollars a pound. The truffles found in the woods of Northeastern Minnesota are not that delectable, Menge said. For him, even the most expensive truffles don’t impress him.
He recounted the story of bringing home some truffles and storing them in the refrigerator. It didn’t take long before the smell and flavor of the fungus permeated every item in the fridge and freezer, including the ice cream. Truffle-flavored ice cream, Menge said, was not something his wife was a fan of.
The mushroom walk was a part of a series of naturalist programs that Gooseberry offers throughout the summer months. Though the mushroom hike is done for the season, there are still plenty of programs going on before the close of summer. For a detailed list, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/gooseberry_falls/index.html.